The Four Culture-Shaping Principles to Shift a Culture

Guidance from Bill Parsons of Senn Delaney

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Bill Parsons

As the first culture-shaping consulting firm, Senn Delaney has quite literally made organizational culture its business. Larry Senn and his colleagues, including partner and executive vice president Bill Parsons, have brought their mission of “creating healthy, high-performance cultures” to more than 500 companies. Bill shared some of the knowledge they’ve gathered over their 38 years of experience at the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference—including the four principles that must be upheld to really shape culture and improve performance.

#1: Purposeful Leadership from the Top
When deciding to launch a culture initiative, many organizations hand the reins over to human resources. In Bill’s experience, if culture change is viewed primarily as an HR initiative, it’s doomed. This is not necessarily due to any failings on the part of HR departments, however. In order to succeed and not be seen as “just another program” that won’t really make a difference, culture change must have full and ongoing support from the company’s senior leadership team. “What we have found is the CEO and the C-suite need to lead and champion the culture shift,” said Bill. “It has to absolutely happen. It’s a business imperative—it is not an initiative.”

Hear Bill Parsons talk about the importance of purposeful leadership to culture change in this clip from his presentation at the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. Subscribe to ConstructiveCulture.com at our video library to view his full presentation and others from the conference.

Bill applied these best practices with a client experiencing marked growth through an acquisition, recounting an early conversation with the CEO: “What he finally said to me was, ‘What’s the most critical element in this?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘You. You’ve been the chief investment officer in this holding company. Now you need to be the chief culture officer here.’” The desired outcomes cannot be achieved without willingness from the top levels of the organization to fully commit to the change process.

#2: Personal Change
The onus doesn’t just fall on the senior leadership team. To be successful, everyone has to “live the change.” Relying on an intellectual approach, with the focus on the reasons for wanting to change, will only result in short-term compliance. “Changing what people do is not enough,” Bill said. “It has to be about who they are as people.” Senn Delaney uses inside-out learning to inspire change at a deeper level:

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Bill continued, “We’re not telling them how they’re supposed to be; we’re giving them insight into a self-selection that they need to make about a shift that would align with the culture. When they can take these principles and look at them from not only how they are at work but how they are at home—in their personal life, in their family life—that makes all the difference in the world, because they’re going to get congruence with who they are out of this.” This transformative approach personalizes the change process and enhances self-awareness and personal growth.

#3: Broad Engagement
One of the things that makes Senn Delaney’s inside-out learning approach successful is that it is infinitely scalable. The development program “touches” every single person in the organization, from the CEO to the front line—which is critical for widespread acceptance. “Cultures tend to resist what they need the most,” said Bill. “It’s almost like we have an organ in our body that needs to be transplanted and the body is going to tend to reject it; cultures do the same exact thing. So, if you want to be innovative they’re going to try to maintain status quo. You can’t change or shift the culture to drive this change by only dealing with 100 people or 200 people.”

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Senn Delaney utilizes a transfer of competency process that trains change agents to turn the initiative over to the people managers. The managers then distill it down to their teams, leading monthly “Culture Conversations” to help them apply the culture to what they do. This broad engagement helps in achieving change across the organization by ensuring that everyone engages in the process and understands their role in the culture.

#4: Focused Sustainability
Once organizational members buy into the need for change, it’s relatively easy to get them on board for a brief period and build momentum and excitement at the outset. The real challenge comes with sustaining energy and effort over the extended period required to realize meaningful change. “It’s easy to get somebody committed for a year, but I’m telling them five years,” Bill explained. “Once your attention wanes, [the change] is going to die because habits are very powerful.” Maintaining the culture shift requires constant attention and reinforcement to prevent old habits from returning and undoing the hard-earned progress.

To keep the focus on culture, Senn Delaney recommends having a cultural leadership team that aligns all the internal systems, primarily human resources systems, to make sure they reinforce the message and the desired culture. They also ask their clients to commit to annual action plans, as well as keeping everyone informed of the organization’s progress to celebrate successes and learn from what’s not working. Continually guiding, supporting, and reinforcing the culture shift helps to keep the change alive and allows the organization to constantly evolve its culture over time.

Culture’s Moment in Time
Culture is having a moment, and rightfully so, as Bill pointed out: “Culture is the most effective vehicle to energize the large-scale change that’s necessary to position a company to thrive.” The four principles he shared—purposeful leadership, personal change, broad engagement, and focused sustainability—can help organizations ensure that culture stays top-of-mind for more than just a moment.

Special Opportunity: Gain related insights and more from Senn Delaney CEO, Mike Marino, who will be facilitating an experiential workshop titled, Culture as an Accelerator to Performance, at the 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference.

About Meghan Oliver

Meghan Oliver has spent nine years in the field of workplace culture and leadership as a member of the Human Synergistics team. She specializes in documenting the change journeys of organizations across industries, as well as helping others understand Human Synergistics' processes and change solutions. Meghan also manages the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, which brings hundreds of culture champions together to connect and learn from culture and leadership innovators. Her work has been featured by Nonprofit World, Switch+Shift, and PsychCentral.

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