How to Improve a Department (With or Without Executive Support)

When considering how to improve a department, think big. Like, really big. Because whether we’re talking about the entire human species or a single company, we find the same solution: innovators.

History books are replete with stories of innovators who, through their own ingenuity, changed how the human species operates. In the business world, innovative department leaders can have a commensurate effect on their organizations. However, like many of the famous innovators throughout history, department leaders often must accomplish their great work without the support they deserve.

Sometimes, department leaders see a great need within their department—or within the entire organization, for that matter—and they’re simply not in sync with executives. Yet, they must go on.

To be clear, going without executive buy-in should only be a last resort. HR and other department leaders can often gain the executive support they need by thinking like a business and making their case from a business perspective. But sometimes executives either don’t understand the needs of a department or they are simply unable to provide them. So, innovative department leaders press forward on their own.

Here are three things you can do right now to improve your department with or without executive support.

Focus on Culture

Overarching company culture permeates every department and individual departments can only do so much to influence the whole organization. However, if your company culture is lacking in one area—or more—and the executive team is doing nothing to address it companywide, that doesn’t mean you can’t solve the issue within your department. 70 percent of variance between lousy and great cultures can be attributed to the knowledge, skills, and talents of a team leader.

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For example, if your organization has discussed the importance of open communication but rarely practices what they preach, department and team leaders can encourage their people to read Radical Candor and discuss it in one-on-one meetings.

Focusing on cultures helps you identify how to improve a department in multiple ways. Maybe your organization values loyalty yet has high turnover rates. As a department, you can focus on identifying the causes of employee burnout within your department and address them head-on. If you determine that work-life balance is an issue, you could encourage employees to use their PTO or focus on increased efficiency which would allow them to go home on time. The examples go on.

Of course, this culture focus is dependent on how strong your overarching company culture is and how applicable it is to your specific department. When your organization’s company culture is lacking—either because it’s undefined or because it’s not being practiced—the natural next step is to bolster it by defining and refining the culture within your own department.

Define Your Subculture

Every department has its own unique subculture that fits within a broader whole. As you take time to define yours, you’ll want to highlight those unique attributes and communicate them throughout your department. Take the time to actually write down your department’s mission, vision, and values, and make sure they fit within your broader culture.

As you define those things that matter most to your department, remember to start with principles, not practices. It’s not enough to say something like, “Our department prides itself on doing good work.” Well, what constitutes good work? Instead, maybe your department “prides itself on doing work that is error-free and replicable.” The latter definition is much more likely to remind employees of what, precisely, they need to get done, while the former would just be white noise.

As you define your subculture, feel free to include as many people as possible—in some capacity. Obviously, you may not want too many cooks in the kitchen, but there’s value in gaining input from the entire department. And after you’ve concluded the defining stage, make sure everybody in the department is familiar with your mission, vision, and values, and that they can reference them when whenever necessary. Speaking of which . . .

Apply Your Subculture

Once you’ve defined your subculture, you need to put it to work. Just as in broader company cultures, defined cultures within a department are useless if not practiced.

One obvious place you can apply your newfound subculture is in performance management. As your people set goals—both as teams and individually—they should be encouraged to tie those goals to culture. For example, your department might make timeliness a core value. With this in mind, an employee could set a specific goal to reach every deadline over the next week. (Remember, specific goals are more likely to be achieved.)

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Another area you can use your subculture as a competitive advantage is recruiting. The more you come to understand your department’s values, the easier it will be to know which candidates to add to your team. Not only that, but your thriving culture will stand out to recruits in the interview process, and they will want to take part in it.


As you focus on culture and fine-tune your subculture, the positive effects are likely to reach beyond your own department. Being forced to develop your culture without executive support is never ideal, but if they are successful, your efforts will not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Remember how active interdepartmental communication can be; when others—including executives—see all the good coming from your department, they will want to emulate your example. And you might just get that executive support after all.