Advice for Leaders from the Organizational Culture Pioneers

Culture Pioneer Panel—Edgar Schein, Larry Senn & Robert Cooke

To accelerate the culture learning curve and truly impact the world, it’s critical to build on the experience of pioneers in the field of organizational culture. Our Culture Pioneer Panel, one of the unique highlights of the Ultimate Culture Conference, featured insights from three of these trailblazers: Edgar Schein, Larry Senn, and Robert Cooke.

One panel question that I knew would lead to some interesting answers about the future of work and organizational culture was:

Interest in the subject of culture is growing dramatically. As you look into the future, how do you see this interest evolving, and what should leaders do to get ahead of the curve in order to make an even greater impact? 

The answers to this question captivated the crowd, and key insights are summarized below this video excerpt. If you have not already done so, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video.

Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management and one of the most influential authorities in the culture field

Ed delineated several forces that are “moving us toward a new way of thinking about leadership and, by implication, how to handle workplace culture and the deeper cultural issues.” He focused on two of these forces:

  • Complexity of Technologies: Ed reviewed the history of complexity, noting that computers were originally built by one engineer and now require teams of engineers who have to collaborate. He shared how this complexity is increasing everywhere, such as in operating rooms in medicine and in public health. “More and more people have to know what each other does and somehow find ways of doing it [together]. That forces communication more than people like us standing up and saying ‘communication is good.’ But if people can’t get the job done unless they communicate, then suddenly they say: ‘What was this about communication, again?’”
  • Social Responsibility: Ethics, what’s good for the environment, and what’s good for the employee have become not just talking points, but programmatic. “The fact that we have culture managers is weird, where does that fit?… Culture management tells us there’s a change in society and in thinking about personal and interpersonal issues.” There is enough disengagement, low morale, and ineffectiveness that “questions are being asked in the management culture itself… That wouldn’t have been thought necessary in the old managerial culture.” Some of Ed’s key takeaways around the increased importance of social responsibility included:
    • “There are serious external forces that are creating the groundwork for people like us to say: ‘Well you know, we know something about this…maybe we can help.’”
    • “I was recently working with a company that threw out the HR label and said it’s ‘People Management’…. What does that symbolize?”
    • “There are forces that will create different kinds of leaders that will be more amenable to the kinds of messages we are sending…I see this as a slow evolution.”

Larry Senn, founder and chairman of culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company

Larry started with a quote from a conversation he had with Ray Smith, former Chairman and CEO of Bell Atlantic: “If I put my ear down on the railroad track, I can hear the train coming, and we ain’t ready.”

He then discussed some of the powerful forces that are leading us to look at culture:

  • Greater need for collaboration than ever before: Companies are made of acquired organizations that haven’t fully been acquired, and there is tremendous industry consolidation going on. Achieving cross-organization synergy therefore is very important.1
  • Need for agility and developing thriving organizations: Research has shown that thriving organizations have three things: 1) purpose and direction, 2) vitality (living a healthy set of values), and 3) a learning and growth mindset. How you create thriving and renewing organizations that keep up with challenges and opportunities is very important.2

“Leaders are going to begin to recognize that they need some help in getting there…Far, far too many culture initiatives fail or mess around with climate, or something else, or engagement—and really don’t change the culture.”

Robert Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics and author of the most widely used culture assessment, the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®)

Rob provided examples from various presentations of organizations achieving relatively specific objectives by focusing on their culture in general rather than narrowly on the “culture” surrounding the targeted outcome.3 He noted, “I have always had a problem with change initiatives designed exclusively around a culture for quality, culture for engagement, culture for safety or whatever the thing might be after the word for.” The larger organizational culture may not support the type of “mini-culture” desired or it may even run counter to it.

In the future, leaders should consider how the specialized targets or outcomes in which they are interested at a given point in time can be realized by a larger, more general, and encompassing cultural change rather than by one focusing only on safety, quality, engagement, or so on. By taking this approach, Rob believes leaders and organizations will actually be more successful in accomplishing what they are trying to do in the first place.4

Rob’s point sparked some interesting feedback from the other culture pioneers:

  • Larry agreed with Rob’s point and added a fitting quote: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
  • Ed shared that one of the most powerful ways the larger culture learns is through telling stories of what can happen. These stories articulate how you can work your way out of a bad situation.

This post just touches the surface of the insights shared during the panel discussion and the larger conference. Again, sign up for our Ultimate Culture Community to view the video of the complete panel discussion, as well as full videos of all the conference presentations, including those from Ed, Larry, and Rob.


1 Larry Senn (2014). The last frontier: Maximizing organizational synergies. Huntington Beach, CA: Senn Delaney.

2 Carole Dweck (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine/Random House.

3 Stephan Lindegaard (2015). Work culture beats Innovation culture: Inspiration from Google.

4 Martin Marquardt and David Bonenberger (2015). A personal touch to safety culture: Sustaining excellent personal safety at work. Paper presented at Human Synergistics’ 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, Chicago, IL.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.