How to Find a Consultant to Really Change Corporate Culture

Twenty-five years ago, I created the term “Cross-Functional Dysfunction.” At the time, I was leading the Electronic-Commerce Department at Whirlpool Corporation. We struggled to deliver e-commerce solutions in part because divergent functions in the organization did not work well together. For example, we needed information from accounts receivable to include on purchase order confirmation notices that went to our large customers. Their systems and processes didn’t work with order management to make it happen. This is just one example.

There were other examples that led me to refer to situations in which divergent functions could not work together as “cross-functional dysfunctions.” Today, cross-functional dysfunction still exists within many of our organizations. When I mention the term to others, the reaction is anything from a smile to out loud laughter. People know. Cross-functional dysfunction is a cultural issue which, when effectively addressed, improves collaboration, promotes improved cross-functional solutions, and fuels organizational performance.

Why you need a culture consultant

The situation described above is a clear example of a dysfunctional culture. The performance of each of the vertical organizations in the company was measured by different metrics. There was little incentive to work together to resolve organizational process and communication issues.

At one of my consulting clients, business development teams underperformed due to unclear goals and objectives. They were also treated poorly by their leadership and adjoining departments. This was a cultural issue that needed to be addressed to provide greater clarity of purpose, and greater respect across the organizations for the variety of interdependent tasks that must be completed for a firm to enjoy success.

“One of the most valuable assets a culture consultant brings to a client is a fresh and unique perspective. Sometimes leaders are so steeped in their organization that they are unable to see the forest for the trees. The organizational consultant helps bring to light issues and concerns that they might not otherwise see.”
–Steve Salisbury

The pandemic created an environment where employees had to work remotely. Now in the post-pandemic phase, these same employees recognize that they can complete much of their work from home. This has led to greater balance in favor of one’s personal and family life. This has also led to more people looking for alternative means of employment. Some call it “the great resignation”; I label it an era of leadership crisis. With more people working from home, a cultural issue has arisen with regard to understanding and respecting peoples’ availability, work environment, and leadership styles. It’s no longer about putting in 40 hours a week on the job; it’s about delivering to expectations.

What does a good culture consultant do?

The first step in addressing culture is to assess the current state and determine the desired future state. A culture consultant will use tools such as Human Synergistics Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) to understand features of the current state and parameters desired for the future state. The consultant may also use Human Synergistics Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) to identify levers to effect change and improvement. The consultant will assess and then debrief the leaders on the results of the assessment.

Once the debriefing of the assessment is complete, the consultant will facilitate the development of improvement plans. In the ideal situation, the client leadership team takes the responsibility to develop those plans, with guidance and direction provided by the culture consultant.

Finally, as the organization implements its cultural improvement activities, the consultant will be there to coach and advise the leadership team on how to deal with various implementation issues, risks, resistance, and other challenges that might come up. Optimally, the culture consultant draws on deep organizational knowledge and experience to provide this support.

What does a culture consultant bring to the table? What is their value add?

One of the most valuable assets a culture consultant brings to a client is a fresh and unique perspective. Sometimes leaders are so steeped in their organization that they are unable to see the forest for the trees. The organizational consultant helps bring to light issues and concerns that they might not otherwise see. They will also highlight strengths the organization has that the leadership could leverage to improve their culture.

While this is not mandatory, an organizational consultant often brings industry knowledge and experience to the table. For example, I spent many years of my career working in and around information technology from a business perspective. This has helped me to advise CIOs on things they could do to improve customer service while developing their culture.

Finally, a culture consultant can bring to bear many different resources they might have in their network to help save clients time, money, or other resources. For example, one client I had recently needed coaching for its senior leadership team. I was able to partner with a colleague to provide leadership assessments which we used as the starting point for a coaching program to develop their leadership skills. This was inherent to their cultural improvement program.

What to look for in a culture consultant

There are several characteristics which are important to the development of culture. These four are the ones that I think will make the biggest difference to help develop culture.

Analysis. A good culture consultant will be able to analyze culture assessments to understand patterns, cause and effect, and actions which might improve the organization’s culture.

Project development. The culture consultant will be prepared to work with the organization’s leadership team to devise a realistic, pragmatic plan for improving culture. This includes delineating specific activities and tasks that various members of the leadership team are assigned to develop and execute throughout the cultural improvement initiative.

Risk management. Based on their deep knowledge and experience working with a variety of industries, companies and cultures, the organizational culture consultant can identify risks to the execution of the culture development plan. Their experience gives them the insight to see such risks earlier than insiders. Not only do culture consultants identify those risks, but they also help the leadership team develop mitigation plans to address them.

Alignment. Finally, the consultant can align various project sponsors to ensure consistent focus on the development of and execution of the cultural improvement plan. The effective consultant works with the senior leadership team to ensure alignment by having robust conversations about specific impacts and results across the organization. This goes a long way to eliminate cross-functional dysfunction.

How do I find a great culture consultant?

First, explore Human Synergistics. They have a roster of accredited consultants who work with their assessment tools to develop cultural improvement plans. They have multiple resources in major metropolitan areas; I, for example, am accredited in the OCI and OEI assessments and I support the Chicago area.

Ask your peers. Given cross-functional dysfunctions, the great resignation, and the other forces discussed above, more organizations are looking at improving their cultures or have already done so. The chances are great that people you work with in other companies have some experience collaborating with an organizational culture consultant. Ask them for those contacts, and ask them what worked, and what didn’t. Leverage the learning of peers in other organizations, both in and beyond your industry.

Consider solo or independent culture change consultants as well as big consulting firms. Some organizations prefer working with large, corporate culture consulting firms where they can have a variety of resources available for various needs. Typically, they have bigger budgets to address these project requirements. But do not dismiss independent consultants—many of whom have a broad range of experience across decades, companies, and industries. I’ve been doing this type of work for more than 30 years across a dozen industries and dozens of organizations. This breadth of perspective can bring a great deal of value to your organization and its culture improvement program.

Finally, while recognizing the value of seasoned professionals, don’t exclude novices and apprentices. When we talk about culture, there is nuance around organizational dynamics, leadership behavior, and team culture. Using an experienced consultant will more than likely add greater value than someone fresh out of college. However, don’t dismiss the latter—they can bring contemporary and unique perspectives. For example, I’ve done some of my best culture consulting work with a colleague who is 26 years my junior. We worked well together to bring the absolute best solutions to our clients.

Call to action

Consider your organization’s performance. Is it where you want it to be? Are sales performance statistics meeting your goals? Is your customer support team delivering the best to your end-user clients? Is your supply chain able to deliver on time, every time? What are people outside your company saying about you? These are some things to consider.

Also, what’s your attrition rate? Is your unfavorable attrition increasing or decreasing? What is that telling you? I had a client several years ago who had a significantly high unfavorable attrition rate. They saw the writing on the wall and brought me in to help them fix that. We went from 16% to 2% unfavorable attrition in two years.

What are you hearing from your people? All the statistics aside, this could be the real wake up call. Take time to go out and talk with your frontline employees about what’s going on in the organization, their concerns and issues, and what they think real solutions may look like. This will tell you volumes about what you can do to improve your culture.

Preparing Leaders to Lead Change. Are You Ready?

In change leadership we talk about “organizational readiness” to prepare employees to embrace change. Rarely do we speak of “leadership readiness.” Yet Prosci, a leading change research firm, reports year after year that lack of sponsorship is the number one cause of change failing to meet its objectives. It’s time to talk about “leadership readiness.”

There are three primary barriers to leadership readiness:

  1. Leaders don’t fully understand their role
  2. Cross-functional dysfunction erupts due to lack of alignment on approach, intent or outcomes
  3. Leaders don’t solicit enough feedback to engage employees

Each of these result in changes that do not live up to their potential. When leaders recognize these barriers and take corrective action, the probability of success increases significantly.

The leader’s role

Three things successful leaders do regularly:

  1. Provide active and visible support for change
  2. Understand the behavior impact caused by change
  3. Repeatedly communicate the need for change

Provide active and visible support

Effective sponsors should gain commitment from the team and engage every day and attend leadership meetings to provide direction, clarity, and accountability. They should be actively mitigating risks and resolving issues, meeting regularly with front-line employees to talk about the change and its impacts, and soliciting and incorporating feedback into the change process.

Understand the behavior impact

Almost any change requires altering behavior in order to change. Here are some examples of behavior change drivers:

  1. The organization changes one or more of its business processes, causing the people who use them to interact differently.
  2. The organization restructures, causing former relationships to give way to new partnerships. Employees must now build new working relationships.
  3. One company acquires another often causing two different cultures to come together. Employees must understand the behaviors and norms of their new colleagues and adjust their own to work together effectively.

Effective sponsors understand the need for behavior changes early and determines how behaviors must be altered, models the new behaviors to the organization, and speaks openly about the changes.

Repeatedly communicate

Communications experts say that employees need to hear a message seven to ten times to fully comprehend. Sponsors and their leadership teams must regularly emphasize the why, what, and how of the change.

  1. Why: Discuss the business drivers causing the change. Define the value to the business. Describe how it fits into the overall organizational strategy. Communicate the downside effect if the organization doesn’t change.
  2. What: Define the impact to the organization. Describe how jobs will change. Define how roles will interact differently. Estimate job increases or decreases. Describe how things will be different.
  3. How: Explain how the change will impact individual roles. Specify support mechanisms available during and after the change. Identify new metrics and how they’ll be measured.

Avoid cross-functional dysfunction

The most effective teams don’t wait for the “boss” to resolve conflicts, they do it themselves. They are not afraid to call out behavior that doesn’t align with the direction of the team, and actively acknowledge when team members make progress. 

“The most effective teams don’t wait for the “boss” to resolve conflicts, they do it themselves. They are not afraid to call out behavior that doesn’t align with the direction of the team, and actively acknowledge when team members make progress.”

As a sponsor, ensure the leadership team is aligned with the expected outcomes of the change. A few questions to consider:

  1. Are the outcomes clearly explained? Is leadership team feedback solicited to shape the purpose and outcomes?
  2. Does the leadership team trust one another? Do they speak candidly about activities in their organizations, and in their personal lives as appropriate?
  3. Do they engage in healthy dissent? Do they challenge each other’s ideas without fear of reprisal?
  4. Do they seek commitment across the team to follow through on actions? Do they agree on a single owner and delivery date?
  5. Are they holding one another accountable? Do they follow up to ask about progress? Are they delivering?

Engage the organization through feedback

Leaders are busy. Board meetings; Stakeholder meetings; Analyst meetings; There is so much to do. To top it off, there is a large transformational change underway. The leader effectively advocates for the change. Frequent discussion occurs about the Why, What, and How of the transformation. Don’t underestimate the power of this – employees want to hear from their leader during times of change. They also want to have input.

Engage employees so they become the ultimate owners and drivers of the change. Consider a few of the following ideas, and in all cases, incorporate feedback as appropriate into the program.

  1. Develop a change agent network. This is a group of employees who advocate the change at lower levels of the organization. Meet with them regularly to exchange information about progress and obtain feedback.
  2. Hold town hall meetings. Develop regular employee forums where they can interface directly with the leader, ask questions about the change, and receive feedback about progress.
  3. Hold focused meetings or lunches with a few employees at a time. Learn about concerns, dispel rumors, and ask for input.
  4. Conduct surveys. Conduct readiness assessments to obtain confidential feedback about the program. Use these opportunities to share the message.


These are the methods I’ve seen leaders use most frequently to help employees embrace change and drive it to greater success. The underlying principles are to speak candidly, advocate the purpose and outcomes, genuinely seek and apply feedback, and engage employees to help design, implement and institutionalize the change.

Transforming a Small-Town Manufacturer to be Forward-Thinking

Having worked as a transformational change consultant and leadership coach for decades, I’ve had the honor of working with dozens of talented business leaders. Such is the case with Erik Koik who has deep experience transforming manufacturing plants, and I’ll share one such transformation in northeastern Indiana. Determined to be successful from the start, Erik mapped his goal to completely change the work culture toward becoming more innovative and customer-focused. His is a fascinating story of “small-town manufacturing meets culture and transformational change.” You will likely find these insights useful in your culture work.

Inheriting regional and organizational cultural attributes

In 2001, Erik and his company SP3 purchased a plant in northeastern Indiana. They made this purchase because while his company had a process for making industrial diamonds, they needed a plant to build tools to use them. In the days following the acquisition, Erik encountered massive resistance from employees. The plant had been a family business and the owner became the “dad.” He took care of everyone. Now Erik was there to run this as a business and not a family. There were great people, but workflows were poor. He needed to optimize manufacturing and improve customer service.

Erik KoikTo understand a little about the environment at the plant, you need to understand more about this little town of less than 10,000 population. There was a culture of accepting things the way they were. There was no desire to change. People in the community rarely challenged the status quo. And they were stubborn. If it always worked before, then why change it now? And even if it didn’t work before, that’s okay, we’ll accept it for the way it is.

When Erik arrived there, he and some colleagues went to a local restaurant that had Mexican food night every Monday. Excited to find a restaurant in a small mid-western town serving Mexican food, Erik ordered a round of guacamole and chips for the table. The server informed him that they had run out of guacamole. In fact, they run out of guacamole every Monday by 6pm. Erik asked, “why don’t you make more?” The server responded, “You’ll have to speak with the manager.”

Don’t accept things as they are. Make them better.

Another example comes from inside the plant. A customer broke a tool and urgently required a replacement. He waited until the end of the day to call the plant, and Erik answered the phone. The customer told Erik of his problem, and Erik, knowing that UPS had already come that day, drove the part to Fort Wayne to the UPS depot. The part was delivered overnight to the customer.

Curious why the customer waited until the end of the day, Erik asked him about the delay. The customer replied, “If I called earlier, I’d reach Sarah (name changed), and she’d tell me it was too late to send it by UPS even if it wasn’t. I took a chance calling later thinking I might reach a more senior employee. It worked.” Erik spoke with Sarah about this. She said that UPS comes earlier in the day and there was no way we’d be able to satisfy his request. Erik challenged her to have a conversation with UPS to come at the end of the day, not the middle as they had historically.

Through his transparency, he was able to demonstrate a new way of communicating in the organization. People started to share more as a result.

Simply put, Erik led this new organization transparently. He spoke openly about why the organization needed to change to remain viable. Between changes in legislation and the economy, this plant was at risk. Erik spoke of these risks and helped employees understand that not only was there a better way, but they also needed to pursue this path to save their jobs.

Erik also led by example. The customer incident described above is one way he showed others how they could behave differently and did not need to accept things the way they were. Through his transparency, he was able to demonstrate a new way of communicating in the organization. People started to share more as a result.

On being a transformational leader.

The leadership team soon learned to lead a different way. They created the concept of “staged accidents.” One example occurred during a major renovation of the plant. The plant manager, knowing there would be enormous resistance to the new layout, intentionally left the new plant layout on a table in the cafeteria with a cup of coffee, making it look like he left to handle another matter. Employees took advantage of this opportunity and reviewed the plant layout. This was followed by a chorus of immediate feedback complaining that various elements of the layout were wrong. Erik and his plant manager follow up with, “Ok, what is your idea to make it better?” This enrolled the employees in the change and soon mitigated most of the resistance.

In those early years, Erik had many one-on-one conversations and provided quarterly reviews to describe how progress was made since prior years.

In these conversations, Erik shared how the changes were required for the organization to remain viable, and for employees to keep their jobs. He described that when the organization continued to improve, they could ride the wave of economic change.

In quarterly meetings, he also shared key metrics the leadership team was monitoring. Measures such as Sales, ISO9000 ratings, and EBITDA.

Clarifying purpose. Enrolling others. Becoming coach.

Clarifying the purpose of the transformation required lots of communications. It required setting the example. It also required Erik to realize that he could not do this alone and that other members of his leadership team needed to help drive this transformation.

One such leader was Barb. She had been with the company for many years, and unlike many of her counterparts, quickly bought into the cultural changes required for the plant to remain viable and enjoy even greater success. Barb became an ambassador for the transformation, taking every opportunity to talk with others about the why’s and how’s. This in turn led to greater acceptance and reduced resistance.

Erik never liked the idea that you must accept things as they are. There can always be a better way. As he learned how to convince others of this, he found that he was building coaching skills. He was helping others see a better way. In his first job decades ago, Erik was exposed to this idea. He asked his new boss for more details about his job. His boss replied, “What do you want to do?” So, Erik built his job around this. For him it wasn’t about asking permission about what to do, but rather, he asked himself, “how can I make this happen?” It was an early, powerful lesson for Erik to learn how to be transformative.

His advice to up and coming transformational leaders?

Learn as much about the subject matter as you can. Dive into the trenches to learn the environment and demonstrate how to do things differently. Example speaks volumes. It will also earn you a great deal of respect.

Leading Your Digital Transformation Requires a Different Organizational Culture

The advancement of the Internet over the past two decades has taught us that we must run our organizations differently for our businesses to thrive, and perhaps even survive. To successfully move into the future, leaders need to strike a balance between organizational hierarchy and cross-functional coordination. While there still needs to be accountability for results, organizations need to be able to move faster to achieve these results.

When we look at the retail industry specifically, and others more generally, it’s clear that traditional organizational structures are falling short. They are unable to keep pace with the demands of the digital economy.

“Things are moving so fast we can’t keep up!”

Three weeks ago, Macy’s announced that they were falling short of their 2019 financial goals. Sears and JC Penney are closing more stores. Even Walmart and Walgreen’s have announced they will close stores. Brick and mortar are giving way to the digital age. Amazon continues to grow at breakneck speed. Over ten years, Amazon’s revenue has increased about 12 times, whereas Target Stores’ revenue has increased about 1.2 times.

Structure made us remarkably efficient

Before the industrial revolution started to gain momentum, companies were small, and employed craftsman to build one product at a time. If your blacksmith shop made, say, wagon wheels, one person made the entire wheel. One craftsman forged the steel tire. He crafted and constructed the wooded spokes. He also built the hub, which consisted of a combination of metal and wooden parts. Then he assembled the entire product. The wagon wheel company had 4-5 employees each building wagon wheel one at a time.

The industrial revolution ushered in an era of specialization of tasks. Now the wagon wheel company had these 4-5 employees specializing in their tasks. One employee fabricated the steel tire. One employee crafted the spokes. And so forth. Instead of having 4-5 craftsman, they had one who oversaw the production, and each employee was able to specialize in their specific task. This brought about more efficiency and greater consistency of product.

The concept of specialization was introduced by Fredrick Taylor in the late 1800’s. He theorized, and correctly so, that with more structure came greater specialization and hence greater speed, efficiency, and consistency. Greater consistency meant that there was far less variation in product quality and products became more reliable.

By the early to mid-1900’s, this expanded to other parts of the organization. Payroll clerks computed payroll check amounts, and accounting wrote the paychecks. Order-takers received phone calls from customers who wanted to place orders, a warehouse clerk prepared the product for shipment, and a transportation clerk shipped the product to the buyer.

All this structure drove phenomenal efficiency. One Fortune 150 company drove $160 million of annual cost out of their supply chain through these efficiencies. Throughout most of the 20th century, organizations employed Taylor’s ideas to drive more and more cost out of their production.

Hierarchy yields to cross-functioning teams

However, this specialization drove hierarchical adherence which in turn promoted cross-functional dysfunction – especially during times of change. If leaders wanted to deploy a new product design or improve business processes across the organization, they ran into tremendous resistance. This led to the failure of organizations to achieve results in desired time frames, if at all.

This means that organizations must reduce their dependence on hierarchical adherence and drive more toward teams that work more effectively cross-functionally. People in these organizations must operate at higher levels of cross-functional collaboration, requiring greater trust, healthy dissent, and greater ability to engage in informal accountability.

Leaders must set the example

The first step in embracing a new, innovative and collaborative culture is the requirement for clear purpose. Once the purpose is clear and the leadership team is aligned to its outcomes, then leaders must:

  1. Be willing to give up traditional command and control in favor of a more facilitative approach. She must be passionate about her organization’s mission, must be humble, and must demonstrate greater trust and willingness to engage in healthy dissent.
  2. Hold their leadership team accountable to strip away the armor and work cross-functionally – more than ever. She must model and require more openness, more willingness and a greater propensity to challenge each other.
  3. This means that members of the leadership team must willingly commit to one another, not just the leader, and hold one another accountable for results.
  4. These points enable the leader and her team to promote and model the idea that employees across the organization work together more effectively to drive outcomes and be willing to challenge and support each other in doing so.

These are the elements required to build an effective organization. You still need hierarchy – after all, there still needs to be control mechanisms in place to keep the organization focused on its mission and not go too far afield. Striking the right balance between hierarchical adherence and cross-functional collaboration helps you drive the balance between efficiency and effectiveness.

Plan. Prepare. Act.

Leaders at all organizational levels—especially senior leaders—must give up the old command-and-control mentality that Fredrick Taylor inspired. They must become more of a coach, helping direct reports and the entire organization drive to these new behaviors which in turn advances to a greater culture of cross-functional effectiveness.

How you undertake these rapidly changing times does matter. As shared in the retail examples above, this time next year many businesses will likely experience a digital disruption at some level and be fundamentally different as an organization. Having this awareness sooner than later can be advantageous but only if you’re prepared to act. Assemble your leadership team, establish your key priorities, and get out front to guide your culture forward.


Editor’s note: Steve will be presenting at PMO Impact Summit, a virtual event for project management professionals, on Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 AM ET. He’ll share his transformational leadership framework and how it’s used to create a successful digital organizational culture. You’ll learn how to accelerate change to fuel the growth of your firm in this new world and propel your personal leadership success. Click here for more info.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

How to Coach for Cultural Change in the Digital Age

Set an Example and Empower the Organization

The advancement of the Internet over the past two decades hasn’t taught us anything if it hasn’t taught us that we must run our organizations differently for our businesses to survive. For the last three to four years, the related trendy topic has been “digital transformation.” But what does this mean, and how do we as leaders prepare for this?

What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation is the use of technology at a rapidly accelerated rate to analyze vast amounts of data quickly to change the trajectory of a product, market, or service. While the term has been around for a few decades, more recently there has been increased talk of digital transformation as companies grapple with big data and increased acceleration of market changes.

“You cannot separate organizational culture from your ability to successfully embrace these trends to drive your business.”

On the surface, most of the conversation seems to be about the technology. Big data. Cloud computing. Shared apps. The reality, though, is that if large organizations want to successfully embrace all of this to drive change, they also need to change the culture of their companies. Plenty of executives dismiss cultural change as the “soft fluffy stuff” with which they cannot be bothered. Yet, people in organizations are the ones who are called upon to learn and use these technologies to accelerate the pace of business. You cannot separate organizational culture from your ability to successfully embrace these trends to drive your business.

What brought us here won’t take us into the future

In the late 1800s, Fredrick Taylor pioneered the idea of specialization to speed production. Prior to his vision, companies employed craftsman to build one product at a time. That is: One craftsman would see the construction of a product through from preliminary fabrication to final assembly. This was slow, tedious, and drove enormous variability in the quality of the end products. Long before Henry Ford became famous for his assembly lines, Taylor began to drive greater efficiency through organizational structure and discipline. No one person produced a product any longer. Through a highly structured organizational design, different workers had responsibility for small components of the product’s fabrication and construction. In time, this led to greater structure throughout the organization. Payroll clerks computed payroll check amounts, but accounting wrote the paychecks. Order-takers received phone calls from customers who wanted to place orders, a warehouse clerk prepared the product for shipment, and a transportation clerk shipped the product to the buyer. All this structure drove phenomenal efficiency. In one example with which I am familiar, a Fortune 150 company drove $160 million of annual cost out of their supply chain through these efficiencies. Throughout most of the 20th century, organizations employed Taylor’s ideas to drive more and more cost out of their production.

Then the digital age hit.

I was there in the early 1980s when traditional IT folks said that personal computers were just toys and they’d eventually go away in favor of the monstrous machines that had become all too familiar. Little did they realize that over the next 30 years those personal computers would become faster and faster and able to store more and more data in less and less space—all at phenomenal reductions in cost. This, in turn, opened the floodgates to tens of thousands of apps, social media, and the ability to handle volumes of data at breakneck speed. This meant that organizations, previously concerned with becoming more efficient, now had to become more and more effective in addressing the massive, head-on competition that this brought.

What we can learn from history and how to deal with it

Before Alan Mulally took the helm at Ford, he led the launch of the Boeing 777, arguably the most successful airplane in commercial aviation history. In 2009, when Chrysler and GM were on the verge of bankruptcy and begging the U.S. government for bailouts, Ford remained quietly successful, endured no imminent bankruptcy, and certainly did not fly to Washington asking for money. Mullaly’s secret sauce was his approach to organization and culture. He believed in people first, including everyone, a clear and compelling vision and strategy, aligned leaders, positive attitudes, trust, respect, and having fun. There are several elements here, but perhaps most compelling was his focus on one team with one plan and a great deal of communication. Contrary to Fredrick Taylor’s wildly successful approach to efficiency, Mulally saw that the more people could effectively work together across the organization, the greater the probability of success. It’s almost as if we were headed back to the days of individual craftsmanship.

Mulally was a pioneer in reducing the impact of what I have come to call cross-functional dysfunction. Instead of vertical silos of people doing one specific task each and not communicating well (if at all) with others, Mulally expected people to work across the organization. As a result, more information was shared, and employees had a bigger and better picture of what was required of them to drive phenomenal success.

This represents a huge shift in the way employees are expected to work with each other. This is the essence of the organizational culture shifts leaders must make. To achieve success in a marketplace driven by greater and greater digital transformation, cross-organizational interaction is an absolute must. It is a matter of survival.

First, prepare yourself

In making the case for shifting culture for organizations to become more successful in their quest for competitive advantage in the age of digital revolution, here are specific things leaders must do to develop an organizational culture that is equipped to move forward successfully in this new world.

As with any successful transformation, shifting your culture starts at the top with you, the leader. To prepare for this there are two things you will do to set the stage for success.

“As with any successful transformation, shifting your culture starts at the top with you, the leader.”

First, be clear with yourself about the cultural change you desire. It comes down to minimizing the impact of hierarchical adherence and encouraging employees to work freely across the organization. Be clear also on the outcomes of this cultural change. Are you seeking to become more innovative, have world-class customer service, or something else? Perform your own analysis of the current state as well as the blockages created by the current structure and behaviors. Determine the target behaviors you believe are critical for your organization to successfully implement the new culture.

Second, be introspective. Identify the behaviors you exemplify that drive your ability to successfully implement the new culture. Also identify your behaviors that might slow success and determine what you need to do every day to demonstrate that you are changing these less helpful behaviors. For example, do you expect to be involved in every product design decision? Your role-modeling is essential to your success. When your employees see you making the change you expect them to make, the impact is phenomenal.

Once you’ve prepared yourself, you are ready to prepare your organization.

It boils down to coaching

With your own transformation underway, it’s time to drive it with others in your organization. The next step is with your leadership team.

With your entire leadership team together, you will first achieve crystal clarity on the transformational purpose you’ve developed, the impacts to outcomes in each of your leaders’ respective departments, and the behavior changes you will collectively need to be successful. I’ve written dozens of pieces and spoken with many organizations about how to do this. Once this is done, you are ready to start coaching each of your leaders.

As a professional executive coach, I’ve learned that you absolutely need to have a target for coaching. Since you just completed identifying target behaviors for the leadership team, it’s up to you to help each individual leader achieve this change. Your coaching sessions with them will now go beyond the nature of your past one-on-one meetings. Previously, you likely had more dialog about achieving tangible business results such as production volumes, sales quotas, fill rates, or any one of myriad business metrics. While your focus on these should not completely change, you will now want to ensure your one-on-one meetings include progress checks on changing behaviors, such as increasing open communication, improving trust, engaging in healthy debate, positively challenging each other, or holding other leaders accountable to their commitments. Note that every one of these suggestions implies greater cross-organizational interaction. Remember, that’s what you are driving for.

Not only is it important for your leaders to demonstrate these new behaviors with each other; they also need to visibly set the example for employees throughout the organization. I find that when one leader has a town hall with her employees and invites one of her peers to present to her group, it is an effective way to demonstrate this example. One note of caution: While you want to demonstrate healthy debate, you will want to gauge your organization’s readiness to observe two leaders having that debate. If two leaders go too far, too fast in front of an employee group, it could backfire. Regardless, clear, open, and honest communication with the group is essential.

One effective tool I’ve used to coach executives is a targeted 360 assessment. The feedback from these surveys provides useful fodder for you to coach your leaders. They also help validate your own observations regarding your leaders’ performance.

Coaching the entire organization

Now you are ready to start enrolling the balance of the organization in this cultural change. Ideally, you will empower each of your leaders to coach their managers and train your managers to coach front-line employees. This sounds like a great deal of work and can take a protracted amount of time to accomplish. While there is some sequence required to work top-down, there are things you can do to speed up the process. After all, there is some sense of urgency to drive this cultural change, and most importantly, the best way to move to a greater cross-functional culture is to demonstrate it while you build it.

Here are a couple of techniques I’ve used successfully to move an organization’s culture forward.

Focus groups. These can be extremely effective if well facilitated. The leader must be present for these, although she can delegate the facilitation of the meeting to someone more experienced at facilitating large groups. The leader’s role is to articulate her purpose for the transformation and describe outcomes she expects as a result. Of course, all of this was developed during the sessions with the senior leadership team.

The facilitator runs the meeting through a simple agenda that contains, at minimum, two key elements. This first is to allow the audience time to express concerns. Let them describe every possible way that this won’t work, why it’s a bad idea, and how disruptive it will be to their work. That’s okay. You’ll learn a great deal from what appears to be resistance. The other key element is to then empower the team to drive constructive comments defining leadership, organizational, and individual requirements to adapt to the new culture. Take time for the group to prioritize these and select the top two or three most impactful recommendations. During the meeting, you as the leader must engage in this discussion by asking questions, but do not engage in advocating any position. This is your time to hold back. Once team members have identified recommendations, implement them and report back.

Metrics meetings. I have found these are especially useful when enrolling middle managers. It is, after all, the middle managers who will ultimately be responsible for driving and tracking performance. Given their vast experience running the current organization, who better to define adjusted metrics to assess the performance of the new culture?

These meetings are facilitated in a manner like the employee focus groups described earlier, but with a focus on measures. Once you’ve presented your case for change, give managers the opportunity to describe which measures will be impacted and how. Let them express why this is good or bad. Then, shift the meeting toward describing the new measures that are important. Some examples I’ve seen are increases in innovation, such as the number of patents per employee, or reduced unfavorable attrition rates. Again, give the managers an opportunity to discuss and describe these new metrics, as well as their recommendations for implementation.

Moving toward the future

Digital transformation is inevitable. For organizations to successfully move into the future, they need to strike a balance between organizational hierarchy and cross-functional coordination. While there still needs to be accountability for results, organizations need to be able to move faster to achieve these results. Driving toward a culture that eliminates cross-functional dysfunction and embraces greater, more effective cross-functional dialog and work will help you achieve this balance.

How to Have Clear Purpose for Your Transformation

As an agent of change, how do you ensure your organization is executing on your transformation’s purpose?

Back in my corporate days, one executive attempted to change the culture of his organization. The culture, typical of the Midwest at the time, was generally easy-going and risk-adverse. The well-meaning executive used the phrase “fire in your belly” to attempt to paint a picture of the results he was looking for. He meant that he wanted people to take more risks—to be advocates for change—but this wasn’t clear. Many thought he had indigestion and wanted to prescribe Tums.

A contemporary version of clear purpose can be found in Kickstarter’s mission statement, which reads, “…help bring creative projects to life.” Their purpose is clear. They create tools and resources that help people bring their creative projects to life, and that connect people around creative projects and the creative process. When a leader paints a clear picture of what she wants to accomplish and does so in terms of outcomes, she sets the stage for a successful transformation.

There are two other features of clear purpose that drive organizational alignment and execution:

  1. People throughout the organization understand how they will need to behave differently. The “fire in your belly” executive may have been better served had he talked about what it means to be provocative, to take risks, and to challenge each other’s thinking.
  2. Employees want to understand the WIIFM, or “what’s in it for me.” How do I, as an employee, benefit from the change?

When you don’t have a clear purpose, your transformation will lack priority, and the organization will respond by demonstrating a lack of urgency, missing deadlines, deflecting, and defecting. Employees will retreat to what is comfortable and known versus what is unclear or unknown.

There are three vital steps to ensure your organization is executing your purpose:

  1. Build a leadership team where individuals trust each other and are willing to engage in healthy conflict.
  2. Align on purpose and outcomes. Define how you want the organization to be different and be as specific as possible.
  3. State these outcomes and behavior changes for employees in terms of the WIIFM. Identify how the organization’s constituents will experience improvement because of the change.

“When you don’t have a clear purpose, your transformation will lack priority, and the organization will respond by demonstrating a lack of urgency, missing deadlines, deflecting, and defecting.”

Let’s explore each of these steps in greater detail.

Build a leadership team that trusts and engages in healthy conflict

One of my clients was the senior vice president of a newly formed leadership team. Trust was low, and healthy conflict didn’t exist. Members of the team had different agendas and spent staff meeting time advocating for their positions. They weren’t listening to each other. My client kept the cultural change out in front of his team and made his workplace transformation a priority. He asked me to help them develop a stronger leadership culture.

We held two workshops with exercises to increase trust among team members. We used a personality assessment to help team members understand how they each approached their work. We conducted real-world exercises to help them engage more effectively in healthy conflict. Within 60 days, people outside the organization commented that the team appeared more aligned.

Actions to build trust and healthy conflict:

  • As the 55th mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Use challenges to drive a culture of healthy conflict. This will require you to call out harmful behavior, avoidance, and obfuscation.
  • Identify a common goal, such as a looming deadline, and call on your team to work together to solve problems standing in the way of success.
  • Reinforce trust and healthy conflict during your one-on-one meetings with your team. When one begins complaining about another, challenge them to take it directly to their peer.
  • During team meetings, encourage members to disagree with each other. Seek out disagreement. You may not resolve the conflict in one meeting; give members time to consider other positions.
  • Build team development time into your agenda. Use this time to work on trust and conflict issues. Perform candid health checks: “How are we doing?”

When your top leadership trusts one another enough to engage in healthy conflict, you achieve greater alignment, which in turn helps employees see more clearly the future state. Your purpose and outcomes become clearer to both the leadership team and employees.

Align your leadership team on purpose and specific outcomes

One of my clients had a long history of failure in implementing changes, particularly those related to technology. They had recently implemented a large HR and Finance system that failed when they decided to implement an organization-wide system that would impact almost every employee and every customer. As this system would run almost all the organization’s underlying operations, it had to be successful. Failure would put them out of business. They asked me to help them manage the transformation.

One of the first things I did was help the senior leadership team understand that this was not just a technology change. The technology implementation would cause almost all their business processes to change. This meant that people would now be required to connect with each other and work together in ways they had not previously. This change was more about culture than it was about technology. The senior team embraced this and began to align with the true purpose of the transformation.

In what became an effective process to change the culture, we met with the senior team every two weeks to engage them with the project and resolve issues and risks where necessary. In a few meetings, we performed a “deep-dive” into the changes that were underway. These “deep-dives” focused on changes in work process and human interaction. We stopped talking as much about the technology. As a result, these senior leaders began going back to their own teams and talking about the change in different terms. They also became much more supportive of the change.

Ultimately, this initiative was successful, with the senior management team calling it one of the most successful projects in the history of the institution.

Action steps to align on purpose and outcomes:

  1. Identify the purpose of the change and specify business outcomes. How will the change improve market share, customer satisfaction, and the bottom line?
  2. Relate the change to how it improves the employee experience, such as how it helps working teams or individual employees.
  3. Get real about the implications of the change. The case above illustrates how a technology change was actually a cultural change. Think through the consequences of changes you are considering.
  4. Together, identify how each leader and her function will support the change. Be clear on the role of each and help them hold each other accountable to drive the change.
  5. Hold regular status meetings to engage with the progress of the team and visibly resolve issues

State the WIIFM in terms of behavior outcomes

In one engagement, I was asked to help a large community college through a large-scale transformation. It would impact 30,000 students, 2,000 faculty, and nearly all the college’s administrative staff.

The faculty’s involvement would be required to make this transformation successful, but the faculty was unionized and resistant to this project. There had been long-standing challenges between the college and the union. College leaders and I discussed how to win them over. We attended one of their meetings, presented the benefits of the transformation, and began to enroll them in the transformation.

We met resistance firsthand. They expressed several concerns. One issue they highlighted was a lack of day-to-day support to transform. It was necessary, and something the project team missed on the project plan. We met and overcame their resistance by doing two simple things. First, we listened. Actively. Then, we acted on it. We followed through.

The faculty union leaders became legitimizers—a term I prefer over resisters. They made the transformation legitimate for their peers. We established faculty teams to guide the implementation. Faculty members gladly joined these teams at the encouragement of the union leadership. Interestingly, the faculty implementation was one of the most successful elements of the transformation.

Action steps to identify WIIFM and integrate it into your transformation:

  • Ask yourself, who are the legitimizers to the transformation?
  • Seek them out with an open mind. Learn what they have to say.
  • Incorporate their feedback into your transformation.
  • Enroll them to help drive the implementation and sustainability.
  • Celebrate successes with them. Unsparingly give credit.

These three steps unlock your culture to help you drive transformational change

Everyday organizations drive transformational change. Many are challenged with the ability to be successful. Others do it well. I have found these three steps provide the foundation for the organization to be successful.

  1. Building a team that trusts and challenges each other is just the beginning. Here’s where culture is first impacted. They set the standard for the rest of the team.
  2. Aligning on the purpose in terms of outcomes. Clarity will drive speed of adoption and is a critical ingredient to changing the culture.
  3. The simple truth is that to overcome resistance employees must be engaged to help implement the change. Learn about the resistance and convert this into benefits, or WIIFM, for the employees.

In your transformational journey, how do you align on purpose and outcomes?

Coaching Exponential Growth

At the recent Ultimate Culture Conference hosted by Human Synergistics, Trent Sunde of The Clorox Company gave a great presentation entitled, Going Beyond High Performance to Enable a Growth Culture. For me, the final takeaway from this case study is that for organizations to achieve exponential growth, they need to have leaders who coach. Yes, we still need managers to manage, but to move an organization forward and to achieve rapid momentum toward phenomenal growth, we need the entire workforce engaged. One leader cannot achieve this kind of success alone. It takes leadership at all levels and throughout the organization.

Leaders Who Coach

Not unlike Trent, my corporate career spanned 30 years at a successful midwestern Fortune 150 manufacturing company. I both observed and participated as we went through our own growth—managers learning to manage better, managers becoming leaders and leaders starting to become coaches. For me personally, about 20 years into this journey, I noticed that the best leaders were those who truly coached. The best experiences I had as an employee were with those supervisors who took time to coach me and develop me. These were clearly the highest growth periods in my career.

For me personally…I noticed that the best leaders were those who truly coached.

The other thing I noticed was that we began to move away from “change events” and toward an environment where change was becoming a constant. Gone were the days when new program implementations were major events. It became necessary for employees to be more resilient, and to accept and adopt change on a regular basis. This came at a cost—as employees sought to find their way, there was wasted effort, and silo thinking became a barrier to rapid change. We needed an approach to work through all of this.

These two trends are not separate, nor can they be. For employees to move to an environment of constant change, there needs to be greater interaction between the leader and her employees. This increased interaction is not to provide greater task management, but rather more coaching. This coaching is applied to helping employees see how their work fits into the larger purpose, aligning to minimize wasted effort, and engaging across the organization to rapidly recognize and extinguish cross-functional dysfunction.

Leverage What’s Positive

The Clorox journey that Trent shared is exciting. They instituted a comprehensive strategy to clearly articulate the organization’s purpose, teach leaders to become effective coaches, and drive greater human performance. My one suggestion regarding the KATA approach1 they took is that it could have focused on “advantages to leverage” rather than “obstacles to turn around.”2 In my consulting experience, it is much easier to identify what is going well with an organization and leverage it to drive results than it is to constantly be on the lookout for problems to solve.


Trent’s requirements for success are not unlike mine:

  1. Believer Sponsor: An absolute requirement is an actively engaged sponsor who believes in the work, communicates with the organizational members frequently and passionately, and regularly holds leaders accountable for setting the example.
  2. Visionary Leaders: The leadership team must clearly articulate the organization’s purpose and do it in terms of tangible outcomes. Gone are the days of glowing vision or mission statements that don’t really engage or excite employees to act.
  3. Committed Partners: I call this “aligned leaders.” It’s great to be a believer, and it’s great to have a clear purpose with tangible outcomes, but without the entire leadership team aligned to these features, your organization will struggle with rapid growth.
  4. Continuous Improvement Culture: One of the key benefits of constant change is that employees become more accepting and resistance lessens. One unintended consequence to watch for is complacency. Don’t sacrifice critical thinking, and don’t confuse critical thinking with resistance.
  5. Reorientation of Leadership’s Role: To be successful with this, the leader absolutely needs to become a coach.
  6. Culture is Not Separate: I added this one. A culture project is not a standalone activity. It must be combined with an organizational improvement need. One of my clients needed to improve customer engagement and satisfaction. They used this as a springboard to drive greater leadership accountability throughout their organization.

Clorox CEO, Benno Dorer, on their leadership model and journey

How do you get started?

Changing culture can be an arduous task, but it doesn’t have to be. Several of the elements are outlined above. Focus on these six success factors. The underlying requirement, as I mentioned before, is that leaders become coaches. For leaders new to this idea, it can begin just by learning how to listen more effectively. Here are steps I have used and have coached my executive clients to use:

  • Be clear on your purpose. Building a relationship with employees to drive culture change includes clearly communicating your intent and expressing it in terms of expected outcomes.
  • Be approachable. Drop the titles. Eliminate any air of Be genuine in your desire to learn people’s perspective.
  • Ask questions. Talk less, ask more. Use a combination of yes/no and open-ended questions. The former provide direction for the discussion; the latter provide deep insight.
  • Understand resistance. I love resistance. Without it, you might never hear about things that could go wrong.
  • Call to action. At the end of a conversation, ask for a commitment. Ask people to engage with the change, or at least to be open-minded to it. Do not underestimate the power of the ask.

This is where coaching for exponential growth begins. For one of my clients, the results included a dramatic increase in employee engagement scores, a significant drop in attrition, increase in budgets by 25%, and most importantly, marked improvements in customer satisfaction.

What’s your experience with leaders who coach effectively? Share your thoughts and comments with us on LinkedIn and Twitter.


Editor’s notes:

  • Learn more about Coach — Co-Achieving, an exercise in leadership, cooperation, and achievement designed to teach leaders how to apply Achievement-oriented thinking to coach others effectively and improve performance.


1Rother, M. (2010). Toyota KATA: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. NY: McGraw-Hill.

2Rother, M. How to Develop Scientific Thinking for Everyone, by Practicing Kata. Retrieved from

The Business Case for Transformational Leadership

In today’s competitive business environment, executives are not interested in investing money in company culture unless they are able to see results in terms of tangible business value. Working in the field of transformational leadership and large-scale change, I see plenty of consultants who do magnificent work but struggle with connecting the dots between the work they do and the ultimate value they will add.

Potential clients often ask me how I provide value, and how will they measure that value? The recent Ultimate Culture Conference exposed me to several tools that can help. There were several culture-related talks that reinforced how this work can drive tremendous value for an organization. Take the case of the Episcopal Church, for example. An organization as mature, traditional, and rigid as can be, led by Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee and Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, the Episcopal Church has made tremendous progress transforming their culture.1 They have done so using culture assessments that provide clear recommendations while confirming progress in building a vital culture and healthy leaders.


Transformational leaders as change agents

Let’s start by defining transformational leadership. This is the leadership required to move an organization through major change. It involves creating and communicating a strong purpose—one that speaks in terms of outcomes. For this to be effective, leaders must lead based on true character—traits such as trust, honesty, and integrity. Transformational leaders build effective relationships with employees throughout the organization, and they encourage achievement. 2

In my work, I have developed leadership teams to come together to more effectively help their organizations through large-scale change. These leaders came to learn that success had more to do with their alignment to the cause than the intent they shared. They learned that success was directly correlated with their ability to be a role model. They learned that success came not because of any one leader’s efforts, but because they, as a team, presented a united front. This all resulted in projects that achieved amazing results. Here are a few examples:

  • A large-scale technology change that was implemented on time and under budget
  • Another technology change that was implemented on time and caused minimal disruption
  • A project that generated bottom-line value nearly four times by which was justified
  • A culture change project that reduced attrition by more than 50 percent

These are all significant business results, measured in business terms, that resulted from notable change driven by successful transformational leaders.

Achieving change through Constructive behavior

Across these projects were common elements that knit together to drive success.

  • Developing Constructive leadership behaviors to build relationships and drive engagement
  • Building Constructive team behaviors to help members interact productively, manage healthy conflict, and align on priorities, then commit and hold one another accountable
  • Asking leaders to work with project team members and employees to understand the value of the transformation, and coach employees to adopt Constructive behaviors in support of the change
  • Identifying new measures to gauge performance, related back to bottom-line business impacts

Historically, about half of my work in transformational leadership and large-scale change has been leading organizations through mega-sized technology implementations. Through this experience, I have learned that these projects are more about changing culture than they are about changing technology.

In addition, more and more of my clients are asking for help with cultural changes they are trying to make in their organizations. Several of the presenters at the Ultimate Culture Conference, including Bishop Lee and Reverend Jennings, have found great success in using validated assessments to measure behaviors within their organizations and guide them in shifting these behaviors to be more Constructive. The Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) and Group Styles Inventory™ (GSI) can help with the team and leadership actions mentioned above, while the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) assist in managing and shifting the overall culture and climate. These assessments are a part of the globally recognized change solutions and measurement tools from Human Synergistics.

I have learned that these projects are more about changing culture than they are about changing technology.

When transformational leaders take the reins of large-scale change, they can create tremendous value. People learn how to interact differently; they learn how timing becomes more critical in their interactions, and they see how process control becomes more of their role and less the role of their supervisors. This is a significant cultural shift.

How will you prepare to lead your team through change?

How are you affecting your organization, and are you ready to lead transformational change? I encourage you to explore my two assessments to help you determine the magnitude of your next change, and the readiness of your leadership to drive these transformations.

I welcome your comments and thoughts on LinkedIn and Twitter.


1 Diocesan News. (February 17, 2016). New Report Measures Progress in Diocesan Culture Change. Retrieved from:

2 Masi, R. J., & Cooke, R. A. (2000). Effects of transformational leadership on subordinate motivation, empowering norms, and organizational productivity. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 8, 16-47.