Ask Me Anything about changing corporate culture

Phil La Duke
Oct 11, 2017

Culture change is all the rage in business now, but scarce few truly understand the difference between changing a culture (how people think, act, and make decisions based on corporate values) and changing a climate (a dramatic but short-lived changed that as soon as the impetus for change is removed the organization quickly reverts to it's former state).  Ask me anything about effecting real, sustainable change.


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Oct 11, 8:40PM EDT0

I did. But I don't have any questions about public schools

Oct 12, 6:17AM EDT0

Do you think is a good idea on changing coporate culture

Oct 11, 11:57AM EDT0

Thanks for your question. I think you might have a typo there, but I THINK you're asking me if I think that it is a good idea to change corporate culture.  That's a bit like asking if it is a good idea to buy a new car.  If you have a car that is running well and is reliable and you like it than why take on the additional expense of buying a different one.  Corporate cultures need to change when the culture is misaligned with a company's values.  I know plenty of companies who SAY they value worker safety and yet continue seriously injuring or even killing workers without giving it much thought.  A company's values are central to its culture and if the values written on posters hanging on the wall are different than the ones practiced in the halls then there is a real problem and it's a good idea to change.  A company may also have to change its culture as its customer mix changes, when the link between aspirin and Reyes syndrome was discovered it left St. Joseph's Children's aspirin in a real mess---essentially the perception was that the product was poisonous.  Wisely when the link between heart health and low dose aspirin was discovered the company changed with it.  I don't know for sure, but I suspect that took a great deal of culture changed.  Does that answer your question?

Last edited @ Oct 12, 1:29PM EDT.
Oct 11, 5:06PM EDT0

Do you think social gatherings that include coworkers family members, help to create a better enviorment for them? 

Oct 10, 9:58PM EDT0

Not really, or at least not in all cases. I remember a friend of mine complaining that she felt as if her employer was trying to control ever facet of her life after she skipped a team canoe trip on a Saturday.  It was unpaid, she hated canoing and saw no tangible benefits for participating.  I have seen non-drinkers feel alienated by social events where alcohol is servered.  The gist of it is this: some people LOVE these events and others hate them.  Some social gatherings make other feel like they are revealing personal details about themselves that is none of the company's business (if they are gay, divorcing, single, or a family member is seriously ill.)  As much as we have blurred the lines between home life and work life, personally I think these events are often more destructive than constructive.  Having said that I enjoy and attend work social events.

Oct 11, 7:38AM EDT0

Do you think there is a difference in work ethic and attitude among younger generations?

Oct 10, 12:17AM EDT0

Yes, a profound difference, but this is nothing new.  Younger workers for as long as there have been younger workers, have many more competing priorities (friends, social life, engagements, young children, weddings, etc.) than older workers, furthermore, they are freer from mortgages, their children's school, retirement worries, giving up the sweat equity they have earned in a company, unvested pensions, etc.  So younger workers, a) tend to perceive  work as a lower priority (and working in entry level positions doesn't help that perception) and therefore aren't as likely to live to work rather than work to live and b) they have the freedom to leave a job that pays low, offers little in the way of challenge or excitement (or respect).  Combine other interests beyond work and the freedom to leave and you will have a generational gap.  Young people throughout history (even Socrates complained about them) have wanted more from life than just a job, a family, and a mortgage. As people grow older they tend to settle for less and trade passion for security.  But in a world of greedy corporations siphoning the wealth away from workers there is no such thing as security.  Frankly I am tired of people running down Millenials for doing the things the rest of us did when we were that age.  Another thing happens when you get older, you're memory isn't as sharp as it once was and therefore older worker tend to conveniently forget the embarrassing things they said and did when they were young.  There's a reason so many older workers say, if I could go back knowing what I know now...

But beyond age, as far as deep psychological differences between a Baby Boomer and a Millenial I just don't see it as much a big deal as so many others seem to.  We all want the same things, a job that challenges us, treats us with respect, values our contributions and compensates us fairly.

Oct 10, 7:46AM EDT0

What is your understanding of culture change within a business?

Oct 7, 3:50PM EDT0

I'm sorry I don't understand your question. So forgive me if I'm a bit off base but my understanding of culture change within a business, is a fundamental shift in the values, shared goals, and processes such that the organization adopts a sustained change in the way it does business.

Last edited @ Oct 9, 4:01PM EDT.
Oct 9, 5:12AM EDT0

Do you think the age of the people within an organization plays a big role in terms of work culture?

Oct 6, 10:49PM EDT0

Not as much as people would like to believe.  There's much ado about Millenials and how different they are.  They ARE different; they're younger.  Many of them are saddled with crushing student loan debt and face a delusional job market where employers mistakeningly believe that they can pay young employees subsistance wages, work them 30 hours so they don't have to pay the pitiful benefits they offer, and yet they expect them to be blindly loyal. On the other end of the spectrum we have the "on-the-job retiree" Baby Boomers complaining about how entitled this younger generation is.  But we have always had cranky old people in the workplace and young people who want more. Corporate culture isn't about age, rather, it's about the value of the people of all ages.  There are plenty of older employees who feel entitled and have a crap work ethic and plenty of young people who are hard working and really want to contribute to the company's success. So while age certainly plays a role, I don't see it playing a huge role. Others may disagree, but my experience has shown that a company's culture transcends generational differences.  Now the age of the company plays a profound role in it's culture.

Oct 9, 5:21AM EDT0

Do you believe that corporations who are more sympathetic towards families and who offer more 'freedom' to their workers have a better work climate and are therefore more successful in the long run?

Oct 5, 10:11PM EDT0

Not necessarily...there is no such thing as a single perfect corporate culture, what results in success is a culture that meets the needs of its, people, its owner/stockholders, and its customers.  Too often people at all levels forget that the purpose of a business is to survive and to do that it has to make money.  Back to your question, if you have a company that has many very family oriented people you will be more successful supporting them and offering them the freedom to take care of family things that could only be done during the work week.  If however your business is such that it requires a lot of travel or that for some other reason is by necessity "family friendly" you had better make that clear during the job interview and while it is illegal to ask questions and make hiring decisions about a candidate's family it is only fair to layout the grim reality of the job. In other words, one person's work heaven is another's work hell.

Oct 6, 6:17AM EDT0

Have you worked for many corporations and what would you personally change if you could?

Oct 5, 9:52PM EDT0

Yes, and to an organization the one thing I would change is to hire, train, and retain better managers.  In most cases the greatest dysfunction comes from middle and front-line managers.  People typically want to come to work and do a good job.  When you have managers who ignore dysfunctional behavior, back biting, childish spats, etc. it tells the organization that it's okay to behave like a spoilt child.  Spending time and money developing leadership is the best single way to improve your culture. 

Oct 6, 6:21AM EDT0

Do you believe that it is difficult to change the 'habits' of a corporation or do you think it would be achievable and how?

Oct 5, 8:05PM EDT0

Corporations don't really have "habits", they have norms.  That may seem to be a small semantic difference, but I think it's important.  Nothing about change is easy or we would all be wildly successful and happy. But certainly it is possible to change an organization's norm.  It comes back to the time tested formula of Dissatisfaction + Vision +Next Steps > resistance.  Let's take a norm from a typical company: meetings that don't start on time. It is irritating to the people who are made to wait, but probably doesn't bother the people who are late at all.  First you have to make it uncomfortable for the late comers, say by locking the door, or fining them $10 for every five minutes they are late, or whatever meaningful consequence is appropriate for your organization. Next lay out in no uncertain terms what your expectations (vision) is for success, and finally, find out why people are always late for meetings (you may have a larger organizational problem).  That is an over simplified example but all organizational norms can change but the change not changing has to be greater than the change of changing

Oct 6, 6:34AM EDT0

What is your professional background?

Oct 5, 10:39AM EDT0

I attended the University of Michigan in a curriculum that was one third adult education, one third organizational development, and one third business.  It is was a Bachelor's program that they have since turned into a Masters' program.  At the same time I was working at a large construction management company as head of training when the head of the program at U of M called and recruited me to work at a large culture transformation project at an autoplant.  It was there, working with some household names in Organizational Development that I learned a great deal about what needs to happen to create sustainable change (because let's face it, anyone can change an organizational climate but for a sustained culture change you really need to know what you are doing.) The company was so pleased they sent me to Hungary to duplicate what I (and others) had done in the U.S.  When that project completed (after about 5 years) I was recruited by a company that designed technical training for machine tool builders.  Robots were relatively knew and people were terrified of them so I spent a good deal of time developing and delivering robot safety training.  I left that job after two years because it was growing rapidly without any change management and given my background I could see the handwriting on the wall.  I accepted a horrid position that paid well but was what my office partner described as a "velvet sweatshop"; I only lasted 8 months before returning to my roots in OD and accepting a position at a global tier-1 auto supplier as head of training and development and under the tutulage of a brilliant Harvard MBA learned even MORE about organizational change, in this case taking an entrepreneurship to a professionally managed company.  It was a great experience and I worked their for nine years getting involved in virtually every major culture change (Toyota production system, focus factory, continuous improvement, et el). It was a great experience but like all good things it had to end.  The founder of the company after suffering severe depression for decades took his own life.  Soon after that I was recruited to a company engaged in one of the largest organizational changes in history, this time focusing on worker safety.  I stayed at that company helping dozens of companies to improve worker safety and save millions of dollars per site until the great recession hit.  I started my own consulting business and took a day job working in organizational change for a large Healthcare system.  It was grueling working 16 hour days but I managed.  Something had to give and that was when I was recruited to become a partner at Environmental Resources Management (ERM). I've been at ERM for 5 years working on transformational safety programs.

Oct 5, 3:24PM EDT0

What impact does hiring contract workers within a corporation have?

Oct 5, 4:42AM EDT0

There are two types of contract workers: one group are temps and are largely seen as disposible by many companies.  I have heard too many times "he wasn't one of ours" when a temp gets hurt, and it sickens me.  Temps are shown no loyalty and give no loyalty.  The other kind of contract workers are those that come in to do a specific task, do it and leave.  This can be dangerous too, because it is difficult to determine  (not legally, but organizationally) who is responsible for overseeing their work, ensuring they work safely, and generally perform at or above the level of full-time employees.

Oct 5, 7:22AM EDT0

What in your view is the biggest hurdle that corporations need to overcome in order to become more flexible?

Oct 5, 1:28AM EDT0

Corporate leaders need to recognize that the speed of business is rapidly increasing and that information comes at them much faster than it did even 10 years ago.  One simply can't gather all the information, ruminate on it, and then act.  There needs to be more of a willingness to innovate and accept that innovation is a risk.  I've run into too many C+ folks who shoot down innovations because no one else is doing it.

Oct 5, 7:17AM EDT0

How big of a problem in your view is a strict hierarchy within the workplace?

Oct 4, 1:54PM EDT0

That depends on the industry and the consistancy.  Some industries, like healthcare and the nuclear industry don't lend themselves to a highly matrixed organization---you don't want people asking their functional manager a question in an attempt to get a different answer than one given to them by their project manager. A strict hierachy in itself isn't evil or destructive, but it does require a lot more performance management to avoid some idiot middle manager gumming up the work.  I hate bureacracy but one man's bureacracy is another's checks and balances.  Frankly when it comes to changing an organization my experiece has shown me that a strict hiearchy is a good thing, not a problem.

Oct 5, 7:14AM EDT0

What do you think about the old saying "If you pay peanuts you get monkeys"? Do you think that still applies to some corporations and therefore stifles the attitude of the workers?

Oct 4, 7:30AM EDT0

I don't think that low pay necessarily means low skills or low worth.  I know many people who are excellent at their jobs who earn low wages and are happy about it.  Second income earners, retirees, and some people who are content with less materialism in their lives.  I do however think that if you treat your workers like they are liars, thieves, and idiots you will end up with liars cheats and idiots.  It's not that people will suddenly become something they're not, it's the people who aren't liars, cheats, and thieves will leave the company and the only ones who will stay are the dreggs.  I made a speech years ago at a conference; it's title was You Get What You Put Up With.  I really believe that from the CEO to the guy emptying wastebaskets you get the performance you expect and demand.  Respect is more important than money and unfortunately there are far too many companies who whine that "we can't find any good workers" even companies who pay a competitive wage.  I think the saying is indirectly correct, in that the best measure of how much our company values us and what we do is how much they pay us to do it.  Thanks for all the blue ribbons boss, but I gotta eat.

Oct 4, 8:01AM EDT0

Do you believe that incentives and promoting teamwork promotes a healthier business atmosphere?

Oct 3, 9:20PM EDT0

I'm going to give you an answer I hate giving or receiving...it depends.  I think empowered workers don't need any more incentive to do good work beyond the feedback that they do good work and in some cases, safety incentives for example, the incentive can have the opposite of its intended effect.  Promoting teamwork promotes a healthier business atmosphere, however, the leadership must ensure that everyone on the team pulls his or her weight and that they are competent at there jobs.  Nothing is more demoralizing than working hard and doing good work but being treated the same way as the lazy person that does slop work.

Oct 4, 6:30AM EDT0

Can you give some real-life examples of companies that have done what you're describing above? 

Oct 3, 4:08PM EDT0

Yes, unfortunately I am bound by confidentiality agreements so I can't say the actual names (except where they have made those iniatives public.) One of the Big Three Automotive manufacturers had slated two of its aging plants for closure.  In addition to having antiquaited systems the C+ suite judged the environment to be toxic and unreamable. I along with a team of expert consultants were paid by a State of Michigan grant to see by using state of the art organizational culture change tools could turn things around.  The case for change was obvious (either change or the plants would close forever) the we helped the plant leaders and Union leaders to develop a vision where workers and leaders cooperate and build businesses within businesses. The next step involved a lot of training both technical and "soft skills" the plants survived and thrived.Similiarly, just over a decade ago, two convents that had been running hospitals for over 500 years came together when they realized that the youngest among both convents' membership was 78 years old.  There carefully crafted and completely functional cultures faced extinction unless they could turn it over to laypeople.  Again the argument for change was obvious---adapt or die---and in this case the vision was a bit  more difficult with both convents having slightly different visions.  Eventually they hammered it out.  There were many next steps that needed to be taken, not the least of which getting 100 hospitals that had been working independently to leverage the cost savings of working as a system.  We began a process of harmonization of policies (a basic standard was set and as long as the basic was satisfied the hospital could go beyond the standard.)  It is now one of the top five largest Healthcare Systems in the country and has one of the strongest and most robust corporate cultures anywhere.

I could literally scores of examples but I am pretty sure I will run out of room.

Oct 4, 6:26AM EDT0

What do you think are problems in today's corporate cultures?

Oct 3, 4:11AM EDT0

One consistent problem I see is that senior leadership will allow top technical performers, who also happen to be dysfunctional imbeciles poison the culture.  I remember years ago when a COO asked me what to do with a top engineering project manager who was abusive to his subordinates, rude to his peers, and impervious to coaching.  I told the COO to fire him, and he of course responded with "but he is one of my best people!"  I went on to explain that "his best person" was driving away young talent,  destroying morale, and had people actively working against the company's goals.  Then I asked him point blank: does that really sound like the work of a top performer?Another issue I find is that many of today's leaders grew up in times of relative prosperity and never faced truly tough economic times.  During the Great Recession of 2010 the idea was to share the pain.  This is one of the dumbest responses one could make.  By sharing the pain (pay cuts, furlough days, benefit reductions) it spread consumer fear and made things worse.  In the old days, leaders would have trimmed their staffs and after the sadness of the layoffs people would have gone back to work without all that fear.

Oct 3, 6:46AM EDT0

I have worked for a few corporations in my working life (never again!) and my biggest problem is that there are just too many levels of reporting and everyone is too busy trying to cover their own back rather than moving forward due to fearing that if there are any cuts, their heads could be on the line. There is too much time wasted on many meetings about things that a simple decision from a manager could often resolve easily (if he or she would have the guts to do so). Trying to incorporate new ideas is as I like to put it like "tickling a dinosaur and waiting 2 years for a reaction whilst knowing all the time that someone else will claim to be the tickler". What is your thought on this?

Oct 3, 1:52AM EDT0

The layering and "everyone needs to agree" behavior belies a mistrust of your people. Micromanaging costs money; a LOT of money.  What's more it is saps productivity and it teaches people that making a decision, taking action, and making a mistake is bad.  Making mistakes is how we learn.  I have had great bosses over the years who allowed me to make mistakes, but universally they would ask, "what did you learn from this? and what should we share with others facing a similar decision?"  I am naturally impatient with analysis paralysis and now that we are living in an age where information comes to us in seconds there is no reason to wait 2 years to act.  It's out moded thinking.

Oct 3, 6:51AM EDT0

How do you create the environment which allows a paradigm shift to be accepted?

Oct 3, 1:12AM EDT0

I am a firm believer in the old organizational change rule of thumb (the exact author is a bit clouded) that holds that change can only happen when Dissatisfaction with the current state x Vision for success x Next Steps must be greater than the resistance to change. There is no magic bullet for changing the environment but I have found that starting by measuring the mess that is the current state and comparing that to the vision is a good start.  Sometimes I will do a survey and flat out ask people how happy they are working at the company? Sometimes I will do a diagnostic and show a CEO or COO how much the company's dysfuntion is costing them, and sometimes I will ask a CEO or COO if they had a magic wand and could just wave it over the organization and change anything what would it be? In all these cases it creates dissatisfcation, or more accurately the realization that they are dissatisfied with the current state.  Then you really have to build a case for change---people may not like things they way they are, but will fight tooth and nail to live in their dysfunction.  Once the case is made you have to have a compelling vision of success, which is generally pretty easy to do, but I find most companies fail to change by screwing up the next steps.

Oct 3, 6:58AM EDT0

Hi Phil, I love your idea on culture and climate change. 

How have changing times impacted the way the organizational culture is established and nurtured? Do you advocate different strategies for a organization that largely employs millennials?

Oct 2, 1:49PM EDT0

Times have changed because corporations have become greedier.  Remember what the bank execs did immediately after the bailout? They gave themselves multimillion dollar bonuses! Why? because they couldn't afford to lose those talented execs that had just bankrupted them.  It's insane. Benefits have been stripped, pay at the entry level is so low that young people can't cover their student loans and pay their expenses, and loyalty, once a two-way street is nonexistent.  I think there is too much attention on how different millennials are than other generations, and frankly I don't see it.  Virtually every generation since the Greatest Generation has behaved the way that millennials have in one way or the other.  But, having said that, I would recommend going back to basics for companies that largely employe millennials, not because they are different, but because they are younger.  As Baby Boomers leave in record numbers we will need Millennials to replace them, and their are far less Millennials than Baby Boomers, which means, even with productivity and technological advances we are headed for a labor shortage.  So...restore decent healthcare benefits, develop your workforce more quickly so they have the skills and experience to be promoted more quickly (neither you nor your youthful workforce has five years waiting to be promoted). Offer student debt relief.  Provide more time off and flexible work hours (where possible), and finally, let them know what is expected of them, clearly articulate the tasks, and then get out of the way. They don't need nor want micro management. And finally, implement a mentorship program so that there isn't a brain drain from your organization.  There needs to be a concerted effort to build loyalty to the company and one does that by showing loyalty to the workers.  Clearly we can't go back to the days where we guarenteed 40 years of employment, but we can do even better.  I once worked for a CEO who told the workers (our factories had about a 5 year shelf-life) that while he couldn't promise long-term employment he could promise that everyone who worked for us would leave the company highly skilled with terrific employment prospects, and he was right.

Oct 3, 7:12AM EDT0

What got you interested in culture change?

Oct 2, 11:06AM EDT0

I was at the nadir of my life. I had been out of work for over two years after part of a massive layoff by one of the Big 3.  I went back to school and before I even started classes landed a job as head of training and development for a large construction management company.  I had no idea what I was doing, going through an ugly divorce and custody battle, and just in general was miserable.  At about that point I got a phone call from the head of my college program asking me to become a self-employed consultant working at a major culture change initiative under a state grant.  I was initially reluctant, but eventually accepted.  I got to work with some of the greatest minds in Organization Development (people who would later become household names) and found I had a natural talent for it.  It was hard work, and emotions ran high, but I found that I was able to avoid getting sucked into the dysfunction.  After four years I saw the fruit of my labor and it felt good to see people who once hated each other working together as a well oiled machine.  It also felt good to know that I had contributed to saving a couple of thousand people's jobs.  I knew then that this is how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, at least that I wanted to do that kind of work for the rest of my career.

Oct 2, 12:05PM EDT0