Seven Top Culture Insights from the 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference

In 2015, we at Human Synergistics hosted our inaugural Annual Ultimate Culture Conference to bring visibility to important insights from culture pioneers and progressive leaders. Though that event and the following 2nd and 3rd conferences sparked outstanding feedback and learning, we felt there was an opportunity to translate more of the learnings to action by building on relationships that already exist in regions and local communities.

We shifted our focus to regional culture conferences in partnership with major universities, and in September, we collaborated with the University of Wisconsin Center for Professional and Executive Development (CPED) to host our 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference. The following seven “ultimate culture insights” made an impact with the passionate audience of culture experts and change agents.

  1. “Employees don’t believe what they see on the walls; they believe what they see in the halls.”

    Tracy Nelson, Vice President of Learning & Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared this unambiguous language about the reality of culture in the workplace and stressed the importance of what employees “see in the halls.” It’s great for leaders to invest the time in sharing their mission, vision and values, but it’s even more important to understand how team members are behaving and what expectations, norms or “unwritten rules” are driving that behavior. For example, “If I make a mistake, should I admit it or sweep it under the rug?” “Do I feel comfortable sharing my ideas or speaking up?”

    People in most organizations interpret and talk about this behavior “in the halls” in many ways, so it may be difficult to translate this collective knowledge to action. I have referenced the “culture measurement illusion” before: It is rare for organizations to understand, measure and define a common language for the underlying culture in terms of beliefs, assumptions and behavioral norms (the “unwritten” rules driving the behavior they see on the surface). Many think they are doing this work with a survey focusing on factors like engagement, satisfaction, or great workplace using so-called “culture assessments,” but these are nearly all, by definition, work climate assessments.

  2. Culture is always growing and evolving. You need to understand if you are growing “good culture” or something that turns out to be toxic.

    Steve Lipton, Partner with Wipfli and leader of their Performance Consulting, talked about the “culture petri dish.” He emphasized that, in addition to the overall culture, there are many sub-cultures that need to be understood. You can hope that you’re growing a “good” or Constructive culture, but if you don’t take the time to understand it, there could be very negative attributes evolving beneath the surface. These points resonated with me.

    Many leaders avoid the work to understand culture because they think their culture is “good” or they don’t have any problems. These leaders are totally missing the power of intentional culture development to improve or sustain performance when it’s viewed as a strategic priority. Most organizations unfortunately lack an understanding of how their current culture is impacting major mission or performance priorities. This undermines efforts to engage and unite team members as leaders struggle with defensive norms that, based on the work of Robert Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, may range from internal competition and opposition to avoidant, dependent and conventional expectations. All organizations should see value in understanding their current culture as a foundation for effectively dealing with increased complexity, overcoming challenges and improving effectiveness.1

  3. “Your supervisor is more important to your health than your physician.”

    Angie Zeigler, Vice President of Talent Management at Oshkosh, shared this shocking point from the Mayo Clinic. It was part of her presentation on People-First Culture Transformation. The journey at Oshkosh, a 101-year-old company, included the decision to start with their top 100 leaders and understanding the gap between their “Ideal Culture” and “Current Culture” using the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).1, 2 A Culture and Development Roadmap was defined across all leadership levels, including specific competency and behavior development programs for senior leaders, middle managers and front-line leaders.

    Oshkosh - Mayo Clinic

    Angie emphasized the importance of synching leader and manager development with efforts to understand and evolve the overall culture. Many organizations experience challenges with behavior and jump to deliver well-intended training or development efforts. Leaders may learn new skills and approaches via such efforts but struggle to translate them into action when they are back on the job and bombarded by cultural norms that may be very inconsistent with what they learned. It’s easy to look away from inclusive approaches and revert to a “just get it done” mindset when faced with the cultural realities in many organizations.

  4. Leaders need to obtain feedback to understand how they are reinforcing the current culture and act on what they learn.

    Marti Wronski, General Counsel and Senior Vice President with the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, shared: “Successful transformation happens when the majority of people in the company have aligned beliefs and when proper leadership mindsets fuel consistent action.” A key part of their culture journey was involving each senior leader in utilizing the Leadership/Impact® assessment to understand the “Ideal Impact” they want to have on the behavior of others and how that compares to their “Current Impact.” 3 The Brewers obtained expert external help to support the process, which included group work with the senior leadership team and one-on-ones with each senior leader.


    Marti warned that this is “serious work,” and “the Culture Bus is not for the faint of heart.” Their culture journey may still be in progress, but Brewers fans have plenty to be proud about with the team’s return to the playoffs for the first time in seven years and falling one game short of a World Series birth.

  5. “Individuals are at different points of competence in understanding differences.”

    This insight came from Binnu Palta Hill, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is critical for understanding the complexity of culture. She continued, “we lack a shared understanding” as we fill in assumptions.

    This insight hit home with me because leaders must understand this “filling in assumptions” will take place as team members work together. Judgements and conclusions can run wild if there aren’t consistent approaches to involving team members, facilitating upward communication and acting on what you learn. This is especially true when cross-functional work is needed and gaps in collaboration, communication or other critical areas emerge. Relationships may not be developed across groups to the point where team members are comfortable sharing concerns and ideas. Team members may not speak openly but, rest assured, the “filling in of assumptions” and judgements will continue in their minds. We can understand the norms, beliefs and assumptions driving the behavior we see on the surface only if we invest in intentional culture assessment and development efforts. It may take time, but consistent, inclusive efforts will be positively received by most individuals and will build shared understanding and reduce this “filling in of assumptions.”

  6. “The five-percenters should not dictate whether you take a risk.”

    I loved this point from Madison Chief of Police, Michael Koval. He talked about how he focuses on getting 95% of people along with him and then strong leadership “rules the day.” There are always naysayers and critics that will find problems with any idea. He shared, “Police forces are the most loathe-to-change institutions.” They must deal with mega-lawsuits, legislative mandates and problems “jettisoned off social media.” It was inspiring to hear him talk about being customer-focused on every call and his Notre Dame football team-inspired slogan of “police like a champion today.”

  7. It’s critical for you to “be on your mental game” as a change agent.

  8. This insight came from Tricia Downing, motivational speaker, consultant, athlete and the first female paraplegic to finish an Iron distance triathlon. She talked about how distractions and worries get people off their mental game. This is so true in the world of sport and for leaders involved in culture-related change efforts. Fear and hesitation can cripple improvement plans as leaders encounter inevitable obstacles. Tricia shared a story about her recovery from a devastating accident that occurred exactly 18 years before the day of the conference. She emphasized “the need to figure out ways to get around your problems,” and she obviously knows what she is talking about. I can’t imagine a top leader looking Tricia in the face and saying “it’s too hard” to deal with their culture-related problems and challenges.

    It’s a natural part of the process to encounter resistance and doubt your own ability or approach. Edgar Schein, culture expert and professor emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, once said, “You only truly begin to understand your culture when you try to change it.” Learn from the resistance and adjust your approach, if appropriate, in coordination with others. You don’t need to tackle the problems alone. Colleagues, outside experts and other trusted advisors can help you think through how to re-group and deal with the inevitable resistance. The process to “figure out ways to get around problems” can be scary and frustrating, but your courage and persistence will pay off.

A final insight: It’s important to understand how culture is created and how it evolves as a foundation for defining effective change efforts.

One of the highlights of the day was a new interactive learning experience called The Culture Journey. Attendees participated in this two-hour experience around tables of 6-8 people. Human Synergistics and Root Inc. developed The Culture Journey to help people understand what culture is, how culture is created and how it evolves as a foundation for defining effective change efforts. It was exciting to see how participants could relate to people depicted on the visual Root Learning Map® and the scenario cards.4

Learning Map group exercise

The session ended with a summary of three critical points regarding culture-related change efforts:

  1. Help leaders understand what culture really is and how it evolves
  2. Assess the culture and climate with qualitative and quantitative methods
  3. Engage teams and develop leaders to drive shared learning and results

Culture Journey

These sound so simple, but they are overlooked in most change efforts. It’s incredibly rare for me to run across an organization that can confidently state they consistently cover these three points as a key part of supporting their mission, strategy and performance priorities. This will change as more sophisticated and comprehensive approaches replace over-simplified culture and performance development efforts that fall short of delivering the targeted results for individuals, teams and organizations.

It was great to see this audience of culture enthusiasts armed with important insights that will help them make a meaningful difference at their organizations. We look forward to continuing the culture conversation and hope to see you at a future Ultimate Culture event!


Editor’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about the Culture Journey Learning Experience, Ultimate Culture Conference, Organizational Culture Inventory, Leadership/Impact and the Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick-Start program, please contact us.

1 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

2 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

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

4 Root Learning Map®. Sylvania, OH. Root, Inc.

About the Author

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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.