Larry Senn has been called the “Father of Corporate Culture.” He has spent 40 years guiding the first firm ever designed to create healthy, high-performing organization cultures. As Senn Delaney Culture Shaping (now Heidrick Consulting Center of Excellence) celebrates its 40th anniversary, the founder reflects on how business and leaders have evolved.
In this time of radical, often disruptive change, it is remarkable and yet reassuring to me that the healthy culture concepts we teach have remained so constant. I believe that’s true because the principles underlying a healthy, high-performing culture are akin to timeless principles of life effectiveness for people. When in history has integrity and personal responsibility not been foundational for success in life and in organizations? When has collaboration not been needed? If anything, many of these concepts are even more necessary in organizations than they were back then.
Here’s what hasn’t changed, but instead has grown.
Organizations still become shadows of their leaders
The central finding of my dissertation on organizational culture was that organizations become a shadow of their leaders. That is still true today. Even if employees aren’t in direct contact with their leaders (and even if they’re in a different region), they’ll still become a reflection of the culture that the top leaders model. You’ll find this in organizations that repeatedly end up in the news for bad press until they change leadership. Therefore, we never start working with a client unless we have full buy-in from the leadership team and we take that team through first. If they don’t get it or don’t buy in, we won’t be able to make any progress through the rest of the organization.
“Every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.”
The biggest obstacle to culture change that we found when we started was how to change the habits of successful adults. People are well-intentioned, but all leaders and organizations have some dysfunctional habits. We discovered 40 years ago that the only sure way to shape a culture was to shift “thought habits” of people and teams through “engineering epiphanies” or Ah-Ha moments. Think about someone who knows they must eat better and exercise. Even with their doctor’s advice and an encouraging spouse, they continue with unhealthy choices. The next week, that same person could have a major health scare and sure enough, they’re eating greens and going to the gym. Their health scare provided an Ah-Ha moment that led to change.
Our breakthrough in shaping culture 40 years ago came from learning how to creatively unfreeze old habits through engineered epiphanies in team sessions, beginning with the CEO. Unfreezing old habits and connecting people to healthy behaviors at a gut, not intellectual, level is still the key to our “secret sauce” to culture shaping.
Being at your best
Being at your best mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually may not seem to connect to company culture, but it always has, and it is always foundational. While physical health has now become more important to most people, we still glorify working late and sleeping less, which have been consistently proven to harm work performance. Our understanding is that when people are at their best and top of their game, they automatically live the right values and create a healthy culture.
We walk our clients through “what makes them feel at their best and what sucks the energy out of them” to give them a picture of what it takes for them to be the best versions of themselves. This has led to additional research and the creation of the Mood Elevator as a tool for optimal living and leading.
Having an accountable organization has always been important. Things don’t get done if you can’t acknowledge reality, own the problem, and collectively come up with a solution without pointing the finger. Not only is internal accountability essential, but with the ever-growing transparency between customers and brands through social media, the need for leaders and organizations to be accountable and honest with the public is greater than ever. Companies can no longer sweep issues under the rug—social media and the broader community demand and expect answers immediately.
The need for teamwork and decisions for the greater good emerged early as a cultural necessity. Some of our earliest clients were in the aerospace industry, and they wrestled with project management hampered by silos. The increasing complexity of our times has magnified that need.
Mental focus and priorities
We have become obsessed with multitasking and being busy. With a constant stream of distractions from our phones and the internet, the combination of these two can create a lot of work in the wrong direction. We have always worked with clients on determining the priorities that are necessary to move them in the right direction as an entire organization, and not simply on what keeps them “busy.” The need for this structure is huge. Leaders must establish common priorities and communicate those priorities across the entire organization, often and with clarity.
A Blue-Chip mindset and Be Here Now were powerful concepts then and are still relevant today.
Here’s what has changed.
People ‘get’ culture
When we first started selling culture shaping, we first had to explain to people exactly what corporate culture was. It was seen by some as a frivolous expense to help people be nicer to each other. Today, culture has reached a tipping point where you now see something related to it in the news every single day.
Culture is no longer a “soft” thing, but is rather a strategic imperative, and organizations know they need to address it. Peter Drucker got it right: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
The need for purpose
While it might have been mentioned by some, what is clear now is the importance of organizations having a purpose or noble cause to help bring the best out of people. It is just a step behind culture in people understanding its importance. Purpose-driven organizations have always had added benefits by members being able to rally around one common goal as a company. Self-actualization, or a purposeful connection to and focus on the organization’s highest cause or reason for existence, motivates you. You get that it’s bigger than you. However, purpose-driven companies now have an even bigger advantage in that ‘purpose’ sells, which can help rally people behind a common cause and purpose.
It’s more important than ever to have something to come together on, and purpose can help lead the way.
Senn Delaney purpose statement on the wall of their Huntington Beach, CA office
Need for appreciation
The next generations have an even bigger need not just for meaning, but to feel they are valued and appreciated. We’ve always been big proponents of teaching our clients to share appreciation generously through their organization. So often we point out what our coworkers do wrong, but we try to shift the perspective and encourage people to “catch others doing good.” Oftentimes we find morale is bad within an organization, not because of a lack of pay or benefits, but because employees don’t feel valued and appreciated. Creating a culture of appreciation can instantly raise morale, camaraderie, and productivity. As we like to say, “Appreciation is the glue that holds teams together.”
Need for speed, agility, and curiosity
We used to talk about continuous improvement; now, it is all about agility and speed. Things that once took years to complete now need to be finished in months. And things that took months now need to take days. This can’t happen in hierarchical, boss-driven firms. This also can’t happen in a culture that is neither curious nor open to new ideas.
To keep companies innovative and agile, organizations that nurture a culture with curiosity and an open, learning mindset supported by encouragement for risk-taking and innovation will have a good chance of doing well. Leaders always need to be up for a new idea and be aware of being judgmental.
Employees are no longer as loyal to their organizations, and CEO turnover is higher than ever
It is now a rare occurrence for someone to spend most of their lives working at one company. Millennials are leading the charge in demanding companies with healthy cultures. They want to feel appreciated, they don’t want to get burned out, and they want leaders who walk the talk.
In addition, CEOs are turning over faster now. This change requires that a solid company culture be in place from the get-go for all new, incoming employees and leaders.
Guidance on the road to change
For as long as organizations have existed, they’ve had cultures by default or design, although most were by default. What’s different today is that most leaders understand that culture is a key determinant of success and are working on intentionally shaping their cultures more than ever. Unfortunately, many, if not most, will fall short of significant culture change because habits run deep, and few organizations have mastered the art and science of human behavior change. However, if the change process you embark on begins with your leaders’ personal and behavioral change, then there’s a better chance of broader organizational change and success. Culture change begins with the leadership team, from CEO to SVPs. Commit to this essential first step and you’ll be on firm footing towards shaping a healthy, high-performing company culture.
Editor’s Note: We are honored to share Dr. Larry Senn’s wisdom with our readers and colleagues through the above article, previously on our blogs at ConstructiveCulture and CultureUniversity, and through his live presentation at our Ultimate Culture Conference. Since its founding in 1978, Senn Delaney has had a singular focus: To create healthy, high-performance cultures. Led and chaired by Larry, the premier culture-shaping consultancy celebrates 40 years of helping corporate leaders in this endeavor. An avid athlete, Larry is known to keep an active triathlon schedule, a healthy diet and running regimen.