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.

About the Author

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Linda Sharkey, Ph.D.

Linda Sharkey is a proven leader with experience in Fortune 10 companies building teams and driving talent development initiatives that support productivity and company growth. She is an internationally recognized speaker and radio host of iLead: The Leadership Connection. Sharkey’s co-authored book, Winning With Transglobal Leadership, was named one of the top 30 best business books for 2013. She also co-authored Optimizing Talent with Dr. Paul Eccher.