12 culture change insights from a workplace culture consulting legend – Larry Senn

Culture University Video Interview

12 culture change insights from a workplace culture consulting legend – Larry Senn

One of the greatest business challenges is effectively changing a workplace culture.  What if it’s an extremely large, global corporation? Some might view it as an unsurmountable challenge.  Not Larry Senn. He has arguably been a part of more large-scale culture transformations than any other individual in the world.  He’s the founder and chairman of the culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him as part of his gracious support of CultureUniversity.com, where he provides regular insights on best practices in culture change as one of our esteemed faculty members (see the full video interview – link).  The insights he shared, and his regular columns, should help us all more effectively manage culture change.

Insight #1: Culture is the key to success and, for some, it’s the key to survive

I went out to do traditional consulting work…What I quickly found was it was easier to decide on change than to get people to change. The more companies I looked at, it seemed they were all a bit like dysfunctional families. They had turf issues and trust issues, resistance to change, and it was very easy to do things in some companies but it was almost impossible in others. I think my epiphany came when I went to work with Sam at Walmart in the early days, helping him design the original supply chain when he had his vision of taking low cost goods to rural America. It was so easy to work there. At the same time, I was trying to work on change at Woolworth. I remember flying from Bentonville to New York, and going into their meeting. Their only purpose seemed to be to maintain the status quo. I said to myself, ‘You know, this little company is going to take over the world; this one’s going to die’. That insight led to my doctoral dissertation – the first field research on corporate culture in 1970 and to founding Senn Delaney as the first culture shaping firm in 1978.”

“I’m convinced that the greatest predictor of a company’s future is its culture.”

{Hear Larry Senn talk about the business connection for culture in the following clip.}

Insight #2: The “Jaws of Culture” chew up most initiatives

“Most companies invest in their strategy, initiatives, processes and structure. All that stuff has to go through what we call the Jaws of Culture. The jaws are the dysfunctions of an organization.  Are there turf issues or is it one company? Do people blame one another when things don’t work or are they accountable? Is there a positive spirit or not in the organization? Do people feel appreciated or not? The primary Jaws of Culture in most organizations today are lack of collaboration and agility, and not much of a learning mindset for the kind of world we’re in. No matter what the initiative is, those things are going to chew it up, and those are the Jaws of Culture.”

Insight #3: Leaders must commit to shaping workplace culture to become ‘one company’

Culture has really hit the tipping point because, in addition to the need for agility, most companies are very fragmented. Most big corporations out there today are a collection of acquisitions or geographies or business units or product lines; they aren’t one company. They really can’t afford to be fragmented today…for the customer, for costs, for anything else. So, one of the big cries out there is this ‘one company’ theme…but they’re too inefficient [and] there are very few fully integrated companies. The answer is creating an allied or shared business model, and that only works with the right culture. It means creating a culture where decisions are made for the greater good with everybody having some common higher cause. Creating one company is critical today for big corporations to succeed.”

Insight #4: Diagnose the organization. Define the behaviors you have and the behaviors you need in a From-To model.

“Every organization has a culture. The only question is: Does it shape you or do you shape it? In most organizations, people just step in and pick up behaviors of people who are there. That’s what culture is about, and yet you can systematically and intentionally shape a culture…It’s a pretty rational model we use. Step 1 is to diagnose the organization. Given what you’re facing, what are the behaviors you need and what are the behaviors you have? At this moment in time, in order to execute your strategies, what are those shifts you need to make happen? That’s the diagnostic. We then create a From-To model: Shift from being hierarchical to being more empowering. Shift from being siloed to being more collaborative. Shift from being resistant to change to being very agile.

Insight #5: Culture shaping needs to start with behavior change at the top because organizations are ‘Shadows of Their Leaders’.

“Culture shaping does need to start at the top of the organization. In fact, the principal finding of my dissertation was that organizations become ‘Shadows of Their Leaders’. It happens in life; it happens in families…It’s my parents who have affected me. I affect my company; so that’s how it works. You do need to start at the top but those habits are pretty deeply entrenched.”

Insight #6: Engineer ‘aha moments’ to shift underlying thinking and shift behavior

Ice-Man-300x270The challenge I faced after doing research on culture was “how do you change habits of adults?” I took my cue from a Social scientist Kurt Lewin who said, “When we’re young, we’re like a flowing river, and then we freeze.” We get stuck in our habits. How do you get unstuck? Most models of change today are what we call behavioral models. People define a set of values and then they communicate them. They talk to people about them. That doesn’t tend to change people. We all know we should do things we don’t do.

What does change people? Well, let’s take someone who had a poor diet and didn’t exercise, and then he or she has a heart attack. All of a sudden you see that person walking around the block and eating greens. What happened?  He or she had a wake-up call. As an engineer by training, I thought, why don’t I engineer epiphanies? Engineer ‘ahas’ so you can shift that underlying thinking that shifts behaviors.

Let me give you an example. In the Midwest, there’s this phenomenon called Midwest polite. In fact, there’s an extreme version of it in Minnesota called Minnesota nice…What that comes from is all of those people like me — I’m from Wisconsin; our moms told us if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.  So, that’s an underlying belief I have. Well, I can have an insight that says, ‘Gee, as a leader, if you work for me, my job is to help develop you. In fact, if I don’t give you appreciative and constructive feedback, you won’t grow. I’ll let you down. I’ll let the organization down. I won’t be a good leader.’ So, if I can have that shift in mind-set through an epiphany, and change that behavior, then I’m going to really execute differently going forward. So, the second step in the process is what we call  ‘unfreeze’.

Insight #7: Reinforce the targeted behaviors in many ways

“Culture is kind of the water we swim in…We typically form a culture leadership team in an organization. Once companies are really clear on the ideal culture they want, then they need to adjust their hiring selection process, new employee orientation, performance management programs, succession planning, communications, etc. to align with it.

{Hear Larry Senn talk about culture being at a tipping point and the power of purpose in the following clip.}

Insight #8: The noble cause or purpose of an organization can serve as a North Star and bring out the best in people.

I think purpose is where culture was at about 10 years ago. We want to get people to really sign up for different behaviors because they have a higher purpose. The idea of an organization discovering what its noble cause or higher purpose is brings out the best in people. We tend to be at our best when we are connected to a purpose that is not about us, but about something bigger than us.  We work with all of our clients in helping them be clearer on what their purpose is. Why do they exist? What do they contribute to society? If they can have a North Star as a purpose, and then the right kind of behaviors, [since] culture is to fulfill that purpose, they tend to get the highest results.

{The Senn Delaney purpose on the wall of their Huntington Beach, CA office}


Insight #9: Mood is critical for exhibiting the best behaviors and building healthy cultures.

the-mood-elevator-92x300“Every moment of every day in our lives, we ride this thing I call the ‘Mood Elevator’. It is what our feelings are at any moment in time. At the higher levels, we’re creative, resourceful, grateful, and innovative. At the lower levels we’re insecure, worried, bothered, self-righteous. Think about it in terms of fulfilling purpose. When we’re about purpose, we tend to be at our best and operating at the higher states of the Mood Elevator. Those are the times that we are at the top or our game, where we feel we can handle whatever is coming at us. It’s those times where you are in the flow and you’ll have an insight or idea, and you don’t know where it came from.

Learning to ride the Mood Elevator is important because we all won’t always be up. In fact, have you ever said something to a loved one you wish you could take back? Have you ever written an email that you shouldn’t have written? Where were you on the Mood Elevator? You were likely at the lower floors, where your thinking is unreliable. The role it plays is this: Healthy cultures are cultures in which more people are operating at their best more of the time, in the higher states of the Mood Elevator. That’s when they have the best behaviors to create a culture.”

Insight #10: The single biggest factor in successful culture change is the CEO

“The biggest single factor is the CEO.  If they have the passion, if they stay the course, culture change will work. Typically, if there are problems, it may have [been] the result of a change in a CEO mid-stream or a CEO with not enough commitment for the longer term to make culture change happen. That’s rare because what’s interesting about this system is that it’s a pull system versus a push system. Most people would rather live up the Mood Elevator.”

Insight #11: It’s critical to have sufficient energy, momentum and mass

“The first misconception is that it takes a lot of time to change a culture. What’s interesting is that the biggest criticism I get from CEOs is, ‘Why didn’t you talk me into doing this sooner?’ I was talking to one the other day who said, ‘Gosh, it just seems like too big an undertaking.’ I explained that culture is not another initiative. Culture is the enabler of all initiatives. Once you begin to get it right, then decisions flow faster, and ideas flow better to make it happen. So, it does need to start with a serious commitment with the senior team in the organization, and those leaders need to show up differently. People need to say, ‘What’s going on up there; why are they talking to me differently? Why are they coaching me now when they didn’t used to do that?’ ’’

Insights #12: Leaders must be curious. It supports a growth mindset which creates more innovation and agility.

“At no time in our history has there been [a greater] need to be able to be agile because we don’t know exactly what’s coming at us. We don’t know where the next Uber is. We don’t know. Unless  your organization can read the signs, and adjust quickly, it may not survive. One of the biggest things our clients are asking us for is to help us be more agile and innovative.

There’s a state at the middle level on the Mood Elevator… curious. Curious is a very powerful level because if someone does something you don’t understand, you either go to judgment or curiosity.  If you live at curiosity, then that creates a growth mind-set, which creates more innovation and agility.”

What troubles Larry Senn most about the state of culture in organizations?

“What troubles me most is that people aren’t going about it comprehensively enough. It’s like everybody says they’re in the culture business no matter what they do.  And everybody has a little piece of culture, but it’s the kind of thing where you have to really hit the culture with critical mass; you can’t just go around the edges. I think people are not taking on culture holistically enough, and they’re also trying to do it intellectually. People can define culture, and they can measure culture, but the biggest reason cultures can’t change is that they can’t change the behaviors of people.  Unless you really have some kind of process that creates these deeper-level commitments to life change in people, you’re not going to get the best culture.”

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 Inc.com. 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.