Spotlight: Driving Cultural Transformation

March 29, 2023 – Carolyn Taylor is chair of Walking the Talk, a consulting and advisory firm focused on culture transformation. The company specializes in enhancing performance results by aligning culture with strategy. Since the company was established 11 years ago, culture has landed firmly on the agenda of most executive teams and boards of directors. As pioneers in this field, understanding the impact culture has on growth, performance, and reputation, Walking the Talk has grown to become the largest consulting firm solely focused on the culture agenda. The firm operates globally and has supported clients on dozens of engagements, which can last anywhere from a few months to a few years.

Ms. Taylor recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss how corporate culture has evolved and helps drive results.

Can you provide the big picture right now for culture today?
I think that culture has picked up as a management topic, I would say in the last 10 year but really, even five years where really now every organization recognizes that they have to do something. “It used to be more about the vision of what we can build if we have the right culture. What’s now been layered in, in the last 10 years or so, is what are the risks, reputational, financial, etc., that happen if we don’t. So now, we’re looking at both of those. The big picture is that almost every board and senior executive now know that this matters. But the speed with which people have realized that means that many actually don’t necessarily have the skills, the knowhow, to know how to go about it, then ensuring No. 1, that they have the culture that they need; No. 2, that they know how to measure whether they’ve got that; No. 3, that they can tie it to the business benefits that it will deliver, or the risks that it will overcome; and then No. 4, the actual execution of how you go about it. And remember the definition we give with culture, which is the patterns of behavior that are encouraged and discouraged, tolerated and not tolerated, in an organization over a period of time. It’s not about whether people are happy or not.

Is it tough going in and evaluating culture?
We have a very rigorous and satisfactory process for assessing culture, which we actually do primarily qualitatively. There’s a difference between understanding culture, assessing it, diagnosing it if you like, and then measuring it. Measurement is done very effectively with quantitative tools. But understanding it is much better done with a qualitative methodology. And we have a method that we’ve spent 10 years building, where we actually get to not only what are the common patterns of behavior in any size of an organization. It’s true in an organization of 100,000, or one of a thousand. And what are the underlying mindsets and beliefs that people have that cause people to behave that way? So what is the root cause? The question we have to answer is how are people behaving as a norm. what is the norm? And why are they behaving that way, because unless you get the second one, it’s very difficult to then put in place a change. So the method that we use, which is focus group based, extraordinarily doesn’t require as many focus groups as you might think, because the patterns are so strongly embedded usually across the whole organization—the patterns of behavior that lead to bureaucracy, the patterns of behavior that lead to people not speaking up, or not taking opportunities, or not taking accountability, or not working collaboratively.

Do companies struggling to create a good culture need a mindset change?
That’s absolutely what you need. And if you don’t change the mindset, you will not change the pattern of behavior. It is a tough thing to do, but that is the task of changing culture. Now, what is working in all of our favor is that we all as human beings want to fit in to the communities in which we’re a member. So the reason that cultures get formed is because people look around and they look—and we have a whole method for showing leaders how to do this, we call it ‘behaviors, symbols and systems,’ they look around at the messages that they are receiving about how to fit in, and they say, ‘Okay, I want to fit in.’ Then if they can, they will then adapt their behavior because the mindset is I want to fit. And then there are techniques you can then use about how you change the mindsets of large numbers of people.

How does Walking the Talk help with this?
We use techniques that are associated with the tipping point theory. As an example, you take organizations that are becoming more agile, which is common. Many organizations are trying to put in agile methodologies. Well, we’ve developed a whole way of looking at what are the core mindsets that you need to implement an agile culture. If you then know what those are, you can then go out and test for finding people who are particularly strong on that. And we’re just launching a leadership assessment tool, which measures people’s contribution to the culture you’re trying to build, and would measure, for example, what are the four fundamental mindsets that I need for agility? What are the fundamental preferences that people have if they’re going to be good at leading an accountable culture or leading a one team culture where you’ve got strong collaboration? So it’s not easy to do.

How did the pandemic change culture? Is it more difficult to build a strong culture today?
Yes, I think it has. What’s come out of it at the end has. One of the reasons that culture works is that people pick up messages from each other about how to behave. Instead of physically being together suddenly I am at the end of this phone call or this Zoom call or this Teams call and I don’t feel as emotionally attached to my colleagues. On the positive side, many people have stepped up and done extraordinary work, working remotely, which perhaps nobody would have ever believed they would have been able to do. So there are some positive that have come out of that in terms of new patterns of behaviors that we didn’t realize that we had.

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