The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
On this occasion I connected with Al Curnow.
Al is a Senior Consultant with High Performing Culture (HPC). HPC helps organizations create, drive and maintain high performing cultures, with a proven system that’s straightforward, practical, and easy to use. He works with organizational leaders of many diverse industries.
Al is a skilled Consultant, Writer and Presenter. He’s spoken to numerous industry groups including General Motors, PACE, Chambers of Commerce, VISTAGE International and Athletic Interscholastic and Coaches groups.
Prior to his consulting career, Al was a senior leader for more than 20 years in the employee benefits industry.
Al received his Bachelor of Arts from The University of Rhode Island and completed graduate work in Business Administration at The University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Al is married with two children and resides in East Greenwich, RI.
Mike: My first question is do you see major change as being inevitable in most organizations at current time?
Al: Absolutely, Mike. We do. I don’t think it’s just at this time. I think change is one of those things that’s just inevitable. The pace might be a little escalated at this point in time, but I think change has always been an inevitable part of any organization.
Mike: Do you think it’s essential as well?
Al: I do. I think our ability to change and/or adapt to, and/or take advantage of opportunities that present themselves are critically essential. We talk about this with our clients all the time. It’s like death and taxes; change will happen. What’s most critical is how do we respond to it. More importantly, how do we look for and leverage the opportunities that change brings?
Mike: So what kind of opportunities do you think we’re seeing at the moment? It seems to me there’s an increasing amount of pressure for companies to make fairly significant and radical changes in their cultures. Do you think so? Or is it just something which has always been there, do you think?
Al: I think it’s always been there. Culture exists in any organization. Frankly, in any group of people, there’s a culture. There are always social dynamics. I think the reason culture has become such a hot topic is because people are beginning to understand the importance of it. The impact of it. There are psychological studies, that go back to the 1930s and probably prior to that, which speak to this.
At that point in time they didn’t call it ‘culture’, They called it Organizational Climate. Today, ‘culture’ has become a buzzword. There’s been a recognition that yes, it’s important. What’s been lacking historically is what to do about it, How do we influence and/or change it? Culture has often been perceived as this fuzzy, ambiguous concept. Our philosophy, our whole approach is that it’s not. You can actually shape and define the culture that you want. You just have to be intentional and systematic about it.
Mike: Do you think there’s more pressure for change now than say, 10 – 15 years ago?
Al: I do. Things are changing at a rapid pace. We work with an incredibly diverse group of organizations from construction to law firms to high tech, and low tech, but the common denominator with all the organizations we work with is that the leadership within those organizations understands the importance of culture and they understand that their culture has to be alluring and structured in a way that puts them in the best position to take advantage of opportunities and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
We have close to 300 plus client organizations across the U.S. and some in your part of the world as well. And I would say every, single one of them recognizes the importance of being able to change and take advantage of the opportunities that change in the environment brings. It’s a common thread in all of them.
Mike: And do you think that leaders being open to changing their own mindset and changing themselves plays a part in that kind of change?
Al: Without question. In fact, the most important ingredient required when looking to change the culture of an organization is leaderships’ sponsorship and reinforcement of this change. Organizations that hire us are lead by leaders that understand this.
Mike: So they already have decided that if they’re looking at improving their culture, then they are probably already considering their own awareness of it and so on.
Al: Absolutely. And ironically, Mike, a large percentage of the leaders that hire us already have cultures that are actually quite good. They know how important it is and want it to get even better. The recognize that they need to get better because of factors, like change, like saturated marketplaces, and budgetary pressures. They realize that there’s real power that can be harnessed within a culture. They just never realized they could be systematic and intentional about it. They’ve grown good cultures almost by accident. Good leaders tend to hire good people. They tend to do things the right way. And yet they never really considered that there could be ways of systematically improving their culture to an even greater extent.
Mike: Right. In terms of culture, in terms of people wanting to develop really good cultures, what do the words, values, and higher purpose mean to you? How do they fit in there?
Al: Great question. Our take on values qnd mission might be a little bit different from most. We feel that if the values and mission truly reflect and align with what actually happens within that organization and they’re paid attention to and all employees are mindful of it, great. However, with that said, what we tend to find is most organizations, although their intentions are quite good, have mission and values statements that are nothing more than a poster they hang on a wall.
Mike: So do you actually do an assessment of what the values in practice are?
Al: We skip the assessment and actually go right to the behaviors. We try to get at the most essential behaviours that are critical to the organizations’ success.
Mike: Right. So what you’re saying is it’s better to specify what kind of behaviors you expect to see rather than having a list of values everyone’s supposed to live up to which may be quite abstract.
Al: Yes, again, unless you have a robust list of values that really is integrated into your organization.
Al: We focus on behaviors, actions you can see, coach and teach. If it’s just this abstract poster on a wall, let’s skip it. Let’s go right to the things that will take your organization where you want it to go as a leader. We do have some clients who have invested the time and effort in developing a meaningful mission value statement.
It means a lot to them and they pay attention to it and they reinforce it. The distinction with those clients is that we say “OK, that’s a great start. Now how do we take that, and as an extension of that begin to identify the specific behaviors that speak to it” ? We’re not throwing away all the good work you’ve done. Rather, we’re incorporating it. We’re taking from it and then driving a bit deeper into things we can see, measure, coach, and teach on.
Mike: Thank you. As a senior consultant in a culture change and development company, you must be pretty busy, right? Could you give us an idea what a day might be like for you?
Al: Absolutely. And as you might imagine, no two are the same. I have a healthy mix. Being part of a small organization, we handle a wide variety of tasks. This includes everything from new business development to the actual consulting work with clients with some project management throw into the mix! So no two days are the same. Most days are split between two primary roles. One is working with leaders of organizations, CEOs, or Executive Directors (for non-profits) and their leadership teams. I help them first define what type of culture they want. That’s where it all has to begin. Organization must identify, with incredible clarity,the type of culture they want.
Another large percentage of my time is spent working with all team members and employees introducing them to our process to help them to stay focused on the most critical behaviors. . Both of those responsibilities involve a lot of travel. Our clients are all over the place. We do some work online and virtually but I’d still say the vast majority of our work is in-person with clients.
Mike: A lot of the clients I’ve been seeing in the past couple of years are looking at different models of organization design. They want to move to a new type of organization design. Something like the idea of Teal perhaps.
If there was one piece of advice you had to give organizations who were wanting to move towards something they see as being more empowering for staff and a more complete kind of organization, what would that be, that one piece of advice?
Al: I would say being incredibly clear in terms of defining what are the specifics of what you want. It’s one thing to say you want to build a certain type of organization.,Yet if you’re actually going to be able to have real impact on creating it, you first have to begin at the beginning, which is defining what that organization will look like. What would be going on around there in terms of how we treated each other internally, how we treated our customers, etc. And again, what would that look like in terms of specific behaviors.
Mike: That sounds very much like one of the key questions I ask my coaching clients, which is, “if you woke up tomorrow morning and you were exactly where you really wanted to be, what would be happening”?
Al: Yeah. That’s a great question. It very much gets at the heart of this because you have to start with that thinking in order to be intentional and have impact, you first have to be mindful and aware.
Then I would say there’s a step two or a part B, which I feel is just as important. It’s one thing to be able to define it, but it’s a whole other thing … to meaningfully impact it in a sustainable way. Once you define it, you then have to figure out how to put practices in place to help coach, teach, lead, and reinforce all those things we’ve identified as being critically important. To me, that’s the secret sauce.
Mike: And that’s what your company helps people to do?
Al: Yes. That’s what we do. We help our clients define the behaviors that are most Fundamental to their success. Then we help them design a framework that allows them to stay focused on (and get better at) these behaviors while making them stick. Again, Culture has often been thought of as something vague and ambiguous. It isn’t. It can be shaped and influenced.
Mike: That’s very interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights around this.
Al: My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you.
You can find out more about the work of Al and his colleagues at http://www.highperformingculture.com