The Difference-Makers

How some leaders change their organization's culture

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Many organizations get stuck in counter-productive habits. These habits may build up gradually, without awareness, and after awhile they become the norm — the way the organization works. They become the status quo.

Mark Smith, the Chief Innovation Officer at MedStar, has described the power of the status quo and how it blocks improvements. Staff members are so used to the status quo that they resist change because change is threatening, change is going to take more work, change is going to require people to adapt in ways they can’t predict. Staff members feel secure that they know how to do their current jobs; change guarantees insecurity.

Organizational leaders may try to explain the benefits of making alterations. They may state their values and desires for innovation. However, the status quo quietly defeats attempts at innovation.

Nevertheless, some leaders have been successful at overcoming the status quo. They have been able to make a lasting difference in an organization’s culture. After I identified a few of these leaders, I wondered what was their secret. I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive analysis, just a simple comparison to see what I could learn.  I realize that these types of hindsight analyses are flawed in many ways. For example, any behaviors I flagged might also be found among leaders who failed to make a dent in their corporate culture. And besides, I only looked at four individuals. So I am not guaranteeing any cures for the status quo barrier. I am just sharing my speculations, based on my attempt to uncover a useful culture-change method.

And I did spot one common strategy. But before I describe it, I want to introduce you to four people I consider difference-makers: Rooster Schmidle, John Mattingly, Alan Mulally, and Judith Goodhand.

Robert “Rooster” Schmidle is a Marine Corps fighter-pilot. (For some reason, military pilots have to have colorful nicknames, and Schmidle’s orange-red hair earned him his.) I met Rooster about twenty years ago when he was a Lieutenant Colonel (he is now a Lieutenant General), working on a Ph.D. in philosophy on the side. I was observing a high-visibility Marine exercise called Hunter-Warrior, designed to evaluate the use of digital technology to radically shorten the chain of command and the reaction time of field units. The exercise was due to start in just a few weeks, but the staff members weren’t close to being ready. The previous executive officer had just gotten fired for incompetence. Everyone was bracing himself/herself for a disaster. Then Schmidle appeared, the new executive officer. And he was like a force of nature.

The command post was filled with Marines sitting at work stations, passively receiving and sending messages. That didn’t suit Schmidle. He walked over to one Marine and had him send a message. Then he made that Marine stand up and walk over to the person in the back of the room who was receiving the message — they had never met before. Schmidle had them discuss what the message meant, and why it was important. Then Schmidle had the second Marine send his own message and they all walked over to the Marine who received that one. This drill continued until everyone had a turn. In short order, everyone in the command post had a feeling for how they all needed to work together. Schmidle never gave any speeches about coordination or teamwork. He simply made sure that the Marines knew who was sending and receiving the different messages. Hunter-Warrior turned out to be a great success, helping the Marine Corps transition to the age of information technology.

John Mattingly was Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services for New York City.  His organization of caseworkers make some of the toughest decisions I have observed — whether to remove a child at risk from its mother, or leave the family intact and risk further damage. I got to know John in 2011 when I was doing a project on caseworker decision making. I learned how John and his deputy Jan Flory introduced a number of exciting innovations — the one I am including here was to require a team decision making (TDM) meeting with the family, caseworker, supervisor, and facilitator, to make decisions about a child’s safety, before removing a child with placement in a foster family. These meetings involved the family in critical decisions about their children, and changed the way these decisions were traditionally made. But how could Mattingly be sure that the caseworkers would arrange these TDM meetings? Mattingly found a simple strategy. He informed the legal staff that they should not process any requests for removing a child unless a TDM meeting had been held. And that did the trick. He had built a “firewall.” In short order, the TDM meetings became standard — the new status quo.

Alan Mulally was the Executive Vice President at Boeing, and then the CEO of Ford Motor Company. As Bryce Hoffman tells the story in his book American Icon, Mulally stepped in as Ford Motors was in crisis. It lost $6 billion in the third quarter of 2006, even before the 2007-2008 recession. A culture of entitlement had resulted in inflated salaries and benefits, and a self-promoting mindset that put individual advancement over the needs of the company. Executives jockeyed for political power while relying on their staff members to get the work done. Mulally introduced a number of reforms but one of them seems particularly relevant to cultural change. At his first meeting with his senior executives, just a few weeks after he arrived, Mulally explained that at these weekly meetings, an executive could bring assistants but the assistants weren’t allowed to speak during the meeting. Previously, the executives relied on their assistants to respond to tough questions. No longer. Now each executive was expected to know the answers, if not that week then at the next week’s meeting. A wave of discomfort spread over the room. It is one thing to talk about accountability, but this new rule was a way to enforce accountability.

 In 1992, a new director, Judith Goodhand, was appointed for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services in Cleveland, Ohio. (I heard about Goodhand from Pat Rideout, one of Goodhand's successors.) The department, in response to crisis, had newly been created as a separate child welfare agency (vs. a division of a larger department), and Goodhand was its first leader. One of the earliest problems she encountered was the fact that many children needing to enter care had no identified placement at the end of the workday. Some even spent the night in the agency's building as they waited for a foster home to be identified. She was concerned at what seemed to be the lack of a sense of urgency about this problem, and was dismayed to watch her staff head home for the night while children, recently taken away from their parents and likely fearful and traumatized, were sleeping in an office building. She felt that if she was going to change the agency culture from staff "just putting in the hours" to a culture of advocating for the children, this was a good place to start.

So she instituted a new and simple policy: none of the senior staff members could go home as long as there was a single child left in the building waiting for a placement.  

Needless to say, this simple intervention resulted in a dramatic change, as all eyes were on the children who had not yet been placed.  It took only a few days before there were no more children sleeping in the agency's office building.

What struck me most forcefully about these four examples was that each one introduced a minimal intervention. Undoubtedly, other factors came into play such as charisma and trust. However, these leaders didn’t try to rely on personal attributes. They wanted to rapidly achieve a lasting cultural change, a shift in mindsets, and they did it by introducing a novel activity. Schmidle spent an hour or so walking Marines around the command center so they could understand how they fit into the mission. Mattingly built a small firewall to prevent caseworkers from backsliding and skipping the team decision meetings. Mulally ensured that his executives mastered the details of their units. Goodhand made sure her top staff personally felt the urgency of getting all children safe placements.

As I see it, these difference-makers (a) were aware that the status quo wasn’t acceptable; (b) diagnosed how the culture needed to change; and (c) designed a minimal intervention, a leverage point, that would not only interfere with the status quo but would make it difficult to later return to the dysfunctional status quo. The difference-makers were all behavioral engineers.

Speeches, lectures, values statements, all have limited impact. What counts is finding a way to block the status quo so that it doesn’t block you.