Lloyd austin defense hero

How Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Is Driving Culture Renovation

Leadership accountability is the first order of business in a new administration, governmental or commercial. And it’s a must-have component underlying any strong, purpose-driven organizational culture. 

Incoming Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced this week that senior Pentagon leaders have two weeks to provide him with reports on the status of sexual assault prevention programs in the military. And he wants those reports to include leaders’ assessments of what is and isn’t working when it comes to prevention training and accountability measures instituted. 

Austin’s memo to Pentagon leadership explained that “President Biden has ordered a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military.” The Secretary went on to say that the Department of Defense would “aggressively support that effort.” He also declared that he didn’t want to wait 90 days to take action and said that the nation’s military could not accomplish its mission of defending the U.S. “if we also have to battle enemies within the ranks.” 

Evidence of those “enemies within the ranks” shows that the problem has been on the rise. Department of Defense data shows an increase of almost 60% in the number of formal sexual harassment complaints from 2015 (657) to 2019 (1021). And if the numbers weren’t enough, news coverage of the recent death of Pfc. Asia Graham, who had reported sexual assault by a fellow soldier, is the latest in a long line of very visible and pervasive problems. 

Harassment is an issue for business organizations too 

Workplace sexual assault and harassment isn’t confined to the military; business organizations still struggle to make progress in addressing this too. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has responsibility for enforcing anti-discrimination laws pertaining to workplaces, documented 7,514 complaints of sexual harassment in in 2019. Nearly 17% of those were filed by males, underscoring that the problem isn’t confined to one gender. Because many incidents of harassment go unreported, the EEOC’s numbers represent only a fraction of what actually occurs in workplaces.  

Sexual harassment is costly, too. Victims can experience long-term physical and emotional damage, suffer career and economic setbacks, lose their jobs and incomes, and much more. Companies feel the pain in increased turnover, lower engagement levels, reduced productivity, potential legal expenses, diminished business performance, brand and reputation injury, and other potential negatives. In 2019, alone, the EEOC recovered more than $68 million from employers—again, only a small portion of monetary damages for which business enterprises found themselves liable. 

Time for a culture renovation

Secretary Austin ended his memo to Pentagon leaders by saying, “This is a leadership issue.”  

He’s right. And it is also a culture issue. Organizations, military or civilian, achieve optimal performance when their cultures emphasize respect. The Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) study, Culture Renovation: A Blueprint for Action, found high-performance organizations consistently reporting significantly better outcomes across multiple measures of healthy cultures. 

According to the i4cp research, a dozen elements constitute a healthy culture in which respect (and high-performance) can thrive: 

  1. Obsession with delivering value to external customers
  2. Values execution and accountability
  3. Active support for diversity and inclusion
  4. Support for continuous learning and development of all employees
  5. High priority is placed on speed-to-market
  6. Societal impact is valued as much as financial impact
  7. High level of collaboration
  8. Innovative thinking and its application are nurtured
  9. Values are transparent
  10. Employees’ best performance is brought out
  11. Failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow
  12. Employees are empowered

The study findings helped fuel a new book from i4cp CEO Kevin Oakes: Culture Renovation™: 18 Leadership Actions to Build An Unshakeable Company. The 18 actions revealed by the research and presented by Oakes lay out a roadmap for organizations that aspire to drive lasting positive change, such as a shift to a culture centered on respect. 

Business leaders have quickly embraced the book and many are undertaking their own culture-renovation initiatives. For his part, Secretary Austin is already off to a strong start toward transforming culture in the military. Just a few of the 18 actions he’s initiating, which are in line with i4cp’s research: 

  1. Deploying a listening strategy – Austin’s memo instructs military leaders to collect data that reflects current conditions and those over the past decade, including what’s been done to support and advocate for victims. An accurate view of present culture and the workplace environment is an essential first step. 
  2. Setting a cultural path is about purpose, a clear and concise vision that focuses organizational efforts. Austin stated the military mission—“defend the United States”—right up front and in no uncertain terms. 
  3. Clearly communicating that change is coming. The Secretary noted President Biden’s commitment to finding “solutions to sexual assault in the military,” and added, “We will aggressively support that effort.” No room for doubt about commitment to change at the highest levels of leadership.  

Regardless of organizational mission or the specific cultural renovation on the horizon, Oakes’s book, backed by i4cp research, gives leaders concrete steps along with real-world examples of companies that are successfully driving positive change. 

When it’s time for a sequel, Secretary Austin and our U.S. Department of Defense just might make a great case study. 


Visit CultureRenovation.com for much more on  Kevin Oakes’s book and i4cp Culture Renovation solutions.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.