12 Insights About Culture Change From a Workplace Culture Pioneer

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Aug 18, 2016

Note: Today, TLNT features the first part of an interview with Larry Senn, one of the pioneers in the field of organizational culture and culture change. His USC doctoral dissertation, “Organizational Character as a Tool in the Analysis of Business Organizations,” was the first field study of corporate culture in America. Part two will appear Friday.

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 insurmountable 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, where he provides regular insights on best practices in culture change as one of our esteemed faculty members. 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 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.”

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: Creating a “one company” culture

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, Create your 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 at the top

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 thinking and behavior

The 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… 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.”

This interview originally appeared on Culture University.