Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

“Your culture is a competitive strategy – treat it that way” . Guest Post Mona Mitchell (“Culture eats Strategy” series Part 5)

Here’s another powerful voice from the “Culture eats Strategy” discussion currently running on LinkedIn in the Group Strategic Leadership Forum.  This one is from Mona Mitchell, CEO, Achieveblue Corporation.

I believe we must apply the same rigor to our culture strategy and development as we do to other core strategies.

Culture must be defined and measured, and continual improvement plans must be developed with the same degree of analysis, action planning and introspection as any other core strategy.

I believe that culture is not something that can be left for leaders to talk about in their annual report or trotted out for at town halls to the troops. It should not be a vague statement of nice words. You have to identify what is the Ideal culture required when you are defining your strategy and this must be done by the executive team. It might have some visionary titles but its components must be easily defined, understood and measured. It should be put in the context of the organization’s vision, values and strategies so that all can understand expectations at all levels of the organizations .

You should always have a measure of culture and once you understand the Actual operating culture against the Ideal, like any strategic process, there must be a strategy to close the gap. And this strategy must be as explicit as any strategy in the organization with accountabilities clearly defined and measurements in place.

This strategy can have and should have financial paybacks. These paybacks should be measured against other strategies.

Certainly the actions of an organization’s leaders will have a great impact in creating the climate that fosters the ideal culture. Many, when faced with the measurements and feedback, will understand how their own actions have created both the positive and negative aspects of the current culture, perhaps inadvertently.

If strategy is not deployed and you have a great understanding of your current culture, other structural issues can be identified which when addressed will substantially enhance the formation of an Ideal culture. These may be in areas such as physical or technological infrastructure; company business processes and policies; metrics or perhaps areas such as compensation and incentives. Again through prioritization and cost benefit analysis, we can identify those initiatives which can have the biggest benefit to our overall corporate success.

Mona is the President and CEO of Achieveblue Corporation, an organization focussed on growing and building vibrant organizational cultures. Mona is on LinkedIn here.

If you are interested in creating a “culture of change” – a “nimble” organization (“one that has a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while continually delivering high performance”) – check out a few posts from the master of change, Daryl Conner, here.  

And, if you would like to discuss strategy execution approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies, it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

Most posts coming on this topic – subscribe above left so you don’t miss any.

Related Posts:

“Breakfast for four” guest post Garrett Gitchell (“Culture eats Strategy for breakfast” series Part 4)

This is the third guest post in the summer series “Culture eats Strategy”. This one is from an experienced change management leader, Garrett Gitchell President of Vision to Work, Inc.  One of the things I have come to respect, and look forward to, in Garrett’s perspectives, is his willingness to poke the elephant in the room.

Culture, according to Webster, is:

“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

 Strategy gives us a choice between: a battle definition, an evolutionary meaning or one which uses “stratagems” in its wording- denoting schemes, tricks and artifices of deception.

Breakfast just got interesting.

Culture develops with time.

 Inputs tweak culture (in the corporate sense, think M & A). With the tweaks new culture appears. Culture, despite ‘group think’ to the contrary, is malleable. In fact it is influencable. For example, in the change arena, adding social media or video conferencing can change the way people interact (which influences attitudes and values). 

In an opposite sense, taking something away can also form new culture. Best example? Consider the outcomes when a founder CEO retires.  Now think of the culture that would result from the removal (not replacement) of a performance management system. People would actually be free to work together toward goals. 

Culture does not challenge change. People do. They do it because structure and process give them the opportunity to. Done enough times that challenging becomes cultural. (Models and approaches to change that acknowledge challenge and resistance to specific change as commonplace do not help). Resistance is, in fact, one way TO change culture. Can you really be sure resistance is because of a specific change? Perhaps change is just the catalyst for calling out poor structure or process?

 Add strategy to the mix.

 Now we can do battle, evolve or craft a sneaky move to end states (the outcome of the strategy/vision- defined and described through the perspectives of different stakeholders).

 End states, our chance to add some civility to this meal.

 End states show what is missing and what can be carried forward (skills, competencies, people and yes culture) and what needs to be added and/or developed (same list). By extension a good strategy must determine what the culture would be for that end state. If it is not the same as the present (hint: of course it is not- disturbing the status quo IS change) then some inputs may be needed to mold new culture.

 Good strategy, especially for big change, can effectively eliminate culture (as it was).

 Of course the CURRENT culture will challenge any change in some way. That current culture, because of the challenge, will begin to change and adapt.

 Go back up to our culture definition, it is “practices” that will get in the way of strategy. A few practices that I find hard to define as culture anymore since they are so common:

  • Buck passing
  • Organic decision making
  • Selfish approaches to task accomplishments
  • Committees
  • Multiple levels of approval

 People, like culture, can be surprisingly flexible, strategy is at the beginning so can be defined.

Beware the elephants in the room- structure and process.  They frequently take their breakfast of strategy and culture. Culture is the result of the two (so tweaking either will change culture) and strategy needs all three- structure, process and culture- to succeed (plus people of course).

 Our guests, structure and process, should perhaps receive a little more attention at this breakfast.

Garrett is an outstanding speaker and consultant.  He runs his own firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, Vision to Work, and also writes a blog challenging us all to think differently about issues around change – More about Garrett on his website and blog here and you can find Garrett on LinkedIn here.

If you have a Strategy that is a business imperative and would like to discuss the approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

More posts coming on this topic – subscribe above left so you don’t miss any.

Related Posts:

Call to Leaders re strategies too important to fail – the biggest risk (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second post exploring the role of leaders in transformational strategy execution.  It is not the only risk, but it is the biggest risk.  Being a great leader is NOT a ‘gimme’ for being a great sponsor.  What do great sponsors do differently?

Reason for hope – great leaders are great learners

We have phenomenal leaders on this continent, and leaders-in-waiting ready to step up.  The first step towards a successful execution is to find the leader who is first prepared to learn how to be a great sponsor in this new world order.

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself” (Socrates)

Do you doubt that your role is so pivotal or that it is so different than yesterday?  The findings of almost every survey (from McKinsey to the Project Management Institute to Prosci’s ‘best practices’), states leadership is the number 1 success factor in the implementation of transformational change.  

And yet few leaders ramp up for this very different kind of change.  Transformational change is rare.  Few leaders spend their careers implementing such complex change.

In fact most leaders come to transformational change as operational experts and change novices.  Why? Two reasons:

  1. Such change might, in fact be a once in a career or once in a decade challenge
  2. Being a great Sponsor is NOT the same as being a great leader  

The single biggest risk to project success is the leader who underestimates his / her role and what must be done differently.

Most organizations have support groups, internal consulting divisions and Program Management Offices, very familiar with transactional change and who are eager to support.  That is a great base.   

Together we ask leaders:  are you ready to explore what it means to be a great sponsor of transformational change?  This will change the way we operate together and it will change the results we can achieve together.

What does it take to be a great Sponsor – a Change Leader?

Over 37 years Conner Partners has studied organizational change and has identified the characteristics of “winners” and “losers”.  This research is updated constantly (the latest version of the Change Execution Methodology was released last month).  BTW, the biggest change is still an opportunity for many organizations – integrating strategic alignment, people change management and project management.  And, this is not answered by installing a PMO.

What does the research say are the most important characteristics of great sponsors?  Here are a  couple of examples quoted directly from “How to be an Effective Sponsor of Major Organizational Change”:

  • Human impact of the change: The small movements of big wheels at the top of the company often translate into frantic movements for smaller wheels down in the organization. Sponsors who succeed understand how many people and groups will be affected by a change throughout their organization—they can appreciate the impact of their decisions on those employees.
  • Nature of resistance: Resistance can be a key barrier to the realization of a major change initiative. Successful sponsors deal effectively with the nature and intensity of resistance as the project is implemented.
  • Scope of the change: A major change can have a far-reaching impact on an organization that is both obvious and subtle. And some of these effects can lead to resistance, which could seriously impede implementation if they go undetected and/or are misunderstood. Productive sponsors identify the full range of implications for all their change decisions.
  • Change inhibitors: Sponsors who triumph during change proactively identify potential change inhibitors. To the greatest extent possible, they recognize and eliminate possible barriers before they become a threat to the project’s realization. Barriers that can’t be avoided are contained and managed.
  • Managing capacity: Change implementation sometimes creates unanticipated drains on the change capacity of those most affected by an initiative. Successful sponsors maintain a vigilance on any remaining capacity throughout the implementation process and take corrective action as required.
  • Commitment to sacrifice: Major change often requires a personal and/or political price for those who play the sponsor’s role. The productive sponsor understands that the costs for success are real and leads the way in paying them. He or she thereby establishes an understanding throughout the organization that sacrifice will be required when the price of failure is prohibitive.

The full list can be referenced on the website (behind the registration page here) and there’s also some great information on role definitions and cascading sponsorship structures.

None of these are as simple as they seem – it is the experienced judgement on the fly that makes the difference from good to great.  And that’s why Fortune 100 organizations retain external support on mission critical business imperatives.

Ready to contract for a great “Sponsor-Agent Relationship”? Check out Daryl’s series here on his ChangeThinking blog (tip: there’s a great free download of a tool we use in the first post). 

What’s next?

Sponsorship is not the only risk to strategy execution.  Over the next couple of months, I will come back to review other challenges, such as:

  • How to engage the passion of your people in authentic and meaningful ways
  • Organizing chaos and the anomalies of the phrasing ‘change management’
  • The horrors of overcoming a silo-driven culture that operates in the best interests of the whole organization

Curious? Interested? Subscribe above left. 

If you would like to discuss strategy execution approaches we have implemented successfully for other Fortune 100 companies it would be a pleasure to connect – you can reach me at

Related posts:

Call to Leaders re strategies too important to fail – the biggest risk (Part 1 of 2)