How much do you consciously prepare for performance? In other words, to what degree do you leave your performance to chance?
At Axialent, we emphasize that one of the main levers to achieve extraordinary and sustainable success is to take full responsibility for how we respond in the moment. Specifically, we highlight the importance of enhancing our capacity to have a conscious response to what the moment demands from us as opposed to reacting from unconscious instinct and conditioning.
When we manage to do this on a consistent basis, we tend to feel empowered as a key player in our own lives instead of experiencing ourselves as a victim of circumstances. And because we’re focused on what we can do to get the desired results, we’re more likely to get the results we’re after.
This requires a mindset that can discern between what we can influence and have control over and what we can’t. It also means that we recognize the consequences of our own action and inaction. Obviously, developing expertise, skill and competence is also necessary, and they are important elements of performance.
We can work on developing our self-awareness so that we’re more conscious of how best to respond at any moment. This is a skill, and it’s one that gets stronger, just like a muscle when we train it properly.
We can learn communication models that help us express ourselves in a more productive way. We can train ourselves to become better negotiators and influencers. There’s a reason many organizations have dedicated learning and development departments. There is knowledge to acquire and there are skills to develop that help us. But these alone may not be enough for consistent high performance.
What I find is an often-neglected element of setting ourselves up for success—in addition to developing a certain mindset and skills—is specifically preparing for optimal vitality and brain performance.
For example, you may prepare for a difficult conversation by getting some coaching and doing some role-playing, but what about your energy, focus and mindset? What do you do to make sure those are in their optimum states so that you’re more likely to have the mental clarity, patience and necessary vitality to perform?
Have you ever noticed that you tend to be less patient and accepting when you’re tired? In fact, you’re more than likely to notice yourself being more irritable and reactive when you have low energy.
When was the last time you made some mistakes and performed less than optimal because you were tired?
Have you ever experienced your brain feeling like cotton or like it was in a fog—your mind seemingly dull? How did that impact your performance? Did you still have the impact you would have liked to have?
When you experience fatigue, difficulty focusing and lack of mental clarity, there are a few things to check for.
Perhaps you were simply dehydrated. Dehydration leads to brain fog and fatigue. In contrast, showing up to a meeting well hydrated improves your brain performance and energy levels.
If you lead a team meeting, you can raise the team’s performance simply by making sure there’s plenty of water available for everyone. Encourage people to hydrate and create a culture in which it’s easy to do so.
Another important factor that determines both physical and mental performance is sleep. Taking responsibility for your performance means making sure you get enough good quality sleep.
When you know you’re sleep deprived, find opportunities to do power naps. Research has shown this helps to offset some of the effects of lack of sleep.
And, of course, your nutrition has a big impact on how you feel, how much energy you have available, the resilience of your immune system and your brain performance.
Find out what nutritional approach is best for your individual constitution. Meet up with a nutritional consultant and create a plan so that what, when and how you eat is part of your plan for success.
Finally, make sure you get enough movement throughout the day. Your body is designed to move, so move!
Being a leader means taking unconditional responsibility for your performance. It is not only about how you respond in the moment. It also means that you anticipate and prepare for challenges and your ability to respond to them by planning for optimum hydration, sleep, nutrition and movement.
Keep these things in mind as you prepare for your next important event and set yourself up for success!

In an ever-connected world, it’s very easy for an organization’s faux pas to be blasted all over the internet. Just look at the recent Starbucks incident.
Two black men, while waiting for a friend to order, were arrested in Philadelphia because they tried to use the restroom without first ordering anything.
In just a few hours, the arrest turned into a gigantic problem, affecting the company’s reputation. As in many other similar cases, the incident was disclosed by a customer who was at the coffee shop and captured with his/her mobile phone how police officers talked to two black men sitting at a table, handcuffed them and escorted them out, while other customers were explaining to them that the two men were not doing anything wrong. Impact on the media was immediate at a worldwide level, and millions of people wondered if this situation would have occurred with two white men. This is a textbook example of how an employee’s incorrect action, inflated by social media, can turn into a major complication for any global organization since it reveals the vulnerability thereof.
Starbucks’ CEO promptly reacted, regretting the occurrence and said, The video is very hard to watch and does not represent the values nor the mission of our brand. Furthermore, he asked to meet with the two men who were arrested and decided to close 8,000 U.S. stores for half a day on May 29. The purpose of this meeting was to create more awareness around unconscious bias.
The employees were not living Starbucks’ values as stated on their website, which includes phrases such as: We are committed to upholding a culture where diversity is valued and respected. So it’s only natural that as a guiding principle, diversity is integral to everything we do.” And so training was needed.
Are those values stated real or just a marketing strategy? Closing the stores for one afternoon is not enough to achieve any sustainable cultural change.
A strong and healthy culture is part of the value of the company because it helps to develop a competitive advantage difficult to imitate. Such transformation can only be achieved by defining and developing behaviors, systems and symbols aligned with the publicly stated goals and values, lowering the occurrences of unethical behaviors, including abuse, theft and fraud.
There is an increasing number of customers and shareholders who prefer to do business with organizations that apply sustainable and conscious policies, providing them with a higher public value than that of organizations that do not apply them.
In these uncertain, complex and connected times, the organizations’ priority is to consistently align their business or strategy with sustainable behavior and leadership. The cost of not doing so is the reputation, trustworthiness and perceived value of the brand, even before the loss of income.
Think about Volkswagen, United Airlines and Well Fargo that went before them, and many more will follow.

How to master the art of high performance in a VUCA world.
What does it take to develop a high-performance team in the face of industry disruption and market volatility? In today’s world, businesses are required to reinvent who they are and why they exist to remain relevant. To do this, leaders and their teams need to develop their capacity to lead confidently and make decisions quickly in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Many teams struggle to deliver consistently and collaborate effectively under this pressure when tensions run high. In order to cope with the stress, people check out or blame others, avoid hard conversations or erupt to find relief and then relationships suffer. Other people struggle with burnout, anxiety or overwhelm, which impacts productivity, creativity and well-being. To make things even more challenging, these types of environments require high trust between team members at a time when individualized development and culture conversations often get deprioritized.
As an executive coach and culture consultant, I dedicate a significant amount of my energy to developing conscious leaders and teams in organizations. Teams are the performance lever of an organization. Most organizations acknowledge the link between team performance and business results but are unclear about what it takes to develop high performance in a VUCA world. Here are a few of the ways conscious leaders develop their teams:
Shift from individual awareness to team consciousness.
The most successful teams operate from full spectrum consciousness. They understand they are part of a system and are aware of and tend to the needs (physical/emotional) and motivations (meaning/making a difference/service to all stakeholders) of the group, maintaining awareness of interdependences and interconnectedness and skillfully managing these tensions. Research in the last decade has proven the advantage of group decision-making over that of even the smartest individual in the group. But the exception to this is when the group lacks harmony or the ability to cooperate. Then decision-making quality and speed suffer.
The important difference between effective teams and ineffective ones lies in the emotional and social intelligence of the group (team consciousness).Teams have an emotional intelligence of their own. It is comprised of the emotional intelligence of individual members plus a collective competency of the group. Emotional intelligence enables individual team members to deal with their own internal responses, moods and states of mind. Social intelligence informs how we understand and interact with others. Leaders with high emotional mastery are effective because they act in ways that leave people around them feeling more capable.They are able to manage themselves effectively under stress and ambiguous circumstances (presence under pressure).
If a team member begins to break down under pressure, other team members can help the person recover by maintaining a positive mental state (learner and player mindset) and treating the mistake or error as a learning opportunity versus lashing out in frustration with blame and criticism. This could also include creating an awareness for the team member by sharing constructive observations about the person’s impact on the group and business results. If the team joins the person in a furthering negative spiral, you will intensify the judgment and emotional state that advances the breakdown in collective performance.
Have a clear mission that generates a powerful, shared purpose and meaningful contribution.
When clarity of mission and a higher purpose are lacking, teams lose focus and flounder in the face of business and market challenges. Knowing what you aspire to and take responsibility for and why it matters is key to sustainable execution and finding deeper meaning in the challenge. This requires asking questions like: Why do we exist? What is our shared purpose? What do we really want to achieve?
We define shared purpose as a unique way of being in service in the world. It defines why you exist as a group and then expressing this with clarity, consistency and constancy as part of your team culture. This includes understanding what makes work meaningful for each person on your team and being a catalyst who inspires and empowers team members to fully express their gifts and talents in service of the mission.
Focus on both “hard” (structure) and “soft” (behavior and culture) for sustainable success.
Most simply, this means the team has clear processes, roles and structures for accountability to achieve its mission “hard” (structure) and a solid emphasis on the human dimension of business “soft” (behavior and culture). We teach a mental model called Three Dimensions of Success that helps keep this focus in balance. Exceptional, sustainable results come from integrating three critical dimensions:

Make sure your innovation initiative is connected to your culture.

If you are investing heavily in building innovation competencies and investing in rapid adaptation, it is usually because of one of two reasons:

  • You are behind the curve in a slow growth industry or have a slow growth position in the market and you need to quickly catch up and adapt.
  • Or you are in a high velocity, high growth organization, trying to maintain agility, momentum and speed with which you adapt and lead the market.

In both of these situations, IF you are investing in innovation to support your mission and fulfill your “next level” business strategy, THEN you will want to protect that investment and drive a satisfactory return on innovation.
Both scenarios require rapid adaptation to changing circumstances. Most leaders only become aware of their culture when they have to adapt to something (as Edgar Schein would say) — otherwise, it’s just there.
Innovation is all about adapting (and improving on the current level foundation), so you will run into major culture challenges, depending on how much of your current culture is constructive. A constructive culture will allow the organization to proactively adapt and excel in a changing marketplace (versus just survive).

Measure your culture baseline so that you can measure improvement.

You do not need an assessment to confirm that you are not innovative. You need useful data to help you better understand why and how your business culture (and/or your business climate) is helping or holding you back. Culture and climate are always doing both — it’s always BOTH.
You need the outcome of the assessment to help provide a common language and valid measurement along with visibility into how culture dynamics show up differently across teams, groups and locations. It is most effective when you combine group or team efforts with a validated, reliable culture model so the team has visibility into the specifics (beyond anecdotal) to be more actionable and useful for the culture.
Culture is built and changed through shared learning and mutual experience. The assessment outcome is used (on day one) to engage the organization in shared learning as it relates to the connection between culture and business performance.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a survey, but you need some kind of a proven model that connects the dots, similarly to the one behind the strategic culture survey (i.e., OCI/OEI circumplex), that can help give you a stronger, more accurate understanding, dimensionalization and distinction of culture so you can intervene differently than you ever have before.
All the other surveys you’re doing (e.g., engagement surveys, morale) will only provide a limited “connecting-the-dots” benefit and therefore only deliver marginal culture improvement opportunities.

An innovative culture is the new minimum standard for performance improvement.

Innovation is necessary to break through internal culture and external market challenges that may exist. The more that innovation is a natural part of a culture, the more effective an organization will be at maintaining or improving performance in a changing marketplace.
Culture doesn’t just “eat strategy for lunch” — culture eats EVERYTHING.
Culture is the unique and sustainable driver of performance. We want our culture to become more innovative (e.g., entrepreneurial, adaptive, agile, collaborative, creative) so that we can deal with all the demands of a changing marketplace.
Your culture is always helping and holding back performance in unique ways — always.

Approach innovation like a journey, not a project.

It’s a learning journey as the organization evolves norms or “unwritten rules” that are part of the culture and modifies aspects of the work climate (systems, structures, leadership approaches, etc.) to support the change.
The journey should be a series of phases or business prototypes. The organization is focused on one or more specific outcomes that innovation will help deliver. It might be growth, improved customer experience or another top priority.
We assess the work culture and climate to understand how they will help us achieve the outcome we need and how they will hold back results or progress.
We capture “key learnings” from the assessment as an input to revising or refining our innovation strategies for a specific priority so that we dramatically increase the likelihood of success.
Part of the planning is engaging the rest of the organization in new ways to accelerate results in the priority area. A huge amount of discipline and consistency is needed, but it nearly always results in accelerated performance in the targeted area.
We then capture what we learned from the initial phase of improvement as an input to the next phase, which may be all about the same performance priority or a different one. This continued learning process is part of the journey and helps accelerate innovation and effectiveness with each phase.
We also combine this “on-the-job,” improved engagement and execution approach (or business prototype) with the development of people (individually and collectively), starting with top leadership. Leadership needs and wants to understand how they may be unintentionally reinforcing the current state.
We refer to this as the “double helix” approach for culture. We support the organization with intertwining, simultaneous prototyping across these two fronts:

  • One strand of the helix is driving shared learning and tangible results (leading indicators) from the business priority (execution).
  • The other strand is the development (transformation) of leaders and managers.

Both are needed for effective culture change, sustainable innovation and performance improvement.

If culture change is hard for you, then you’re doing it wrong.

Start smart; don’t “just start.”
It’s easier to get started when you have accurately diagnosed the culture gap and can align around an actionable “FROM – TO” case for change.
Start small; don’t “go big.”
The reality is that an organization does not need to understand the entire journey to get started. The initial work to define the purpose and need for improved innovation can be combined with some thorough assessment and planning work and completed in 90 days or less.
Start quick; don’t “slow your roll.”
It’s ideal to combine that “quick-start” approach with a leadership development plan so that personal transformation is combined with the innovation and organization transformation, as we discussed in the “double helix” analogy. You should expect to see meaningful and measurable results in six months or less, but the sustainable culture change obviously takes longer.
Start strong; don’t “go it alone.”
Contact us for a discussion about your unique innovation and culture. Every journey is different, but the principles to connect culture, innovation and performance are the same. This is a specialized domain with effective, emerging best practices that all executives need help with. Your responsibility is to ask for the right help. Innovation and change are easier when you and your team learn how to minimize the unnecessary suffering and permanent damage (that result from doing it wrong). You won’t figure this out on your own until it is too late. Don’t choose to learn this the hard way.

This article was produced in collaboration with Tim Kuppler from Human Synergistics.

Times have changed. The last 20 years have brought as much change as the previous 50 years combined. This increasingly rapid change has created new challenges for today’s modern enterprise. Do you feel it? This new context or “new normal” is characterized by something experts have come to call, “Living in a VUCA world.”
This new VUCA world is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Add to this the increasing forces of “velocity” that drive the need for speed, and “transparency” that drives a need for more effective communications, and we begin to see how the environment wherein project management occurs has changed drastically from what it was just a few decades ago. This new normal impacts how project managers make decisions, plan, manage risks, manage change and solve problems. When was the last time someone told you, “Take your time” or “Don’t worry, someone else will figure it out”? Exactly!
In today’s VUCA world, project managers need to move beyond receiving information to the leading activity—from organizing spreadsheets to managing people and their multiple positions of interest, and from tracking activities to being business partners who understand the subject matter of their clients, help to foresee risk, propose solutions and challenge their client’s approach so as to maximize effectiveness. In the end, what clients want can be summed up by Larry the Cable Guy, “Git ’er done.”

What follows are seven conscious project management capabilities for today’s VUCA world. Do you have them all? If not, it’s time to start working on them.


Today’s project managers need to lead and manage teams, set a clear vision, get buy-in, motivate teams, coach them, inspire them and resolve conflict effectively. Without good leadership skills, people and teams can become demotivated and burn out, thus impacting the quality and timing of a project. To avoid this, today’s project management requires developed leadership skills that help project managers lead both strategically and operationally.
From a strategic perspective, project managers need to understand the business value proposition of the project and then be able to communicate it effectively to work streams and teams. They need to be able to clearly explain the work stream’s role and contribution to the project in the context of the desired value proposition to the business.
As projects move faster and include greater complexity, it’s important to be able to get people and team’s buy-in on both high-level strategic positions as well as commitment to more tactical tasks. This requires sensitivity, empathy and clarity—all essential to self-awareness, emotional intelligence and the development of leadership skills. This means sensitivity to the needs of the business to assure alignment; empathy for the work streams, their requirements and task load so as to continually load balance teams effectively; and clarity of direction, risks, milestones and mitigation plans so as to maximize time and resources. Together, sensitivity, empathy and clarity create buy-in.
Once buy-in has occurred, the project manager needs to leverage leadership skills to motivate, coach and inspire people and teams through the ups and downs, successes and setbacks of project implementation. Along the way, conflict will arise. Project managers with strong leadership capabilities are adept at managing conflict and resolving it with respect and honesty that leaves all parties further committed to the task and the team.
Leadership is a core competency of today’s project managers. By leveraging leadership skills, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, project managers galvanize participant buy-in while deepening trust and resolving conflict between multiple actors.


Perhaps more than any other skill, communications can make or break a project. It can be the source of strong alignment and synchronization between moving parts of a complex project, or it can be the source of ambiguity, confusion, misdirection and assumptions run amuck.
The communication skills of today’s project managers should allow them to build strong rapport with work streams and teams and to be interpersonal and engaging throughout interactions. Deeper rapport and engagement allows project managers to build deeper trust with work streams, which in turn makes challenging their thinking and holding them accountable for commitments more effective.
Additionally, project managers need to be clear and concise in their ability to communicate why, what, how and when things need to occur. They know how to use data and fact-based information to communicate risks and challenge work streams in a clear, contextualized message. Great communicators know how to get to the point effectively while building engagement at the same time. But communicating is only half of the communication skill required for today’s project management. Active listening is the other half.
Active listening skills include knowing how to listen to the words being spoken. It also includes a deeper skill for reading body language, tone and implied meaning. It requires checking one’s assumptions and inferences as discussions in advance so as to make sure that all parties involved understand the same thing at the same time.
Communication and listening are as vital project management skills in today’s complex work environment as any traditional project management capability. Knowing how to listen actively and communicate clearly and concisely helps to advance project goals while building rapport with key stakeholders.


Similar to communications, negotiation skills require understanding relationships and stakeholders’ interests. However, more than communications, it requires specific skills and techniques to help people move from surface level positions to positions of interest where common ground can be found.
Additionally, project managers require political savvy to manage communications and interactions between multiple work streams and actors in order to implement solutions. This in turn requires tactful compromise and the skills to bring people together to settle the ongoing reallocation of resources, changes in work stream activities, and managing the limits placed on a project by moving timelines.
All projects will require consensus building and compromise. Negotiation skills are core to achieving both. Negotiation skills provide lubricant to the scheduling of activities, allocation of resources and the movement of timelines.


The best skill for effective risk management is experience. Project managers need to know what could go wrong and have the humility to ask others. Oftentimes, project managers get caught up in the act of reporting and requiring, without the flexibility required to engage others and seek their input on potential risks early on. In fact, risks can often be seen as important but not urgent and can lead project managers to a false sense of comfort.
Risk can occur at the macro and micro level of a project. Risks can be associated with people, lack of knowledge in required areas, contractors, sequencing, timing and resources to name a few. But risks can also exist at the work stream activity level due to the same variables mentioned and their being part of a smaller activity within a work stream. The risk can more easily be overlooked, coming back to create larger problems down the road.
Risk assessment is only of value if plans to mitigate risk are also considered and developed. No one likes surprises, and it is the project manager’s role to minimize surprises by foreseeing risk, communicating its potential impact, and providing stakeholders with plans to mitigate negative impact.
Today’s project managers are only as successful as their ability to manage risk. Successful risk management requires experience and knowledge. Great project managers are always seeking both for themselves and from others.


Today’s project management is increasingly complex. It requires that project managers delve deeply into the business they are serving as well as the work streams they are managing. Project managers don’t need to be experts in all things, but the more they immerse themselves in the subject matter of each work stream and the business the project is serving, the more they can foresee potential risk, challenge the effectiveness of work stream activities, and understand where focus needs to be given.


Project managers need to take in information and weigh the pros and cons while assessing people’s ability to respond. The speed and complexity of today’s projects require a keener ability to think critically than ever before, as the issues and implications to be considered often span multiple groups and occur within matrixed work environments.
Strong critical thinkers have the ability to identify individual and integrated work stream challenges and propose solutions. They are able to manage project work streams in the context of the value proposition being delivered by the overall project/initiative and propose solutions that support the project’s business goals.


Meetings are the activity that most bring together project managers with their stakeholders. Due to their frequency, poor meeting management can lead to distrust in project managers and even avoidance of their involvement by work stream leads. Although a seemingly obvious skill, many project managers tend to “wing it” in meetings without leveraging them to build confidence and address the most important issues impacting the project at any given time.
Today’s project managers need to know how to run effective meetings with clear purpose, desired outcomes and agendas. Project managers need to know how to manage the three different types of meeting modes—inform, discuss/debate and decide—so as to adapt their approach to the required meeting mode.
By conducting productive meetings with clear purpose, desired outcomes, agendas and closings, project managers garner greater respect and confidence from their stakeholders.
Today’s complex work environment creates a “new normal” wherein traditional project management is not enough to successfully deliver desired outcomes.
The bottom line is that project managers are increasingly called upon to anticipate the issues that impact the project’s progress; understand the consequences of issues and actions; appreciate the interdependencies between multiple work streams and other variables; prepare for alternative realities and challenges; and to foresee, interpret and address relevant opportunities for effectiveness along the way.
In short, today’s project managers require a higher awareness of self, others and situations and should be ready to act decisively. Project managers need to be leaders as well as managers, strategists as well as tacticians, and business partners as well as business servants.
Kofman, Fred. Conscious Business. Sounds True, Reprint edition, 2006.
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Mango, 2016.
Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline. Crown Business; Revised and Updated edition, 2010.
Lonoff Schiff, Jennifer. “7 Must-Have Project Management Skills.CIO from IDG 30 Aug. 2017.
Aston, Ben, “7 Essential Project Management Skills for 2018.The Digital Project Manager 1 Aug. 2017.
Harrin, Elizabeth. “15 Top Skills Project Managers Need.Strategy Execution 8 Jan. 2015.
Udo, Nathalie and Koppensteiner, Sonja. “What Are The Core Competencies of a Successful Project Manager?Project Management Institute Jan. 2004.

Speed matters in business.
Many executives today are leading high-growth companies and startups. Velocity-driven organizations and type A executives work hard at delivering new standards of performance and handling increased levels of change and creative tension without sacrificing trust or momentum. That is no accident though. These high-velocity and high-trust organizations are consistently working on their team dynamics and culture.
Most of us are only aware of our culture and its impact on our team’s performance when we have to adapt to something. Culture matters when there’s a problem (e.g., explosive change) – otherwise it’s just there. (paraphrased from E.Schein)
Sometimes, though, (even for business juggernauts) the continued pressure to make history and deliver on deadlines and commitments may lead to breakdowns. Despite the consistent good intentions and impressive accomplishments of the individuals on the team, team members may understandably get caught up in a “swirl” of counterproductive, cognitive conflict (causing drag forces) and affective conflict (causing drama/gravitational forces).
In physics, velocity, efficiency and momentum are negatively affected by drag. The faster you go, the more drag you create. Even tiny changes in drag can create large differences in performance.
At best, the “drama, drag and swirl” may be:

  • Distracting and diverting the team’s energy away from more value-added activities.
  • Decelerating the potential for additional momentum (i.e., maximum velocity).

At worst, the “drama, drag and swirl” may be:

  • Undermining the team’s effectiveness and ultimate success of their business objective.

Approximately $350 billion U.S in lost productivity occurs annually in organizations, due to negative behavior (e.g. swirl, toxicity) according to Gallup research. As much as 40 percent of manager’s time is spent dealing with conflict, drama and unhealthy tension another research indicates. (Source:
Everyday (default/reactive) methods for responding to this kind of tension/drag may not help regain collaborative momentum or help your organization recover quickly enough. In these cases, gravity becomes the overpowering force compelling your organization to a complete stop.
Instead of default methods of diffusing conflict, high-velocity teams and cultures practice staying above the drama, drag and swirl more effectively, with a shared set of drag-reducing mechanisms (e.g., tools, skills, mindsets). To maintain speed, they practice with these tools (see chart below) consistently — especially at critical moments when it doesn’t seem like there is time to stop and practice.

What is creating drama, drag and swirl inside of your organization?

As leaders, we have the power to transform the culture of our organizations. The culture, or the general consensus of “how we do things around here,” affects our business in every sense. It affects productivity, effectiveness, employee satisfaction and even our economic bottom line.
A key way each of us can make meaningful change in the culture is through our everyday interactions — one conversation at a time. We can lift the spirits and energy of our people and empower them to “be the change” of a conscious culture, without fear of failure, judgment or repercussion.
And if that’s not enough, there’s plenty of evidence that this will multiply your business results tenfold.

Source: Firms of Endearment by Raj Sisodia

What do leaders want?
Leaders at all levels, be they a team, function, regional or company leader, all want to solve their business problems with as little distraction and as QUICKLY as possible. While their particular focus could be productivity issues, effectiveness, speed or a lack of innovation, they all want a practical and doable change that will reap results right from the start.
Some leaders link their business problems to culture. If they do, they want to know how to increase the sense of ownership and engagement their people have and how to empower them. Other leaders haven’t yet made the connection that this intangible, invisible glue could be a key to greater success.

What do people want?
Most people come to their place of work wanting to do a good job. They want to be satisfied, to make useful contributions and to feel their effort makes a difference. At the same time, they want to feel they are valued by their company. Can you imagine the power if leaders can provide this kind of working environment when the change feels relevant and doable to every person in an organization? Can you imagine how quickly things could move forward?

Can they get it?
The big question is, can we achieve this?
The solution is to highlight interactions by increasing the quality of the exchanges between the human beings that make up that workplace. We want to captivate the hearts and minds of our employees by engaging in real conversation between people. These need to be ones in which they feel heard and feel they can express their own truth safely.
We spend long hours on the technical aspects of our work, and yet we don’t find the right “time” to have the game-changing conversations — the very thing that will create that productive uplift, the very thing that offers people their own power to make a difference.

One conversation can make a miracle; we just don’t believe it!
Now how do you close the gap? What if you could lift the productivity by even 1 percent? What would that look like over a quarter? Over a year?
This can happen through empowering, building ownership, engaging people, and change happens quickly.

Create an environment of powerful conversation.
How do you manage a wild horse? You don’t. You tend to its environment and overall health so it can be itself. It’s the same for us humans. The right environment that meets our physical and psychological needs enables us to step up and bring ownership to our tasks, to give full attention and energy to our work. So, as leaders, we can create a space where people feel trusted, feel they can bring their best and be appreciated for that, and feel they can raise their voice and contribute their expertise and have their opinions be heard. For human beings, the key for energizing today’s communities lies in the quality of our interactions and internal well-being — one conversation at a time.

Change culture — one conversation at a time.
We’re not just talking about any old conversation but a thoughtful, authentic interaction — not an automatic broadcast. The conversations that really have an impact are those that are a true heart to heart, where you discuss something that matters.
Consciousness means stepping out of the automatic and into the authentic conversations about what’s really going on. Press the “pause button” and truly engage in what you’re saying. Exercise choice when it comes to your interactions. All this is deceptively simple, yet it’s not easy to do. But every time you try to talk with people in a different way, it will make a difference. Imagine if every conversation was 1 percent more authentic. Just that tiny change can have an immense impact. Imagine how that could add up over a quarter…or a year.

Do people really feel empowered by it?
Feedback we have received from a client on why the “conscious conversations” work in practice identified how empowering it was for the individual. Unlike most corporate programs that tell people how to change, this way of transforming culture places the power squarely in the hands of the individual. Rather than waiting for others to step out first — for “them” to act — with powerful conversations, the decision and the action are for the individual to take.
Armed with a new view of self-responsibility, people can speak up and increase mutual understanding about what matters to them, what can be improved, changed or resolved. When this happens, connections are made.
In addition to empowerment, with conversations, you can keep learning, you can keep expanding your confidence, and you can come back again if it doesn’t go so well. It’s not a single change but a human learning curve that builds up. Like a muscle used, we get better at taking off the unhelpful masks we’ve learned to wear.
One thing we hear from people over and over is that when their leaders authentically enquire and listen to people as they express their fears, hopes, ideas and contributions, then they feel more encouraged and more valued. The magic is that the manager is more empowered with tough changes, as they connect with the heart of people’s fears and worries. Then people feel less alone through the turbulent times. It simply helps to know that others care, to hear you’re not alone, to be asked to express yourself, and to feel truly heard.

Where is our evidence of better results x10?
It might feel counterintuitive to spend time talking to achieve better business outcomes, but it does work. There is plenty of evidence out there. A client of Axialent, a big pharma company, conducted an independent assessment of their “changing culture, one conversation at a time” workshops by asking only 15 of the hundreds of managers who participated to assess the impact. They quantified a significant, and measurable, positive impact of over $100 million in the first 12 months.
Improved decision-making, better team communications and smoother interactions across organizational boundaries were all cited as causal factors.
Some years later, we still hear people say that the program is proving its stickability.

In a nutshell…
Changing culture, one (conscious) conversation at a time, makes business sense. It makes common sense.
You will get:

  • A better company culture. Results in minutes, not months. Real, doable, relevant change.
  • People who can take the change into their own hands. They craft it for themselves.

There are many ways to change a culture in an organization, but the actual transformation comes from its people doing something different, adopting new behaviors, changing the way they have conversations and how they interact with each other.

In order to change something, we need to understand how it’s created, shaped and influenced. There are three influencers that drive culture: behaviors, systems and symbols.

“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most organizations have values and a mission posted on their website. They are presented to the organization in a beautiful way. However, those become obsolete if the leaders and key influencers do not role model those values. People in the organization will copy the behaviors of their leaders in order to be like them and create a sense of belonging, with the belief that the display of those behaviors will help them fit in and be successful. We learn this by looking around, mainly toward our leaders. What behaviors helped elevate them to the top? All become symbols, which we will discuss later. By themselves, behaviors are one of the most powerful tools leaders have to design and change the culture. If leaders and the key influencers can change their own behaviors by living more aligned to the values declared, people would get it faster.
If you notice as a leader that people are not displaying the behavior you would like to see in the organization, you need to first look at yourself and ask: “What am I doing (and my colleagues) that might cause others to believe it is the right behavior?” The interesting thing is, we are all leaders or an example to someone else in the organization. So in the end, we can all do something about it. I know, I know…you might be wondering why it all goes back to you. Remember the Player mindset: “If it affects you, it’s your problem.” The question is: How can you respond to the challenge?
Do you recall the secret change agents from the previous article? Understanding how behaviors influence the culture is a great way to create change.
How can you role model the behavior you would like to see in the organization?
These are related to all the processes you have in place in your organization. Some might be based on historical decisions and others might be more recent or born out of necessity. How is success in the organization measured, and how is it reported? What HR processes are in place, how is compensation defined, and what is the bonus scheme based on? How is budget allocated? These are all examples of systems at play. Systems are deeply ingrained in an organization and can be difficult to change. The question to change culture toward the behaviors you need should never be about the systems you currently have, but rather about the systems you will need two to three years from now. You need to stand in the future. Once you are there, look back to define the plan to get there.
Where do you see an opportunity for a systemic change in your organization to create the culture you need? If you had a magic wand:

  • How would people be rewarded?
  • What would the process be for allocating budgets?
  • How would decisions be made?
  • Is there any other system that is critical in your organization?

This is the most visible and recognizable. When you walk into an office building, you can get a first sense of the culture by observing people at work, how things are organized, who is where, what you see on the walls, parking lot allocations, office spaces and how people talk to each other.
Other meaningful symbols include the way a budget is allocated, how time is invested, who is promoted and who is not, and how accomplishments are celebrated. Are they individuals or teams? What values and what results are taken into account? Does any of this sound familiar?
One of the more relevant symbols is the story or stories being shared. Like any other community (from our tribal ancestors to our current days), we often share stories about how things were created and who succeeded (even creating myths). We share stories that are funny and stories about failure. We share learnings, and many times we talk about cases and people. We create symbols, ideas, myths and a future based on history. One of the most powerful assets for culture change might be which stories are being shared in the organization. When linked with behavioral change and new systems, everything comes together, making sense to people in a faster, more effective way.
What are some of the symbols in your organization? How can this be changed toward the culture you need?
What are the main stories being told? How is this conducive to the culture you want? Which stories can start being told?
In working with a large tech company, we discovered how the behaviors, systems and symbols could be quite a force at play in an organization. One of the main goals for the year was to align the company with a new set of values and create a “one company.” We looked at all the different behaviors that would be needed or changed to align with what “one company” would look like. Increased collaboration, openness, listening and sharing are all characteristics of new behaviors. However, employees found it difficult to change, and we were curious what might be getting in the way.
The organization was heavily matrixed. Employees had multiple reporting relationships. One manager would be really good at role modeling the new behaviors, while another would revert back to his/her “old, more hierarchical” ways. A second layer was that the compensation and bonus plan was entirely based on individual performance, which created a conflict of interest. On the one hand, there was an ask for collaboration and sharing, but this would possibly put someone’s bonus at risk because sharing or collaboration might not yield the same results. Why take such a risk?
Lastly, there were some heavy restrictions on the type of computers and phones that an employee could use; yet at the same time, a lot of the leaders would have the “forbidden” equipment, which made it all very confusing.
From this example, it’s easy to see how behaviors, systems and symbols could have a significant impact on the culture of an organization — and how we need to link the three and work on all of them to create an effective culture change.
Once leaders see what we explained until now, they say, “We need a culture project!” This is something you might say in your mind. And yes, there are a lot of things you can do to influence the culture, but culture change is not just a project.
This is another strong belief or myth.
Just as the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans went before us, so did the culture of your organization. The culture was already there when you arrived, and it will continue long after you leave.
Culture is a never-ending process of defining and redefining who you are as an organization — and finding new ways to bring this alive in new contexts, with new people, addressing different challenges. You are always designing the culture, and you can do a significant amount of change in a short period of time. You might call it a project if you want to “shock” the systems to address big challenges and to get specific budget and focus. However, culture — as a concept and as a whole — will continue to evolve. It will need to be taken care of beyond your timeframe, and there will not be a day where you say, “We did it!”

Strategy planning is all about setting targets and key performance indicators, right? If your planning process is primarily a financial exercise, you may be missing the greatest leverage to be derived from planning — that is, building a culture of team effectiveness.
Today, much of strategy planning is about conversations and choices that will guide the firm’s focus for the next one to three years. It may result in spreadsheets with target performance indicators or objectives for divisions, teams and individuals. These are all important items for driving clarity about business direction and focus, but they will not deliver results by themselves.
Equally important, the planning process can be used to drive the right mindsets and behaviors that support real-world business objectives and outcomes. The right targets and performance indicators alone do not ensure that people will collaborate effectively to achieve them. When planning strategy, collaboration takes the form of various discussions.
Strategy planning is about conversations — or a series of conversations — and viewing the business through different lenses to define areas of opportunity for growth. Discussions, debates and choices need to occur along the way. How do we analyze the current business situation? What are the implications of today’s market for our business? Additionally, talks are needed to define risks and to assign responsibilities and timing of tasks.
Conversations shed light on how people work together. As such, the process of strategy planning can be a great way to work on behaviors that can improve the effectiveness of individuals and teams. In a word, planning strategy is a reflection of an organization’s culture.
As an example, we recently worked with the senior leadership team of a global retail product manufacturer. We observed that their meetings consisted of each individual speaking their opinion about a topic but with no questions being asked of one another. It was as though each person put forth their belief as fact and spoke at each other rather than with each another. We shared this observation about their heavy attachment to their points of view and the obstacle it was creating in their ability to move forward, craft a direction and make choices concerning future strategy. We introduced the idea of asking more questions of one another rather than only speaking one’s opinion. With this approach, they immediately started to see possibilities that did not exist previously. The result was improved collaboration and creativity as they built on one another’s ideas. They arrived at answers in minutes that the previous six months of conversations were not able to provide.
Culture can simply be defined as how one perceives the need to act in order to be accepted and successful within the organization, division and/or team. It’s about how people come to share common modes of behavior and perspectives in the workplace.
Teams share organizational culture norms and tend to develop additional characteristics as a team, often driven by the leader’s beliefs and behaviors. Oftentimes, the culture is not something consciously developed; therefore, bad habits can go unchecked, lessening the impact of individuals, teams and the organization.
For example, as new ideas were introduced during a meeting with a worldwide consulting firm, the common response was that these ideas were not the way they usually did things. This exhibited a mindset that they were heavily biased to the ways of their past, even when those ways were no longer producing results.

Three pitfalls to planning strategy
Here are three common behaviors that become pitfalls to planning strategy. They often go unchecked, as teams focus only on the culture or the content of their conversations and not on how they have them.
1. Focus on assigning blame to what’s not working.
Strategy planning requires confronting issues that may hold risk for the business. When confronting risk, people often revert to explaining situations using factors outside of their control. This allows people to be innocent when facing the consequences of risk but also leaves them powerless to address it.
When people perceive a risky outcome, they will look to the economy, the infrastructure of their company, decisions made by others, the wrong product at the wrong time, poor execution, etc., to explain their situation. All may be issues easily understood, as they may indeed exist. However, if blaming any of the aforementioned issues becomes the lens through which a team plans strategy, then in order for them to be successful, the team requires that these same issues do not exist. As such, the team becomes a victim of circumstances beyond their control and is limited in their ability to respond.
While working with a global software company, the leadership team became focused on how they were unable to overcome disrupting forces in the marketplace that were threatening their ability to grow. This dialogue went on for some time without any investigation as to what was really holding them back from responding more successfully to the issue. We made the leaders aware that their mindset was focused on external factors beyond their control versus any consideration of what they may need to learn as a team to address disruption. As soon as the discussion shifted to focusing on their ability to respond, possibilities began to flood the conversation. They prioritized them based on time and resources, and they crafted a new strategy based on becoming a stronger learning organization. The result was proactive approaches to identifying what they most needed to learn and to then deploy new tactics based on these learnings.
The alternative to this victim mindset is to instead focus on how the team will respond in relation to the challenges they are facing, even when the challenges are outside of their control. This requires recognizing what individuals, teams and the organization may need to learn in order to confront their challenges. Through this empowered lens, teams will become aware of opportunities that could not be seen from within their victimhood.
For instance, team members may discuss their situation and determine that they do not have the necessary resources or budget to achieve their desired goals. An alternative is to face the truth that the team may not know how to do it given the resources and budget they have. With this latter mindset, teams avail themselves to what is within their control. They can then focus their time and attention on seeking out the information and learning required to achieve their goals instead of the impotence that remains when only focusing on what’s outside of their control.
2. Conversations that spiral and go nowhere.
Teams often place their emphasis and energy on the content of their discussions without considering the efficacy of how they are having them. A common result is that teams begin conversations without a plan for how to effectively have them and consequently have deliberations that go on and on without resolve.
We recently worked with the leadership team of a Fortune 100 company that needed to restructure its business to focus on the key areas that would create growth. In doing so, they needed to choose which parts of the business to divest. Many long-standing parts of the business had provided growth in the past but weren’t any longer. Instead, the company was using valuable resources and capital that could have been spread to new areas.
The back-and-forth between them was endless. People would defend one business area over another, share the reasons why each unit should be preserved, or why another new area of business should be pursued more heavily with investment. The team was unable to stop the exchange and move on to making important choices about where to invest and divest moving forward.
These never-ending conversations led to frustration among team members. They felt their input was not getting them anywhere. People stated their beliefs about an issue but did not know how or when to stop debating so they could move into decision-making mode.
All conversations in strategy planning can fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Inform — The purpose is to inform people about something. No decision, discussion or debate is required. It’s about making sure people understand the topic being presented and are aligned with their understanding.
  • Discuss and debate — The purpose is to gather input and perspectives from participants to enrich understanding and potential responses.
  • Decide — Once a topic has been presented and discussed, options become clear and a decision can be made regarding which option is best for the situation.

If a team can define the type of conversation they are about to have, they can more easily respond accordingly (i.e., check understanding, gather input, debate solutions and ultimately decide between two or more options).
Without this clarity, a number of participants can be in different conversation modes at the same time. While one person believes the purpose is to receive information, another believes a debate is supposed to occur, while yet another believes a decision needs to be made. This creates confusion and frustration, which impacts the effectiveness of how teams plan strategy.
It may indeed be the case that all three modes need to occur, but all three should never occur at the same time. Awareness of their sequence and conscious participation in line with the appropriate mode can make planning conversations more effective and easier to manage.
3. Difficulty making decisions.
Just as teams can get stuck in conversations that seem to have no end, they can also become paralyzed with the need to make decisions. This most often occurs when teams have not thought about how they will make a decision.
Returning to the example of the company that needed to restructure its business to focus on the key areas that would create growth, we intervened with a meeting discussion and decision-making model that allowed the team a structured way to share opinions and then to create clear options between which decisions could be made. Because there was now a clear method for making a decision, the team was able to decide and commit to a direction that had eluded them for the past two years. Their choices led to investments in new areas while preserving income from more mature areas of the business. The result has been a return to growth that matches their competitors and has even put them in the leadership position in their key area of focus.
Decision-making requires a clear and agreed upon method or roadmap. All decisions are a choice between two or more options. However, if decision-making rights are not made explicit from the beginning, then teams may struggle to make important decisions because no one is clear on who has decision-making rights and how they will be deployed.
For example, decision-making can occur through different ways. It may be as simple as the team leader making the final decision. Or perhaps the leader wants the team to discuss and the leader will then decide. Or maybe the team discusses and the team decides, which then requires the use of consensus-building techniques or other modes of group decision-making, such as voting. Still further, a leader may decide that the team is to discuss the issue, but a single member of the team is to decide, as the issue pertains to their area of expertise. And finally, the leader may simply ask another team member to decide.
Any of these methods bring clarity to how decisions will be made, and if one of these is chosen at the beginning of the conversation, then decision-making can occur more rapidly, preventing the team from becoming crippled by the process.
How teams respond to their situation, where they choose to focus, and how they have conversations and make decisions are all a reflection of cultural norms within a team and/or organization.
By bringing awareness to these areas, teams can consciously participate in the planning process and yield more effective outcomes. As such, the planning process becomes the perfect opportunity to reflect on the “how” we do things as much as the “what” we are trying to achieve. By proactively focusing on the “how,” teams and organizations can build more effective cultures of collaboration.

Now that we have busted the belief that you need everyone on board in order to start a culture transformation process, we will add an additional layer to that belief — the belief or myth that you need to start such a process at the top, with the most senior leaders, the CEO or the Executive Committee.
But do you really need them to start?
Of course, it is an ideal scenario to have the top leadership of your organization leading the culture transformation efforts — the leaders who are role-modeling the behaviors of the desired culture and are fully engaged in the process. In our experience helping global companies with culture transformation, this only happen in about half of the cases.
Remember the story in the previous article about the large manufacturing organization and how we engaged with a single team at the time. Other teams took notice and engaged with the HR team to set the teams up with their own leadership development programs, and slowly the culture change in the organization began to grow more and more obvious. After four years of working with different teams, business units and leaders, the CEO started to take notice. The overall performance of the organization kept improving, and he realized the new organizational culture was the driver for this. The organization’s board, including the CEO, is now embarking on their own leadership development journey to take the culture transformation to another level. This program will cascade to other leaders in the organization who have not yet participated. The HR team never lost sight of their ultimate desire to change the culture, but they focused their energy on those willing to engage, eventually impacting the 56,000+ employees.
Instead of focusing on who is not on board (e.g., your CEO), how can you focus on who is? Just like the innovators and early adopters, can you find a leader or a team that has the energy, engagement and appetite to start something new? The more you focus on who is on board instead of focusing on who is not, the more likely you will see those who are, and there are more than you had imaged. You just didn’t see them.
Just think about when you had set the intention of buying a new car, for example. All of a sudden, you are much more conscious about the cars around you — the colors, the ones you want, the ones you don’t like, the model, the make. You see those same cars every day on your commute, but when you actually put your focus on them, you are more aware or conscious of them.