Culture Pioneers, Progressive Leaders and their Insights on Culture

Culture Pioneers, Progressive Leaders and their Insights on Culture

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. said, “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” So, when an opportunity presents itself to learn from those who have repeatedly and successfully managed the culture journey, it’s imperative to take the leap. I shared this post previously on and offer it here to ensure these vital insights reach those who, like me, care deeply about workplace culture and effective change.

It’s essential for leaders and change agents to learn from the culture pioneers and experts in this evolving field. Human Synergistics convenes an Ultimate Culture Conference to bring visibility to important insights from culture trailblazers and progressive leaders. If you’re able to attend this forum, make sure you do—you’ll be glad you did. The insights you gain may be worth a life’s experience. Let’s get started.

Do you fully understand your culture and how it’s impacting performance? Are you managing a clear journey to effectively evolve your culture with a direct and sustainable impact on performance? There aren’t many leaders that can confidently answer “yes” to these two questions. We see culture tips and advice at every turn that range from superficial to endlessly complicated. If you are like me, it’s hard to understand what to believe.

The following culture insights made an impact with a passionate audience of culture champions and change agents at the 2016 Ultimate Culture Conference:

Most organizations are being disrupted and culture has become a business imperative

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, fascinated the crowd with his interesting perspectives on culture. He believes we are hearing about culture all the time because “organizations are all going through disruptions.” He continued, “Organizations have technology challenges in their products and services; we should reinvent them for the digital world.” He referenced CEO research coordinated with MIT where “90% of respondents said that their business model is being disrupted by some form of digital disruptor; 70% of them also said ‘I don’t have the right people in the company, I don’t have the right leaders, and I don’t have the right skills.’”1

A Network of Teams

We are especially aware of our culture when we need to adapt or change. Our world is growing in complexity. The need for rapid change and adaptation is clear, but most leaders don’t understand how culture is driving the behavior they see in their organization and the related outcomes.

Define a common language and measurement for culture and climate

Robert Cooke

Robert Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics, shared this important insight: “We all view the subject of culture from our own perspective, and the word has nearly lost its meaning.” Rob believes a language for culture and its measurement is important because it gives people a way to organize their thoughts around the concept. “I decided to focus on behavioral norms because, even though they are somewhat invisible, they are the more visible aspects of culture when you define it in terms of assumptions, beliefs, values and the like,” he said. These norms or “unwritten rules” are completely overlooked in most assessments and change efforts.

How Culture Works Model

Norms and expectations within an organization are not necessarily driven by the mission, stated values, and what leaders say they want. “Day-to-day norms are instead driven by what people experience around them,” Rob explained. That includes what people experience in terms of structures, systems, technology (especially social aspects like job design), and the skills and qualities of others, including their managers. In many cases, these aspects of the work climate (which we call “levers for change”) fail to communicate or support the desired Constructive norms and expectations—instead, they drive Defensive behaviors, both Aggressive and Passive.2

So how do you begin to define a common language and measurement? This brings us to the third insight.

Combine qualitative and quantitative assessment methods

Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein, of The Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute and Professor Emeritus at MIT, emphasized the value of combining qualitative and quantitative methods in a specific order. “The qualitative has to come up front: What are you trying to do? What problem are you trying to solve?” Ed urged change agents to develop a personal “Level Two relationship” and understand what leaders are trying to do. It may then be “entirely appropriate to utilize a measurement tool.”

Ed explained, “the advantage of the quantitative is you can deal with large numbers and compare them and look at trends over time. For that purpose, the qualitative isn’t very helpful.” After quantitative analysis, “we have to go back to qualitative because a program of actually intervening in the organization is not going to fly out of the numbers. The numbers will only tell you roughly where you have to work and the direction in which you have to go. The steps of the intervention, what you’re actually going to do day-by-day, is going to be a qualitative process because that organization will have all kinds of unique aspects that the quantitative doesn’t pick up.”

Ed also talked about the “quick and dirty” assessments that have emerged in the marketplace. He encouraged change agents to understand what’s going on with the leader and why speed is so important to them. Find out what’s worrying them and why they won’t consider a more intensive and revealing probe.

Leadership must get ahead of the curve and make bold decisions to evolve the culture

Jon Wolske

This insight came from an important source: Zappos. They have been a poster child in the world of culture for more than a decade. Jon Wolske, a workplace culture specialist who held key roles at Zappos Insights most notably as a Culture Evangelist, shared how the organization grew and had slipped into the typical organizational structure based on a “command and control” model. Decisions were made at the top, leaving the people doing the work without a say in how things were done. “For years and years and years we have been working top-down, and people are just starting to realize, wait a minute, what if working top-down isn’t working?” Jon said. “And so, on the bigger picture of organizational structure, somebody is going to figure out what’s next and then all those old-school businesses are going to be left in the dust.”

Tony Hsieh made a bold decision to deliver “WOW” through service with a move toward self-management. I am not raising this point to encourage others to make a similar leap because most organizations don’t have the customer-focused culture foundation of Zappos. I am raising it because even iconic culture companies realize culture is a dynamic thing that must evolve. Learn from their lead and change before you must. How are you intentionally evolving your culture to support your purpose and performance priorities? What bold decisions have you made to engage members throughout your organization in that journey?

Zappos Wow Service

I recently toured Zappos and was amazed by how “WOW” service was being genuinely reinforced in literally countless ways that leaders could never directly manage. It is possible to preserve important cultural strengths while collectively engaging your organization to take the next major step. There are no guarantees, but a collective journey is far better than standing still or trying to manage improvements through command and control.

Diversity and inclusion are important factors to make better decisions that support the business strategy

Julius Pryor III

Leaders must make the bold decision to evolve the culture, but that doesn’t mean they make all the decisions about what that evolution will look like. Diversity and inclusion are critical. We convened a diversity and inclusion panel at the conference to probe this important topic.

Julius Pryor III, a diversity and inclusion expert who has held related roles with Genentech and P&G, shared some very important insights about their work to deal with the most difficult diseases in the world. He explained, “ultimately this is supposed to not only help us leverage and drive all of the things about creative thinking, innovation, how we develop molecules; it’s supposed to allow us to make better decisions about everything—not just how we hire, develop, promote, retain, do succession planning, not just about how we talk to people about unconscious biases—but ultimately how we develop molecules, how we actually move ideas across lines of demarcation.”

He discussed how Blockbuster and Nokia were completely disrupted by major competitors. Julius continued, “we need to be sure that we are managing and leveraging diversity and inclusion in ways that make sense for our organization, for our enterprise, and we need to be sure that the things that we’re doing are actually connected to the long-term strategy of the organization and that they’re driving clear and realistic results for us.”

Consistent involvement and encouragement are critical for connecting all team members to the improvement journey and to make better decisions as a team.

Two important additional insights to tie it all together

It may be difficult for leaders to apply the insights above (and others) in ways that clearly deliver business results and, ultimately, evolve their culture. Thus, it’s important to understand two additional insights from culture pioneers.

Edgar Schein has emphasized that “culture builds through shared learning and mutual experience.” It’s a group thing, so it’s critical to engage leadership and all team members on a common journey to accelerate learning and deliver results.

Rob Cooke has highlighted that “culture is transmitted through climate factors and behavioral norms.” The current culture is reinforced in countless ways leadership does not fully understand, so that’s why a thorough assessment and thoughtful improvement plan are needed.

To apply these insights, you should engage your organization in a common journey to evolve your culture AND climate in an integrated way that supports your purpose and performance priorities. Follow these general guidelines:

  1. Focus your efforts on specific problems or outcomes you need to improve. The focus on clear priorities (customer experience, growth, quality, etc.) will allow you to facilitate improvements faster than general “culture plans” and the connection to performance is clear. The entire team will learn from the focused work together and those learnings will naturally be applied to other problems and targeted outcomes.
  2. Understand how culture and climate are impacting work on the priorities you select through a thorough qualitative and quantitative assessment. This isn’t a “quick and dirty” assessment, but rather a full MRI to understand the shift in norms and underlying assumptions that are needed in your culture. You will also identify the climate factors (systems, structures, etc.) that are causing these cultural attributes to be so deeply entrenched.
  3. Make a bold decision to engage members of your organization in a common journey to adjust current strategies and plans for the areas you target in number 1 above. Don’t create a separate culture plan. Adjust how you engage leadership and the broader organization in improvement plans so you overcome major cultural obstacles and effectively leverage Constructive aspects of your culture.
  4. Help leaders and managers at all levels understand how their behavior is reinforcing the current culture. Top leaders must go first to learn about this impact and adjust their approach because the “shadow of a leader” is incredibly influential.
  5. Intentionally re-engage groups in meaningful ways at defined periods to adjust plans, accelerate results, and drive learning across the entire team.

Most organizations can effectively cover numbers 1 through 3 in as little as 8-12 weeks. Launching the improved engagement and collective problem-solving approach isn’t easy, but it can be managed in a relatively short period. Leaders inevitably find out why their “hidden organization” is so deeply entrenched and how their own behavior is reinforcing the current state. Numbers 3 and 4 require an ongoing commitment to an individual and collective learning journey to support your purpose, strategy, and performance priorities.

Don’t depend on only your current knowledge about culture to manage this important journey. Ignore the superficial, oversimplified solutions that dominate most blogs and the popular press. Seek out other ultimate culture insights from pioneers and experts who have repeatedly and successfully managed this journey. Learn from their experience and do something that is serious, diligent, and impactful as you support your purpose, collectively solve problems, improve performance and, ultimately, evolve your culture. 


1 Bersin, Josh. “Digital Leadership Is Not an Optional Part of Being a CEO.” Harvard Business Review, 10 Dec. 16. Web.

2 Cooke, R. A. and Szumal, J. L. (2000). “Using the Organizational Culture Inventory to understand the operating cultures of organizations.” In Neal M. Ashkanasy, Celeste P.M. Wilderom, Mark F. Peterson (eds.), The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, pp. 147-162.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Copyright © 2017 by Human Synergistics International. All rights reserved.

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.