Gary heil: a leading scholar of organizational culture and change

"Culture is to a group what character is to an individual"

For decades, Gary Heil has studied how organizational culture affects the ability of people to achieve their goals. Because culture is abstract, it may not always be fully understood. Yet Gary believes it is imperative for organizations to find faster and more effective ways to understand how the shared beliefs and assumptions of the group affect day-to-day decision making. 

Gary quickly grasped the inherent shortcomings in culture surveys and has pioneered ways to quickly evaluate cultures specific to organizations. While surveys are an effective tool for measuring certain categories of performance, they are far less useful in terms of illuminating the beliefs, values and assumptions that guide organizational decision making. He strongly believes that if we fail to understand how culture affects people, it's likely we'll fall victim to the pressures that perpetuate outdated practices, stifling critically needed innovation.

To put it simply: We have studied the effect that leaders have on groups yet we have not sufficiently studied the effect that groups have on leaders.  In turn, we often overestimate the effect of leaders and underestimate the effect of culture or environment. Even though the effects of culture are often unstated and implicit, the pressures are often unmistakable. Few of us like to think that we run with the herd. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that we often do -- even if we do so unknowingly. 

The culture of a group can limit or enhance -- often significantly -- a leader’s ability to create the kinds of changes they envision. The group’s culture influences leaders and teams in more ways than we realize. It defines who we are today and how good we might become in the future. It helps determine how creative and innovative we are. It influences how honest people are and how quickly they confront tough issues. It goes a long way to determining how we react when asked to learn, or when we're challenged. 

Culture is not about how we react occasionally. It is about what we do habitually -- and what we do when the pressure is on. Culture is to a group what character is to an individual. It's easy to talk about an idealized culture. It is quite another thing to build a culture that makes success more sustainable.  

Although culture is always evolving, it is a stabilizer of human effort. It gives members of an organization clues as to how they are supposed to perceive events, how they should feel and what action they are expected to take. It is the way that teams maintain social order.

Culture makes it possible to predict how others will react and whether they are likely to find meaning in what they do. It helps explain why some winning teams seem to always find a way to win the close games and why some teams seem to consistently snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Culture is difficult to change; yet we have little chance of changing what we don’t understand. Today, there are ways to better understand the shared beliefs that guide our actions. Every leader must act to further their understanding of their culture and must learn to use the best parts of that culture to help the organization evolve in ways that are consistent with their aspirations.

It's important to note that we don't really change culture by trying to change culture. We change culture one person and one habit at a time. Culture, at its essence, is the result of change.

“Leaders issue calls for cultural change, stating: “We need a more entrepreneurial culture,” or “We must create a culture of accountability.”  If we could alter the underlying beliefs of our organizations, the thinking goes, our practices would surely follow.  But changing the culture of an organization requires a transformation of the organization itself- its purpose, its focus on customers and results.  Culture does not change because we desire to change it.  Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together everyday… it is the performance that changes the culture- not the reverse.”

--  Frances Hesselbein 

GARY HEIL: Employee and customer engagment expert

"To become successful, we must believe ordinary people are capable of making extraordinary contributions"

Gary is a pioneer in the study of employee and customer loyalty. He understood years ago that customer loyalty is a trailing indicator of employee engagement. You simply can’t be a great service company if employees are not meaningfully committed to enriching the customer experience.

What's the biggest impediment to enriching the customer experience? Most often, it's the beliefs some leaders have about employee motivation and commitment. To become successful, we must believe ordinary people are capable of making extraordinary contributions, and we must build delivery and accountability systems consistent with those beliefs. We must also understand that we often ask people to deliver a level of customer service that they, personally, have never received. 

Leaders can't afford to believe people can be successfully encouraged to deliver outstanding service through the use of extrinsic incentives. After decades of research, it seems clear that extrinsic incentives do not increase people’s willingness and ability to serve others. In fact, they distract people from service. Incentives are all about "me" -- and studies show that the greater the incentive, the more pronounced the distraction from the underlying activity. Paying children to read, for example, renders them less interested in reading. It may sound counterintuitive, but the research clearly illustrates the futility of over-reliance on extrinsic incentives.

Much like "innovation" or "disruption," engagement has become a watered-down corporate buzzword, sapped of its original power and meaning. The important thing to know is that engagement doesn't correlate to improved performance. Only high levels of engagement move the needle in this regard. The same holds true with service. Customer satisfaction and higher profits are not correlated; businesses must reach beyond mere "satisfaction" to forge deeper connections with their patrons. 

To create a truly engaging customer experience, corporate leaders must believe their workers are capable of great things -- then create the infrastructure to support them. When people are working and playing in the moment -- and are so engaged with their work that it becomes its own reward -- true employee engagement is at hand.

And that's something that offers profound benefits for everyone.

Gary heil: Executive coach

"Leaders must do more than pay lip service to the idea of change."

Gary has worked with a variety of prominent executives in a diverse range of organizations in his role as an executive coach. Although every engagement is unique, Gary helps clients further their understanding of their leadership abilities and focus their efforts on high leverage activities. 

 This enables these leaders to better engage their teams, so that these teams are more capable of creating a better future for their organizations. At the heart of the process is the belief that leaders must do more than pay lip service to the notion of change. True leaders must exhibit a real thirst for accountability for making the types of changes that "move the needle."

The role of a coach is simple: To increase self-awareness, allow people to focus their efforts and provide them with high-quality feedback. This helps foster a sense of accountability, as the process is driven by a critique from the people in the best position to determine if leaders are truly effecting the changes they desire.

Gary firmly believes that success or failure in this realm is largely driven by a single variable: The executive's commitment to getting better. That's not always easy or comfortable -- yet it is the path to lasting, positive change.

Ultimately, leadership is a skill -- a competency no different than playing the piano, giving a speech or throwing a baseball. We would never expect an aspiring musician to become Mozart after a single day of instruction. Yet that's precisely the model too often followed in the leadership development business.

Just as it takes time and diligent effort to master music or sports, we must be similarly dedicated if we wish to learn how to lead. Given the deep complexity of human interaction, it's reasonable to say that becoming a great leader requires no less an effort than that required of a professional athlete or musician.