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.
Carolyn Taylor is the author of the book, Walking the Talk, and also founder of the organization of the same name. Walking the Talk is a world leader in aligning culture with strategy to deliver business results. Their proven methodology creates powerful corporate culture transformations that leave organizations with lasting culture leadership and culture management capability.
Can I ask you, do you see major changes being inevitable and essential to organizations around the world both commercial and non-commercial?
I would definitely say yes to that, and I think it's being driven by both the traditional factors that we all know about like technology and globalization. More interestingly, it's also being driven by an evolving consciousness. And this is where I join many people and ask myself, "Is there really an evolving consciousness happening?"
I'm old enough now to have watched, and been a part of, a whole evolution in myself, and I think an evolution in what I see in others. I see it in children today in terms of self-awareness, their willingness to explore doing things in different ways and their proclivity to not necessarily accept what they are told by their parents, teachers, etc.
If that is true, then it suggests that organizations that were okay in the past and which people accepted in the past would now no longer be okay. People would be striving to have something more meaningful in organizations today and I think we are definitely seeing that.
So what is causing organizations to change? I guess my answer is that it's some combination of what's happening externally and what potentially is happening to the human spirit as a whole
Great answer and I think I agree with that fairly wholeheartedly. What do you think is making change inevitable?
Let's take a couple of examples of things that I've seen change in my lifetime: like the desire to think for oneself and to challenge authority.
When I was growing up this had a very political expression. Now I look at my children and I don't think they accept a wide range of things that perhaps even one or two generations ago did.
If we take this is a general trend that, in a sense, has changed the culture of society, then inevitably it is going to also change what people do and don't want from their employers, and what they will and will not accept from their bosses. So we can make parallels between what's going on generally in society and see how that would inevitably become a pressure for change within organizations.
And that's just one example. There are lots of others we could explore. For example, in the past people were more willing to take instructions. They're less willing now.
The concept of loyalty used to be a value that was highly sought after and some cynics would say it was about sticking with something even though many pieces of evidence would suggest that you should leave it or not do it. This applied whether you were fighting for your country, sticking to a brand just because you've always had that brand or whatever. But that doesn’t apply any more because people have become more comfortable in deleting things they don’t want from their life
If you consider all these factors in the context of organizational life you can see how people who now think differently are going to want to recreate the organizations in which they live.
And I think this pressure to change would be happening regardless of technology and globalization and all the other reasons for change such as the rise of women in the workforce.
Really interesting. I think this is true from my own observations and I've spent quite a lot of time in large organizations around the world watching them go through change.
I'm hugely optimistic I have to say. I do think that although we have stunning examples of the opposite and of what apparently is highly unethical and highly self-centered behavior in organizations, I see a trend towards a more enlightened way of running things in organizations.
Neuroscientist Matt Lieberman brought out a book called Social. He's done quite a lot of research showing that there's strong evidence to support the idea that we are fundamentally wired to collaborate and cooperate and look after one another more than we are to be entirely selfish. Which brings me to my next question. What part do you think that leaders changing their own mindset might play in this kind of change that's happening?
I would say it is pretty fundamental.
Although it would be wonderful to think it was otherwise, I believe that culture change still comes from the top. It is the very nature of the hierarchy of organization and the fact that people are still dependent on an organization for their livelihood. Most people are not self-actualized enough to say, "Well, I don't care if I leave or if I'm fired." This means that looking upwards, and to some extent, following the lead of what one's seeing in leaders is still a dominant factor in the patterns of behavior that you see in organizations.
Further to the point, I've seen so many stunning successes of leadership teams changing their own mindsets and having this change spread quite fast through their organizations.
What do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them being spoken about in this context quite a lot.
For me, values represent what I value or what somebody values – what I believe is important. “I value family," for example or "I value freedom."
And where I love to look at values is when you have a limited resource and you have to make a choice of one thing over another. People don't tend to talk about the hierarchy of values very much, but I think there is a hierarchy. I think that hierarchy plays out when we have to make a choice. How do I spend my money when I haven't got enough of it? What do I choose to spend it on?Education, or holidays, or family? These are values based decisions. How do I spend my time? What do I choose to spend my time on? Also a values decision.
People can talk and sometimes waffle on about values, but when you really look at what they actually choose to do, you see values in action and then you can form views on what people really think is important. That's how I would define values.
I'm quite pragmatic about values. I think it’s very easy to judge someone else and go, "Oh, they're not walking their talk. They're not values-led," but my experience is that most people have a threshold. In the end, survival is our number one priority and not many people would be prepared to die for their values, so there's a point at which we compromise.
I think we all aspire not to compromise on our values, and we yearn to find ways of always living up to our values. Sometimes we're pretty harsh critics of each other on whether or not that's actually doable.
As for the term higher purpose, I have a sense of purpose, meaning that there is a red thread through everything I do, which expresses some longer term vision of what I believe I'm here to do. For an organization, it's what it is here to do or the difference that it can make.
In that way, it's "higher" in that there's a selflessness associated with such a purpose, as opposed to my intent to have as good a time as I possibly can. I guess we use the words “purpose” and “higher” when we're referring to it being of service, or for the good of somebody else.
I think probably a lot of people do use it in that way. Do you see values and that wider sense of purpose as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations?
I certainly think it's the most attractive thing about any organization. If they claim to be values-led and serving a higher purpose and then live up to that it's immensely attractive. I worked in an organization where that was the case. People would put up with all sorts of hardship, lower pay, long hours, whatever, because there was this sense that we were building something magnificent.
I think it's such a powerful attractor because it appeals to our own higher self. It appeals to the better part of us. If you can give me work that gives me that sense of purpose and put me in a team where we feel like we're doing that together, you're going to bring out the absolute best in me. As a consequence, I'm likely to perform better on the more mundane level as well.
You refer to something similar in your book, don't you? If I remember rightly, it's about how that kind of culture can bring out the very best in people even more than one might have expected.
Yes. That's the thing that I'm always thinking about. To what extent can a culture lift the people in it to be their best self, and I'm pretty convinced it can. If you take you, me or anyone and put them in an environment where everybody is blaming and finger pointing and generally gossiping in corners about each other, most of us will, over time, tend to sink to that level. I'm not saying always. There are some people who will hold out and refuse to get involved in that kind of stuff, but on the whole, if everybody around us is doing it, we will tend to do it.
If alternatively you put me in an environment where everybody takes responsibility and supports each other and if somebody does make a mistake everyone rallies round to help them, then I will tend to follow those practices too.
What I love about working in culture is that it is kind of a short cut to lifting the consciousness of everybody within that environment. So rather than having to work person by person, we work on the collective and find that 90% of people within that organization are able to rise to that higher standard. A few people will not and those people tend to leave or be ejected, but if you can work on the collective, it is a powerful thing.
Now, in order to do that we need some individuals who are operating at that level from day one. We need enough people to start building that momentum.When we work in organizations on their culture, we are always looking out for those people.
Which ties back to your question on leadership, because I do think that a fair number of those people need to be leaders. We don't have to have all the leaders. You don't even necessarily have to have the top person, but the organization does need to have a coalition of people who band together and go, "This is the standard that we're going to make happen in this organization and we're going to stand for that." That's when it starts to happen.
It looks to me like you've had an absolutely fascinating and very rewarding time as well as a lot of hard work. And if I'm not mistaken, your company Walking the Talk is the latest development in a long and deep engagement with culture change. Life must be pretty busy and I don't know if you have a typical day, but maybe you could give us an idea of what a day might look like for you.
A day with clients, which is my favorite sort of day, would be split between working on the team level and the individual level. So part of my day might be meeting with an individual executive to give them some feedback of something I have observed or something I've heard by talking to their people. I'm often feeding back to them where there is a relationship between the behavior that the exec is displaying and the shadow that this behavior is casting on others and the way that people are reacting to it.
I'm helping them to understand the relationship between their behavior and the behavior of their people, the sort of culture that this is building, and ultimately the impact it has on the business. I'm particularly strong on being able to help them see that link and understand that if they adjusted this one thing in their behavior there would be this flow-on effect that would impact on the performance of the organization. That might be the first type of meeting.
Working with a team, I may be observing and giving them feedback on the extent to which they are walking their talk. For example, they say they want to be more externally focused. So, was the meeting we just had a demonstration of external focus?
I might also be working with a client team, or our own team, to plan some kind of an intervention to begin to shift the culture across a much broader community of thousands of people. What are the levers that we can pull? What different initiatives are possible so that we can send messages simultaneously from different places. That would be another type of meeting.
These days I spend a lot of time coaching other consultants in our team on how to do this work. I also travel a great deal so I spend quite a lot of time in airports. Then there is the writing of reports detailing the insights from what I see and what I think this is doing to the business. That would be a typical day.
Quite a day! My penultimate question would be if there were one piece of advice you had to give organizations wanting to move towards a new, more complete kind of organization, what would it be?
Firstly, that you have to be the change you want to see in others. Beyond that, I guess the one piece of advice would be that if you want to create change in what people do, the way they behave and the way they make decisions, then at some point you're going to have to look at the way they think. We call it Be, Do, Have.
The 'Be' part is what's going on inside of people's heads: who they are, what they value and what they believe. What they then end up choosing to do and prioritize is the ‘Do’ part and the outcome that you get is the 'Have' part.
At some point you've got to start looking at what the patterns of thinking are that are common to either individuals or a group that are causing them to behave in certain ways.
For example, if there is a lot of non-collaboration, you have to assume that underneath there will be patterns of thinking such as mistrust and ideas like, "if you want a job done you've got to do it yourself" and "everybody's out for themselves." For that to change you've got to shift that kind of thinking to the idea that if I help somebody else, in turn they will help me. You've got to look at the beliefs that are sitting underneath the way that people behave and work on changing those beliefs if you want to really get sustainable change.
That's a really fundamental message, isn't it, changing belief?
Yes. That's a fundamental message.
And it's probably not an easy piece of advice to hear, but it is essential. An awful lot of change effort fails because most people don't know how to work at that level. They make lots of changes to processes, behaviors or whatever else and then it all slips back because fundamentally people's belief about what is true and what makes things work hasn't changed. So, they will revert to old patterns. Work on beliefs is really powerful.
It's actually that conclusion that led me to set up Liminal Coaching. I just hit a point in my career where I was sick and tired of working in fear-based organizations.
Yes. That's the real work. That is the work towards self-actualization, isn't it?
If we're talking on the more profound level, I would like to think that as more people work on their own development, then the extent to which fear runs people's lives becomes less, and if it does, then most problems in this world would be reduced, including problems in organizations. It all comes down to fear, doesn't it?
I think so yes. What we would describe as finding a way to calm down the primitive brain and the patterns associated with it long enough for people to see the possibility of better and more constructive behaviors.
Whether you do that through meditation or any number of different ways, I remain convinced that in the end, that's the path. Of course, it gets much more complicated, and it's not enough by itself. I've seen organizations where people have been intensely focused on personal development, and their organizations can still be quite dysfunctional. I don't think that's the only thing, but it's certainly an element of it.
I feel like there's a community of transformational people, who've dedicated their lives to this work and we're all over the world, and it's kind of special really.
Yes. I think that's true. One of the things I'm loving about doing these interviews is talking to so many people who are engaged in catalyzing change. There are lots of common threads emerging in views I’m getting from all over. It’s inspiring actually.
Yes. I know, and people tackling it in all these different ways, but there is definitely so much work dedicated now to trying to make this happen that I think that is where I feel optimistic. Sometimes thins happen that make you wonder, "Oh my God. Are we making any progress at all?" but I think we are.
I think so too. Thanks so much for your time.
That's a nice note to end on.
A great note to end on. Thanks very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you.