Culture diagnosis: What do you do when your culture just isn’t working anymore?

By Marty Parker

I sat down with Caroline Riseboro, President and CEO at Trillium Health Partners Foundation recently, to talk about her experiences transforming corporate cultures. We talked about how she approaches cultural assessments and engaging staff and other stakeholders in the process. We also talked about how she manages change:

“I actually don’t believe you can manage change. The only way to actually manage change is you’ve got to be the change. So if you’re trying to manage something that’s coming at you, you’re too late. You’ve got to get ahead of it by actually instigating the change.”

You can listen to the full conversation here, but continue reading to learn more about Caroline’s approach to diagnosing culture and driving change in cultures that are no longer working.

Marty Parker:
Caroline, you joined Trillium Health Partners Foundation earlier this year. What can you tell us about the culture and what you walked into?

Caroline Riseboro:
Whenever I go into a new organization, the first thing I diagnose is culture. A lot of people will read the strategy or look at the org structure, look at financials. All of those are really important and things that you can look at on a page, but actually, what’s really going on is what’s not on the page. It’s what’s happening, how decisions are made, how people are acting … what that corporate culture is. So it was no different starting at Trillium, although I had to do this during a global pandemic.

I was brought in to do a transformation. And I think I found a culture where people were sort of hesitant to act, second guessed themselves at times, very much of a focus on perfection over, let’s say, momentum and speed … As I’m sure many people are saying these days, never waste a good crisis. I think one of the things we did was we used this opportunity to really change the culture into a much more, I think, efficient, fast moving, agile culture, because we’re dealing with a global pandemic, and that’s what’s required of us.

Marty Parker:
Oftentimes, we don’t want to change culture, unless we have to. But we are having a change underneath us; societal culture changes, and organizational culture will change. So how will you evaluate and measure it if it’s running along the path that you want it to?

Caroline Riseboro:
So what I did with my team to kind of measure this is I was really intentional a couple of weeks ago to sit them down and say, “Okay, like, how have we changed? What are the lessons learned here?” And I think it’s so important to not always be kind of looking on paper and looking at metrics and measuring things, sometimes actually, there is something to the qualitative review. And so I sat down and said to them, “How’s your leadership changed? Let’s reflect on this. What’s been good about this? What’s been challenging? And what are the key pieces that we want to keep?”

And it’s been interesting, as we’re kind of getting through the second half of COVID-19 now and things are beginning to get a little bit back to this new normal, we’ve continued to have these discussions, because we can see the culture falling back into old habits. And we have to be intentional to continue to sort of push against the things that we want to change and continue to keep some of these pieces that we’ve learned during COVID-19 alive and well, and that they become our new standard.

Marty Parker:
Before joining Trillium Health Partners, you were at Plan International Canada, where you and your team were both thoughtful and deliberate in terms of building the culture – and the results followed. So talk a little bit about that, if you would. And what do you think the key elements were of that change?

Caroline Riseboro:
I think that we find some of these cultures, we know that there are cultures that simply don’t work anymore. So what did I find at Plan when I came in? Well, again, I think there was this sort of lack of focus, everybody kind of doing their own thing, working in silos. There was also very much this fear of failure. So again, it kind of really inhibited our ability to innovate and try new things, because failure was kind of come down on so hard. There was this kind of growth mentality at sort of any cost, but it was costing us so much to kind of grow the top line at times.

And then I think the other issue was just really like a lack of kind of accountability at the end of the day. So everybody was accountable for their key goals, but it was sometimes at odds with the goals of the organization. And then I would just say leadership capabilities missing; core, core leadership capabilities missing.

But the challenge with going into any organization, and you can assess it, and you can assess the culture, but then the second step you need to do is assess the team. And does the team see the need to change? Does the team want to change? Or is the team kind of set in their ways? And when I was at Plan, I would say probably 50 per cent were on one side, 50 per cent were on the other side.

I think what’s been great about joining Trillium at this time is that I think the team that I have want to change, they want to progress, they want to do things differently, and that’s made, I think, a lot of the difference.

So again, these cultural issues are very similar organization to organization, and I think we know the culture that works. The key question is whether you have the team that is ready to make that change with you.

Marty Parker:
You can do different things, but to do them in a sustained way requires people buying in and behaving consistently, and you’ve done that. But you also have a bit of a different leadership style than maybe some. And not just focused on where you are today, but where you really want to be. But what challenges have you faced in terms of having that kind of leadership style, and what kind of impact do you think that that’s had on the organizations that you’ve worked with?

Caroline Riseboro:
I think there’s the sense that there’s almost kind of two kinds of leaders that can instigate change. You have your leader that kind of comes in and like goes down on it hard, and let’s say, gets rid of the team, starts with new people and kind of pushes, pushes, pushes, but then they can’t stay at the organization because they’ve had to do so much pushing and the hard work that now they have to sort of move on to the next to create, because they’ve created that change and they’ve had to do so, so hard that it’s really hard for them to stay.

Then there is kind of the idea of bringing the leader in that can really kind of sustain and maybe they’re kind of a bit of a slower in terms of the change, but it’s longer term and they’re meant to stay there for the long-term. And usually, they follow the leader who’s come in and transformed.

I think quite honestly, it’s an artificial dichotomy that we’re setting up for people, to kind of say that leaders have to sort of fall within those categories. And I hope that I’ve been the leader that’s actually bridged the gap between the two. I think I can push change, but I can do it in a way that’s sustainable, where I can stay for the long run. And I think, actually, it can work better, because as leaders kind of come through organizations, it can create a lot of inertia. So you want to bring in people that can stay for a while and create really sustainable change. It might be a little bit slower, but I always say, you got to slow down sometimes, at the beginning, to speed things up later on.

So as I go into organizations, I take enough time. I don’t do it super fast, I don’t do it super slow; I take enough time to assess where the opportunities are, assess where the culture is at, assess where we need to go with the culture to realize high performance, and then get us there. And that includes having to transform Boards and the way they think, and having to transform your stakeholders, and that just takes time. And you can push it through, but it’s going to be hard to maintain it, so you’ve just got to keep at it, as we were just talking about.