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Author Archive for Alyssa Burkus

Is your culture built to last?

SandcastleI love sandcastles. The process is messy, but the end result is always satisfying. You have to think about design, use the elements available, and work through trial and error until you create the structure you envisioned.

There are often tweaks along the way, particularly if there are unforeseen factors that impact your castle, and modifications at times as you await the dreaded tide. Did you build far enough up the shoreline? Did your “game-changing” castle moat channel the tide around it as you had hoped, or is your hard work being washed away?

In some ways, culture in an organization evolves in a similar way. A combination of elements – some that you’ve added intentionally, like programs, communications, training; some added by others over time, like new ideas and behaviours – create a unique working environment. And you never know whether there’s an industry “wave” lurking around the corner that will disrupt you.

You need to have a culture that can ebb with changes in strategy or direction, but how permanent does it need to be? With some organizations, maintaining their current culture through any type of change is critical: “The culture we have is part of our brand and who we are, and we don’t want this new initiative to change that.” For others, changing the culture is part of the project criteria: “We know that we need to change how we work together if we are going to be able to meet our growth targets.”

What’s the secret for knowing what will work? Is it possible to create something that is ever-lasting? Should that be the goal?

We see many examples of strong cultures in successful companies like Google and Zappos, where just hearing the name of the company brings to mind key elements of their workplace. And yet, even in those cultures, companies make dramatic changes, such as Zappos’s recent elimination of people managers.

When new forms of organization structure or culture hit mainstream media, many leaders are tempted to pursue them, in the hopes of achieving similar business results. I can remember many times from my days in HR when managers would see the latest Fast Company article and ask me “is this something we should do too?” Or insist that this was something we must pursue, immediately.

It’s hard to know when to look to new trends, but my starting point is always this: what’s broken today? It’s about figuring out what needs to change so that the organization can meet its goals, and individuals have the elements they need to enjoy work and achieve success.

Instead of leaping into every trend, take a step back on a regular basis to evaluate your culture’s current state. Examine what’s working well, for employees, leaders and your customers. Analyze whether your culture is a reflection of the brand projected externally, as it is critical that they are aligned, and if not, figure out what needs to change. And finally, assess whether there are structures, programs, activities or behaviours that are preventing the organization from achieving its goals.

Answering these questions will help you figure out which direction to take and whether changes are needed, whether large or small.

The goal shouldn’t be to create a culture so firm that we can look back for years on it with pride, as something we built. Ultimately, culture is about creating an environment that is anchored in strong, lasting elements that support achieving the desired outcomes, and is capable of the flex needed to adjust as the company changes and grows. A culture that keeps pace with the ever-changing business environment and goals is truly one that will stand the test of time.

Alyssa Burkus is the Founder of Shift Wisdom, an organization strategy and change management consulting firm in Toronto, Canada. She works with leaders and teams to build the skills and culture needed for change to become part of the corporate DNA, creating agile, collaborative and engaged teams. Connect with Alyssa on Twitter @alyssaburkus or via

Be The Wind Of Change

I am halfway through my first MOOC (massive open online course), and it has been exciting to get back into the university groove.  I am taking a course on Innovation and Change through Vanderbilt University with over 50,000 other participants (that is not a typo – you should see the discussion boards!).  It has been fascinating to be part of a new form of education, and easy to see why many are saying the MOOC is disrupting education at a fast pace.

One of the early themes from our course emphasizes the importance of persuasion as part of the innovation process.  Without being able to successfully influence others to use or implement the change or new idea you have created, your amazing ideas remain stuck as words on a wall, or as untested prototypes.

Whether we like it or not, our ability to influence the actions of others is a critical part of our career success.  We talk a lot in HR about getting a “seat at the table”, but it often translates into wanting the ability to influence strategic decisions for the organization.  How do we establish ourselves as influential in an organization, and direct the winds of change?

For HR professionals, there are lots of approaches to increasing your influence.  Here are some ways to get started:

Manage HR Like A Business

You won’t be respected for the work you do for the rest of the organization if your own department is in disarray.  Ensuring effective and efficient delivery of solutions to your customers, knowing their needs, connecting with them often – these are all critical elements of managing your work effectively and being an HR business owner.  If you are just starting your HR career, knowing how your role supports annual business targets, what the costs are for using certain services, and the value you are delivering on a monthly and annual basis are important metrics to learn.

Implement Solutions That Meet Business Needs

If your customers have set increased sales targets for this year, what are you doing to support their success?  Have you introduced them to new sales training?  Reminded the sales team leads about internal collaboration tools available to keep them connected?  Introduced them to the concept of daily or weekly “stand up” huddle meetings?  You get the idea.  Solutions that help your customers be successful ultimately increase your influence in your organization.  You become the “go to” person for new ideas that support success.

Engage Senior Leaders & Key Influencers At All Levels

Senior leaders are key drivers of change for most organizations, and their words carry a lot of weight.  Most change management primers will tell you that your ability to engage senior leaders, as well as influential people at all levels, is a critical step to overall change program success.  Early conversations with leaders and influencers about your ideas, how they connect to critical business targets and strategies, as well as why their involvement is key to the successful implementation of your program, will play a huge role in setting you up for success.

Increase Your Digital IQ

If you attended Impact99 last year, or follow the blog posts of Pam Ross, you already know that increasing your knowledge of social and digital tools is essential to establishing your influence, as technology continues to be critically important to organizations.  This isn’t just about learning to use new tools, like Twitter and Facebook for business, but understanding how technology can be used to improve organizational effectiveness.   This is not about being “hip” to the latest trends; it’s about  understanding how tools can drive business results, and how to measure the results that are generated.

There are lots of other ways to increase influence, and my list is a starting point of a much larger conversation.  What’s next on this list?  What works for you in successfully influencing new direction and innovation in your organization?

You Say You Want A Transformation

Dave Ulrich’s book “HR Transformation” was the topic for our last #HRBookchat on Twitter,  and we were fortunate to have co-author Justin Allen join our discussion.  And while The Beatles’ song “Revolution” is a long way from the topic of HR Transformation, for some reason, the tune keeps dancing around in my head whenever I think about this book.  Transforming the HR function can feel like a revolution at times, or at minimum, a drawn out battle.  HR teams who can truly operate at a strategic level are ultimately those who are best able to support their organizations in delivering tangible and significant results, and getting to that stage always worth the effort.

If implementing changes in your HR organization is on your list to complete this year, here are key components from the book and the #HRBookchat community on how to do it well:

1. Connect your HR plans to business strategy.

The basis for the book, right down to the subtitle, is the understanding that HR must been built from “the outside in”. The direction, goals, and ultimately the workplace and culture created, all must be developed and refined to meet the needs of the business.  The authors note, “HR transformation is not about doing HR, it is about building business success.” Implementing strategic solutions means understanding how you are contributing to the achievement of key business outcomes.  Getting a better price from your benefits provider doesn’t cut it as a strategic contribution.

2. Be flawless in your operational activities first.

The authors note, “HR organizations that don’t do transactional work flawlessly are not credible when they attempt to play strategic roles.”  If there are gaps in your HR service delivery, or areas that would benefit from improvements in efficiencies, you need to deal with these issues first.  Only when you are seen as a successful manager of your own business will you be able to contribute to helping others successfully manage theirs.

3. Get HR connected directly to front-line activities.

In order to understand the issues and areas for opportunity within the rest of the business, HR needs to connect closely to the front-line.  The authors present an optimal model of corporate HR services with front-line business partners, a model many organizations use today.  But they push further to encourage HR staff to have a deep understanding of the business, by learning the elements that impact profit and knowing how people contribute to the long-term growth and success of the organization.

4. Don’t let the transformation end with “simply” restructuring.

Many reorganization or restructuring efforts are described as transformative, but redefining roles or changing the composition of functions within the HR department is not enough.  The authors note, “HR transformation should change the fundamental identity, culture or image of the company.”  If your efforts do not create outcomes visible to customers or investors, you haven’t taken it far enough.

5. Ensure ongoing investment in HR skill development.

The book emphasizes the importance of ongoing development of skills and knowledge for HR teams.  Beyond learning about trends in HR or keeping up-to-date with legislative changes, you need to ensure the capabilities of your team are evolving to meet the needs of the business.  This could be everything from developing financial skills for non-financial managers to developing stronger social media savvy.

6. Engage line managers, and prepare for nay-sayers.

The authors refer to the activities, attitudes and individuals who can ultimately derail your changes as “viruses”.  Careful planning to anticipate who or what can sabotage your efforts is a critical step.

The book continues with guidance on building ownership for HR with line management, as well as detailed project plans, including milestones and measurements.  The authors have created a summary of the book, including templates and videos, which you can find at

Overall, the book is a great resource for anyone looking to tackle transformation, whether you are just beginning the process or looking to make ongoing refinements.  The book chat was a great opportunity to connect HR leaders with one of the authors to discuss this topic in detail, but there is also a wealth of information and experience in the EOList community on success transforming organizations.  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below – what has worked well for you?