Executive Coaching Connections, LLC


If it seems like culture conversations are taking place everywhere, it’s probably because they are!

“Culture has hit a tippling point,” according to Larry Senn, Founder of the culture-shaping firm, Senn-Delaney. This was the theme that permeated Human Synergistics’ Ultimate Culture Conference last week in Chicago.

Speakers such as culture pioneer Edgar Schein and Human Synergistics CEO Rob Cooke inspired attendees to seize this moment to create positive change with their clients and in their organizations.

We were inspired by the fresh ideas, case studies, and energy of the conference speakers and participants.


Here are the ultimate ideas we took away:

  1. Culture is more like a lily pond than an iceberg. According Edgar Schein, the iceberg “…is a terrible analogy, because it assumes that culture is frozen.” Schein suggested that a better image is a lily pond. In this updated analogy, the espoused values are what you see from a distance. The cultural artifacts are what you see on the surface (the lily pads themselves). Keeping with this analogy, Schein suggested that practitioners ask questions like: Why are the lily pads white, and not red? Why are there 10, and not 20? The roots are the tacit, or taken for granted, assumptions. How are you thinking about culture these days – more like an iceberg or a lily pond?

  2. Values come first. Thomas J. Walter, Chief Culture Officer at Tasty Catering and co-author of It’s My Company Too! (2012) described his leadership journey and the shared values that underpin Tasty Catering’s culture. Walter commented on organizational alignment, saying that, “It’s Values, Vision, Mission, not Mission, Vision, Values.” When talking about culture and facilitating organizational alignment, which comes first for your organization? How might shifting your focus to Values first, change the conversations you’re having?

  3. The power of purpose. Root Inc. and Hampton Hotels described how they partnered to create #Hamptonality: a purpose-driven, strengths-based, culture-shaping effort. According to Rich Berens, President of Root, “Purpose builds from the why. Are we asking why in the right way? If not, then it’s hard to move the needle.” An important turning point in Hampton’s journey occurred when they decided to leverage strengths, according to Karl Thomas, Senior Director, Culture and Internal Communication at Hilton Worldwide. They now partner closely with the Marcus Buckingham Company, using StandOut to accelerate team performance. In terms of culture change at your organization, are you starting with why? How might a strengths-based focus help you facilitate change more quickly?

  4. Accelerate change with a network. When Sun Edison decided to go after new markets, they intentionally flipped the traditional alignment paradigm of strategy, structure, then culture, and started with culture. With a CEO mandate to train 7,000 team members in 21 countries in 6 months, Matthew Herzberg (then CHRO, now Sun Edison’s Chief Culture Officer) needed an approach that would jumpstart a culture change. To do this, Sun Edison created a network of 100 Black Belts and Green Belts to focus on culture – which can now be engaged for any culture-related work. How are you currently using networks in your culture work? How might a network help you facilitate future changes more easily?

  5. “Change and culture are intertwined.” According to Donna Brighton of Brighton Leadership Group, if you want to change culture, you need to create attraction. “People only change when they want to move to a better version of themselves.” As an example, she mentioned Zappos’ recent move to a self-organizing, leaderless organization, based on the theory of “wholeocracy.”  As you think about a current culture change your organization is working on, is the vision strong enough to create attraction? If not, how could you make it more compelling? In case you’re wondering how it’s going at Zappos, here’s a recent blog post that describes what they’ve learned and what challenges they’ve encountered.

  6. Healthy cultures start with healthy communication. Jeanne Malnati, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and CEO of The Culture Group, described how healthy relationships and communication are key to, “…creating a healthy environment where people love to perform.” One way that Lou Malnati’s has done this is by having groups of 8 to 10 managers meet monthly with trained facilitators to enhance open communication. During these sessions they discuss tools like the The 24-Hour Rule (if you express a complaint about someone, you have 24 hours to have an honest, face-to-face conversation with the person you need to). What small steps could you take to enhance open communication in your organization?

  7. The Mood Elevator: A shortcut to a healthy culture. “How do we help people get back to the best of who they are?This was the question that Larry Senn posed during a discussion about the Mood Elevator (from his 2012 book Up the Mood Elevator: Living Life at Your Best). Senn suggested that when we’re at our best, we tend to show up as grateful, wise, insightful, creative, and innovative – we naturally perform at a higher level. When we’re not at our best, we’re more likely to show up as impatient, frustrated, irritated, stressed, and hostile – we perform sub-optimally. As you think about your culture, is it bringing out the best in people? If not, what adjustments could you help facilitate?

  8. Social leadership (or “Why is there a blue unicorn in the break room?”) Mark Babbitt, President of Switch and Shift, discussed the emergence social leadership. Mark refers to social leaders as blue unicorns, because they’re still rare in most organizations. According to Mark, a social leader is someone who is caring, transparent, an active listener, and a relentless giver. “What others say about us is our culture,” according to Babbitt. Have you seen any blue unicorns in your break room? How are they affecting what people say about your culture?


Jason Carthen, Leadership Consultant and retired NFL player, summed up the importance of culture beautifully by saying, “Either your culture is going to build a hero, or hide a champion.”

Build more heroes with an ultimate culture.

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