Monthly Archives: October 2015

Connecting the culture

Stillwater bridgePolicies, procedures, rules, hierarchies and roles are the pylons or framework of organizational culture but you, the leader, provide the human element connecting your people to the structure. Like the incomplete Stillwater bridge, until you connect the individual pylons with your day to day actions, the culture won’t help them get to where they need to be.

Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen, authors of Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, state it this way; “it is the human interaction within these structures – our emotional connections – that determines its (culture) effectiveness.”

I experienced a powerful example of this last week at the MnSCU annual orientation program for our new senior leaders. Chancellor Rosenstone was describing the challenges our system faces and our strategic framework and Charting the Future next steps. What made it real for me was when he added the human element. He reminded us of the difference each one of us can make in the lives of our students. He highlighted a core belief that all Minnesotans deserve an opportunity to improve their lives and he challenged each of us to take on the responsibility to bring that value to life in our day to day work! It sent chills down my back.

Coffman and Sorensen encourage leaders to serve as the translators, connectors and catalysts of culture. Adding the human element can make your culture inspiring!





Todd Thorsgaard


Changing culture the hard way

Today is Columbus Day in the U.S.  A quick check of the internet will yield a multitude of opinions about the wisdom of that selection. While Columbus certainly impacted the culture of the places he visited, there are many arguments about the impact of the change, for good or ill.

This got me thinking about what impact we, as leaders, leave on the organizations we are involved with. What does it look like to take a risk in the name of changing a culture?  We have many well-known examples, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here are a couple you may not have heard of:

casasBartolomé de las Casas – Also an explorer of the New World around the time of Columbus, his life took a very different turn. After initially profiting from exploitation of Native Americans, he had a change of heart, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting exploitation and advocating on their behalf.

San JosePeter Norman – This Australian athlete won second place in the 200 meters event during the 1968 Olympics. That put him on the podium as the “third man” in the historic protest that was part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. By deliberately choosing to side with the two African-American runners, he took a stand for culture change that eventually resulted in losing the opportunity to compete in future Olympic games. He died in 2006, and his Olympic podium mates served as pallbearers. In 2012 the Australian government formally apologized for denying him future opportunities to compete at the Olympic level.

Bartolomé de las Casas gave up a life of wealth and luxury. Peter Norman never learned how far his competitive career might have gone – and he made his choices out of the limelight, not receiving recognition such as being on the commemorative statue at San Jose State University. They both made personal sacrifices, and left a legacy of changing culture for the better.

As a leader, your behavior will change the cultures you are part of. What kind of legacy do you want to leave, and what choices might you need to make to do it?

— Dee Anne Bonebright

Painting the roses

paint the rosesAnita pointed out in her last post that influencing organizational culture is a challenge for many leaders. Changing an organization’s culture is even more challenging. As Alice in Wonderland found out, it’s easy to paint the roses, but it’s much harder to make it stick.

Steve Denning from Forbes observed that single-strategy approaches such as adding a new processes or implementing quality improvement rarely result in lasting change. He provided a useful model describing three kinds of tools leaders can use to change culture:  power tools that rely on intimidation, management tools that provide structure and information, and leadership tools that inspire.

Denning recommends beginning culture change with leadership tools such as vision setting and story telling.  This should be supported by strategic management tools to solidify the change. Power tools, including widespread staffing changes and top-down reorganizations, should be used later in the process, if at all.

The Wall Street Journal provided additional tips for leading organizational change:

  1. Identify and start with people who have strong influence on the current culture
  2. Help people personally experience the realities that make the change necessary
  3. Focus on activities that require few resources and will make a big difference
  4. Engage employees by finding new ways to use their strengths and providing new options for collaboration

How have you seen leaders create culture change that went beyond painting the roses to result in lasting difference?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Shifting sands

time exposure of waves hitting shore

“Everything was working yesterday!”

The harsh reality is that often, as soon as you understand the culture you are in and are aligned with it, it shifts! Suddenly your leadership behaviors may not work as well as they did in the past. The on-going transitions that higher education, and all industries, are experiencing leads to continual shifts in culture. Your effectiveness as a leader depends on how quickly you recognize these shifts and how you adapt your leadership style and actions.

Peter Daly and Michael Watkins, authors of the First 90 Days books, have developed a framework that can help leaders understand the shifting cultures. Their transition assessment model identifies four common situations that exist in organizations, the related cultural implications, and potential leadership actions that are aligned with the culture.

  1. Start-ups: This occurs during times of new priorities, new programs or restructuring.
    • The culture is one of confusion.
    • Key leadership actions focus on providing clarity and direction.
  2. Turnarounds: This occurs when there has been a major set-back or shake-up.
    • The culture is one of despair.
    • Key leadership actions are to provide support and hope.
  3. Realignments: This occurs when priorities are shifting or there are predictable and expected changes happening.
    • The culture is one of denial or lack of awareness.
    • Key leadership actions are to expose reality and highlight the urgency of the situation.
  4. Sustaining Success: This occurs when “things are working” and results are strong.
    • The culture can slip into complacency.
    • Key leadership actions focus on continual development, reinforcing success and active searching for new opportunities.

The sands of culture are constantly shifting and require leaders to strategically assess and respond to leverage the best of their people.

Todd Thorsgaard

Defining and influencing culture

Many people agree that 1) organizational culture exists and 2) it can either be a great hindrance or an amazing competitive advantage in executing strategy. However, not everyone agrees on the definition of culture.

Here is a concise definition from HR expert Susan Heathfield, that I’d like to share with you:

“Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people. Culture is the behavior that results when a group arrives at a set of-generally unspoken and unwritten-rules for working together.”

culture strategyWhile leaders can greatly influence culture, they can’t change the culture on demand, since it is made up of many micro-cultures and represents all of the people in an organization. In their book, Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen tell story after story where leaders failed in organizations, because they weren’t attuned to the organizational culture. Rather than working with the culture, they implemented strategies that went against the shared values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and behaviors held by people in the organization and failed.  If you’ve been in the workplace for any length of time, I’m sure you can count several examples of new leaders who had difficulty implementing new strategy precisely because those changes didn’t take the culture into account.

Coffman and Sorensen encourage leaders to: “be active owners of the cultures to which we belong to draw out the best of the cultures’ qualities and align them to our business imperatives.” In order to do this, they challenge all leaders to:

  • Ignite the passion in ourselves and our people
  • Connect our people to each other, our mission, and purpose
  • Revitalize our cultures as a competitive advantage for our organizations

How have you leveraged the best in your organizational culture to execute strategy? And what advice can you give to other leaders who feel hindered by their organizational culture?

Anita Rios



Culture eats strategy…

Culture-eats-strategyCulture eats strategy for breakfast.
— Peter Drucker

…and for lunch.
— Coffman and Sorensen

Versions of Drucker’s quote have been circulating since before there was an Internet. What makes it resonate with our experience as leaders? This month we’ll be exploring challenges associated with shaping organizational culture.

The Strategy& company defines culture as an organization’s “self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing.”  Partners Jon Katzenbach and Paul Lienwald  recently hosted a webinar on organizational strategy and culture.  They identified a “crisis in strategy” caused when organizations take too many approaches at the same time, leading to lack of staff and leadership confidence in organizational direction.

To resolve this issue, they point out that leaders must understand an organization’s strengths and its culture in order to:

  • Choose a strategy that fits the culture
  • Leverage cultural strengths to enable transformation
  • Balance cultural weaknesses

How would you define your organization’s culture? How can you work within and outside of the culture to build effective strategy?

Dee Anne Bonebright