Transforming workplace culture: One company’s story

This post features insights from Linda Sharkey on the development of a leadership team during and after a merger integration, based on her Ultimate Culture Conference presentation with Carol Montgomery.

If your company is in the process of going through or preparing for a merger or acquisition, then you know firsthand that combining the cultures of two organizations is no easy matter.

Last fall, I had the honor of giving a talk along with Carol Montgomery, Senior VP and Chief Human Resources Officer of York Risk Services Group, at the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in Chicago. Carol and I presented a case study to show how York, following a major acquisition, was able to blend two very different types of workplace cultures.

How did the company achieve the integration it so desperately needed?

Fortunately, leadership recognized the importance of clarifying York’s mission and aligning its expectations of members and their behavior with its values. As part of the process, I was invited to come in and help facilitate a discussion among top team members.

Linda and Carol share key points of transforming one company’s workplace culture in this clip from the Ultimate Culture Conference. If you have not already done so, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video.

The real meaning of values

Like many companies, York had its values posted on the wall. You can walk into any company in the U.S. and see a similar list. But we took the values down from the wall and examined them. We spent a lot of time inspecting each one and asking, “What does this mean?” In the process, some values were thrown out and others were added. And then we went further.

I asked, “Okay, if this represents the culture you’d like, what are you doing to create it? You’ve articulated the values and behaviors that you want. What are you doing every day to show that you’re living those values?” Because if leadership does X, the people will do X. If a leader does Y, people will do Y. Leaders need to be extremely conscious of what they’re doing every single day.

Despite impressive growth, York’s CEO sensed there should be greater collaboration and teamwork across the organization, so we used an assessment tool called Leadership/Impact® (L/I) by Human Synergistics. L/I measures how people view leadership strategies and impact.1 The company’s 11 senior leaders completed L/I. What we found was that many of those leaders had a positive impact on the people they managed. But, as a leadership team, they could work better with each other.

It was a very powerful step that took us on the next part of the journey. Carol, as the Senior HR person in the company, deserves a lot of credit for helping orchestrate that discussion. Many would have shied away from this “elephant in the room.”

“What we found most emphatically,” Carol said, during our talk, “was that we could be doing a better job of collaborating. For a lot of these leaders, it was the first time they had used a feedback instrument. It was a wake-up call for them. It was unsettling for them, even though we tried to make it non-threatening. I couldn’t just sit there and tell people what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. In the interest of fairness, we knew we needed someone from the outside to do this.”

How coaching made a difference

Moving ahead, we took those 11 senior leaders and broke them into coaching groups of three or four. Over the course of a year, I led coaching circles every two weeks. To their credit, the York people were so committed to making those circles happen that we scheduled them six months in advance.

“For the first time,” Carol said, “I think they saw each other as fellow employees, as human beings with the same fears and the same issues. And that built more collaboration and trust.”

Not only were the coaching sessions designed to help the leaders themselves, but also to equip them to become executive coaches to train and coach the next level. That level is now training and coaching the next level in the organization.

Another positive result of these sessions was that they helped break down the silos and integrate the departments in the organization. “We created a lot more collaboration among the entire leadership team and the organization as a whole,” Carol said. People were picking up the phone and calling each other much more than they were doing so before. “When you have an organization with 82 offices across the U.S. and Europe, that’s a big plus.”

“I think overall it gave the organization a much greater sense of accountability,” Carol added. “It created tremendous connections among the leadership and the employees in general.”

Changing culture, changing lives

One of the most gratifying things for both Carol and me was when people came up to us and said, “You helped my relationships outside the workplace because I didn’t realize I was having that kind of impact on people.” To be able to change people’s lives in that way, as a consultant or HR professional, is very powerful.

Carol and I agree that one of the key components of York’s success was the invaluable data we gained from the assessment process. Many companies claim awareness of their culture—but aspirations and assumptions are not always the same as reality. Just as important was keeping in mind that cultural transformation is not a one-shot deal. It’s a journey. There are going to be setbacks, because people and organizations are always changing.

York recently moved its corporate headquarters, and Carol is delighted to report that when she went into some of the leaders’ new offices, she found to-do lists of their coaching objectives on the backs of their doors. “There were things they’ve worked on that they’ve checked off,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun, and we’re still on the journey.”

Is your organization on a change journey? If so, what insights can you share?

We welcome your stories and comments via the social media buttons below.


1Cooke, R. A. (1996). Leadership/Impact® (L/I). Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

Is Your Performance Evaluation System Helping or Hindering a Talent-Rich Culture?

Twelve Steps to Support a Talent-Rich Culture and Drive Performance Excellence

Process versus the People

Are your year-end performance discussions more painful than they’re worth? Are you doing them merely to comply with legal requirements or to decide who gets paid what? Would most of your managers prefer to throw the system out? If so, you are missing the mark on a very powerful system that can build your brand as a talent-based culture and market leader.

Leaders need to ensure they build a culture rich in talent—so rich that their company becomes branded as a great place to build a career, and thus a market leader for top talent. In addition to talent, a positive culture has been proven as a critical competitive advantage. Human resource systems need to be aligned to ensure it supports, and does not destroy, a positive culture.

Of late, performance management systems have come under attack as a “value buster” rather than a “value creator.” As we researched performance management systems in more than 500 Fortune 1000 companies and talked with HR leaders in more than 60 of them, we discovered that the process was often considered more important than the outcome. Checking the box once a year to make sure the employee and manager had at least one performance discussion seemed to be the prevailing outcome achieved. Other leaders mainly focused on compensation alignment. Few focused on creating a system where employees and their managers truly had a dialogue that actually helped employees understand how they could continue to grow and improve. To quote several senior HR leaders, “We are highly tactical in our approach and we don’t really use [performance discussions] to drive alignment to our culture and to our overall business strategy.”

Shouldn’t the purpose of performance discussions be about excellence in how everyone performs as it aligns with the organization’s culture and business strategy? What needs to be done to get it right?

12 Steps to Getting it Right

Here are 12 proven steps that everyone can use to support a talent-rich culture and drive performance excellence:1

  1. Be crystal clear on the purpose of your performance system. What is the “people” philosophy that you are trying to promote through this system?
  2. Ensure that the system aligns with your organization’s values. Make sure that these values are discussed so that everyone understands that what is done is as important as how it’s done.
  3. Create a working profile of what the values look like in action. State the values in terms of behaviors that everyone can recognize. This way, everyone in the organization understands the standard of “the best.”
  4. Train all leaders and managers to recognize great behavior, assess talent, and provide specific and actionable feedback.
  5. Teach managers and leaders how to effectively coach. Agree on a coaching model and consistently apply it throughout the organization.
  6. Create peer coaching circles to help team members support each other in learning new skills and “grooving” new behaviors. These circles enable employees to learn to ask each other for help when they need it, and share suggestions and ideas.2
  7. Create a simple form for year-end performance reviews that is one page—no more than two if you must. Include specific business achievements, behaviors demonstrated, career goals and aspirations and, finally, what the employee needs to do to continue to grow in his or her current role or prepare for the next role. This should be the culmination of all the discussions you have had throughout the year.
  8. Don’t just reward for business outcomes; reward for expected behaviors as well.
  9. Measure and track the impact the system is having on the desired culture. Examine employee engagement scores to ensure feedback and coaching is happening through the year and measure your alignment with your culture so you don’t lose sight of keeping your values on track.3
  10. Link all your talent and performance discussions together to make sure you are sending consistent messages in both the talent discussions and the performance calibration discussions.
  11. Discourage having just a once-a-year “feedback” session and focus on what it takes to be successful. Ratings are a distraction from improvement.
  12. Communicate, communicate, and communicate more about the impact of an effective system and how it is building a great place to grow your career and achieve both business and personal goals.4

If you follow these 12 steps, you will build a system that becomes part of your organization’s DNA, where people and leaders regularly help each other succeed through effective feedback and coaching. This way, you will be providing performance feedback throughout the year, and the end of the year “pain” goes away! Try it—you might like it.

What else can you add to this list or discussion? I welcome your ideas and comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.


1 Sharkey, L.D., & McArthur, S. (2014). Optimizing Talent Workbook: Building an Unbeatable Talent Brand. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

2 University of Washington Professional and Organizational Development. (n.d.). Peer Coaching Circles. Retrieved from

3  Human Synergistics. (n.d.). Measurement: A Case for Change. Retrieved from

4  Johnson, J. (2015, August 19). To Impact Culture, Connect Where It Counts. Retrieved from