Thought Leaders

Thinking Out Loud with Jim Clemmer

Reprinted with permission from

Jim Clemmer on Leveraging the Leadership Team

Jim Clemmer has over two decades of experience in the world of human resources. He was co-founder of the training and consulting company, The Achieve Group, which was purchased by Zenger Miller and today is part of AchieveGlobal before moving on to consulting, speaking and writing.

Clemmer sees the leadership team as being the lynchpin of successful cultural change.
David Creelman spoke to Mr. Clemmer.

David Creelman (DC) – Let’s start with your hypothesis that the leadership team is the core of the culture. A lot of people think the CEO is the most important element, other people talk about the importance of middle management, and still others talk about the frontline workers. What makes you think that of those different categories, the top management team is really the one that drives the culture?
Jim Clemmer (JC) – Those are all important factors but I think of it as a series of concentric rings with the leadership team at the center and the culture rippling out from that center. Managers often talk about culture—which is an interesting phrase that needs to be probed further—but I think of culture as ‘the way we do things.’ When you’re looking at how to change the way people do things, whether it’s to focus more on customers or execute better, too often the management team is trying to get others to behave in a way that is inconsistent with their own behavior. That’s why you need to focus on the leadership team if you want to change the culture.

DC- When you talk about the leadership team, how big a group are you talking about?
JC- It’s usually just the immediate team that reports to whomever the most senior person is; that could be the CEO, a division manager or a plant manager depending on the set-up. It’s generally comprised of six to eight people.

DC- Companies have been working on culture change for a long time. What kinds of changes are people looking for these days?
JC- When you ask leaders what their ideal culture would look like, it generally has some element of being more outwardly focused, it usually has some element of being able to move more quickly, and it generally involves something around teamwork.

DC- So these are evergreen issues?
JC- Very much so. My last couple of books have both had subtitles referring to timeless principles. Having been in the business now for about 25 years and having lived through quite a number of fads, I keep seeing the same themes coming around again and again.

DC- So given that an organization wants to focus on one or more of these cultural change issues, you’re saying they should begin by looking at the behavior of the top team?
JC- Typically, they need to start by taking a look at the dynamic of the teams. The research shows that somewhere between 50 to 70 per cent of many change-efforts fail. When you dig down you see that many management teams are trying to bolt-on programs, processes, or changes rather than building them into the way they manage the organization.

Management teams often give a mandate to HR to, for example, get into empowerment or do training. Too often the HR people accept that, sometimes very gladly, thinking that they have commitment from the top. What they have is a very low level of commitment. It’s commitment to try to change everyone else while the leaders are saying they’re already OK.
When I look at the HR groups I’ve been working with, the ones who have been successful push back a little when they get those kinds of requests and say, “Well that’s great; however, let’s take a look at how we are living the values within our own management team.”

DC- Can you take me through the process you follow to get change in the leadership team?
JC- One recent example involves a large technical company that is full of engineers and scientists. The COO had come in from outside and recognized the need to counterbalance this deep technical focus with more of a focus on people.

The process we followed started with interviews and a series of e-mail surveys of the management team. Actually, until about a year ago I did all my initial assessment work through interviews and focus groups, but I’ve found that e-mail is just as accurate in most cases. I’m quite amazed at how open and detailed people will be in e-mails to someone who is essentially a stranger.

In this particular case, the survey included a series of open-ended questions around what the culture ideally would be like and what the management team should be doing. We used the moose-on-the-table analogy, asking what the big issues were that no one was openly talking about. In this case one of the things frustrating the COO was the lack of accountability and follow-through in the culture.

I got the responses back from the survey, extracted the themes and met with half a dozen core-group members to review what I had found. I wanted to get their insights and their sense of the dynamics of decision-making in the organization. Then I met with the HR executive and the COO to review all of that data. We followed that with a two-day retreat. This led to a whole series of plans and actions that are going to be put in place.

So what we’re doing is blending strategic planning along with improvement planning, along with examining the dynamics of the team. Working on the team is part of the whole process of deciding what the organization needs to focus on.

DC- It seems to me that what makes this different is that they are spending time looking at their own team, not just the broader company. What kinds of things are they going to do to make their team more effective?
JC- One of the key things, and this is a common one, is that their meetings are abysmal. It is astounding how terribly run many senior management meetings are. So one of the key things is simply reintroducing some of the basics around how to run effective meetings.

Another thing we did was to define a set of core values. The larger corporation, of which they are a major subsidiary, has a set of core values but there were too many. I find anything more than five is too much. So the leadership defined the absolute core values and figured out what that means in terms of their own behavior and how they call each other on this behavior.

When you look at their top goals for 2004, one of the imperatives is the effectiveness of the team and the other goals are connected to this. For example, one goal is building more accountability into the organization which has forced them to look at how the team holds each other accountable and why commitments aren’t kept.

DC- To me one of the toughest issues is getting them to call one another when they step out of line with the espoused values. How do you help them develop procedures so that they actually call each other on them?
JC- It depends very much on the team. One team I worked with had a problem with conflict in the team that was often wrapped up in so-called humor—but it was below-the-line humor. Of course we are all in favor of humor and it can diffuse lots of situations, but when it starts to be sniping it’s very destructive. In their case, we first talked about it and everyone agreed that it was an issue. So I explained the snowball story, which is that if it’s a snowy day and there’s fresh, fluffy snow on the ground and the whole team is goofing around throwing snowballs at each other, that’s a lot of fun. But, if you bury a rock in the snowball, throw it at someone’s head and when they get hurt, say, “I was only kidding, can’t you take a joke?”—that’s when you’ve gone below the line.

Now, how do you call people on that? In this case, the minute that someone looked like they were taking a shot at someone else, everyone taps their pen on the table to give instant feedback. They found this to be a very effective way to instantly call that kind of behavior.
In other cases, we’ve actually instituted formal reviews, either at the end of the meeting or periodically throughout meetings, to step back and review how the process of the meeting is going.

I was just working with a group in Ottawa and they have individuals who each champion one of their values. The champions act as the guardians of their respective values and identify at the end of the meeting, or even during the meeting, what’s crossing over the line.

DC- We’ve now talked about the importance of the leadership team and the mechanisms for making sure that they live up to the values. What else do top management teams need to do?
JC- I disagree with many team-building exercises because the notion is that building the team is some kind of isolated exercise, whether it’s outdoor stuff or simulations or games. You can put the teams through these kinds of warm and fuzzy exercises and everyone comes out feeling nice but they haven’t necessarily addressed the real issues of the team.
We find there are three interrelated areas: team development, individual coaching, and organization development. I don’t think you can separate those but too often experts and coaches do. That does a disservice to the organization, it disintegrates what has got to be deeply integrated. All the successes we have had are because we pull those together, we don’t coach someone as an individual somehow separate from the team or the organizational changes that are happening.

I’ll go back to the first example that I started with; one of their four imperatives was leadership. Originally it started off as leadership development or training, and then they said that’s too narrow. It’s not just training: it’s how we do succession planning, it’s how we hire, how we make promotion decisions, it’s the formal and informal mentoring—all of these things. We can’t do any of that in isolation. It’s got to be deeply linked to our values as a team, to how we’re working as a team, and to how we’re trying to change the organization to the culture.

DC- Do you have some closing advice for the HR manager who has the mandate to change the culture but the top management team hasn’t recognized that it’s got to start with them?
JC- The generic advice is to look at what’s keeping the executive team up at night and link whatever mandates you’ve been given to that bigger, more integrated issue. If it’s training and you’ve been told to go sheep-dip everyone through a series of training exercises to fix them up, you need to understand what’s really on senior management’s agenda and see if there is a way to connect this training effort to a bigger strategic issue. Then you can show how they need to play a central role in exemplifying the training and supporting it with more than just lip service and dollars.

I can think of one large, petrochemical company that was trying to improve safety. The HR and safety people, who were part of the same team, found the way to get senior management involved was to start with a division that was led by a very enlightened and well-respected leader. They used that group as the pilot for rolling out training the way it needed to be rolled out with the executive team front and center. With the success that came from that they were able to find the next division that was ready to go, and build their success from there.

DC- Is there anything else we ought to cover?
JC- I would summarize by saying that HR has got to be much more strategic than it often is. It needs to look for building in the change or training initiatives rather than bolting them on to the side of the organization. And while this sounds self-serving, I do think there are lots of instances where true partnering with outside providers of consulting or training can help. It amazes me how seldom HR people truly partner with their training vendors to ensure that the training is used to its maximum effectiveness. Too often HR people hold their training vendors at arm’s length and treat them as vendors rather than partners, even though they may be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

David Creelman is Senior Contributing Editor for He has also embarked on several new ventures including:
Helping companies value intangible human capital
(Un)consulting to companies who have got bogged down in scorecard implementations
A magazine to help managers lead more meaningful, ethical lives
Prior to working in HR, David worked in Finance and IT. He has an MBA and an Hons B.Sc. in Biochemistry and Chemistry. David loves e-mail. Write him at