Book Review: The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change by Siobhan McHale

Book Review: The Insider's Guide to Culture Change by Siobhan McHale
The Insider's Guide to Culture Change
Genre: Management

EBook | 208 pp. | HarperCollins Leadership | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.0 rating

The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change is a book that just appeared and written by Siobhan McHale, an HR leader with deep expertise in Culture Change. I had met her at the HR Congress in Nice, where she led a session on Culture Change, anticipating the key concepts highlighted in this book.

The book is dense with example and case studies, especially with a quite known one: that of ANZ Bank that McHale has helped succeed. There is also a critical theory that the book delivers, which is that Culture Change is an intentional design effort.

Smart culture-builders define their business needs before they take step one.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 49

Defining Culture

The first aspect The first aspect that the author examines is the definition of what Culture is. My definition of workplace culture is “The patterns or agreements that determine how the business operates.” is her definition. But she also uses a simplified version: “It’s how things work around here”. Simple and to the point.

Culture emerges not from a proclamation or code of ethics but from how people, especially the organization’s leaders, behave day in and day out.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 2

What is sure is that Culture can make or break your strategy: which is why there needs to be thorough attention to it. She goes on by enumerating several examples of cultures gone wrong, to show how the best strategy cannot survive if a supportive culture does not support it. Taking care of your Culture becomes an essential leaders task, even if she notes that Culture change is the hardest work you will ever do.

The Myths about Culture

The author spends quite some time across the entire book to “debunk” several myths that exist about Culture, particularly in a corporate context. On the book website, there’s also available a one-pager that summarises the 10 Myths About Culture in an easy to remember format.


The Culture Disruptor

The book is developed around the concept of a four-phase methodology to design and implement Culture Change. McHale calls this The Culture Disruptor and is organised on four steps:

  • Diagnose what’s really going on in the workplace and beyond,
  • Reframe the roles of different parts of the business,
  • Break the deeply embedded patterns, and
  • Consolidate their gains.

I like the model because it is simple to be communicated, yet it encompasses all the fundamental steps of a successful Culture Transformation Journey. Some would argue that you need to be more analytical. But I think this model works well if used in conjunction with other change management tools, especially as it ensures you keep a balanced eye on the four dimensions necessary for a successful Change.

1. Diagnose

This step is the one that McHale describes with more passion and intensity, probably because it is the one often forgotten. A good Culture Change starts by understanding the current Culture in the organisation, that she articulates in 3 components:

  • Mental Maps: The perceptions, point-of-view, and images you hold in your head about your work.
  • Roles: The part played by a person (or function) in a given situation.
  • Patterns: The (often hidden) agreements and cocreated rules between the parts.

To be noted that her definitions of these components are somewhat simplified versus the generally accepted ones in today’s Behavioural Theory. But they work well in the context suggested. I especially like the focus she gives on Role and Patterns, and particularly on the co-creation aspect of the latter (although often this happens unconsciously). And it is the Patterns that hold the key for change.

Culture […] was less about what happened (the behaviors) and more about how the workplace functioned (the patterns)—these patterns held the key to lasting change.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 27

By focusing on Patterns rather than individual behaviours, McHale builds a construct that simplifies the operations needed for a successful change but also implicitly criticising the mainstream practice of focusing solely on behaviours.

In culture work we are not looking for a root cause—instead we must learn to see the connected patterns and the role different parts play in co-creating them.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 67

2. Reframe

It is the other exciting aspect of McHale’s methodology. Reframing is the act of intentionally using role expectations to change behaviours. She focuses on the role because she states that the other two components that drive behaviour (Instincts and Personality) are harder to change. In her words, every one of us plays different roles in different parts of our lives. Thus, reframing roles becomes an achievable strategy to change behaviours and transform every person in a change leader.

This is particularly critical for the Leader in the organisation. “How can you expect a change initiative to succeed if you do not define your role as the ‘chief change officer’?” is the question she asks herself, focusing on one of the critical success factors in culture change: active sponsorship. Transformational leaders spend at least 20 per cent of their time taking up their change role. It means creating a Top-Down process that enables the entire organisation.

3. Break

This step is about taking ownership of the journey, a genuinely inspiring concept. Too often, we see only a focus on the operational side, whereas the focus needs to be to break with the past and develop the new Culture intentionally. It happens by tackling deeply embedded patterns, and leveraging again three points we have seen before: Mental MapsRoles and Patterns that we want the new Culture to express.

Culture is a complex, adaptive challenge, with no easy answers or ready-made solutions. It requires leaders who can plan a course of action, in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity, because the change will not happen by itself or simply by publishing a new set of corporate values.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 106

This phase is unequivocally impacted by the quality of people, which is why the author dedicates chapter 7 on the engagement of the entire organisation. In successful cultures, leaders hire people who will bring the desired Culture to life she states. Everyone should be turned from early on in the journey into a problem solver. With the ability to impact its own area of influence.

It is also essential to think of all the levers that can be used. McHale identifies Five fundamental system changes that can reinforce the desired Culture, and that she analyses in detail.

  1. Digital Technology,
  2. Performance and Reward Systems,
  3. Processes, Policies, and Procedures,
  4. Business Remodeling
  5. Physical Environment

All these elements will help the formation of a story, which is the ultimate tool that is needed for real success in Culture Change.

4. Consolidate

Chapter 10 discusses the phase of Consolidation, also an often neglected step. It’s about embedding the Emerging Culture into the day to day work. It’s about consolidating gains and making them visible. Consolidating gains often involves people working toward a goal beyond just revenue and profit growth. WHich is why McHale insists a lot on Measuring results. Too often, Culture is not measured in terms of impacts. But McHale presents us with some great ideas on how to link specific metrics with the type of Culture we want to achieve.

Fig.3: Examples of Metrics to measure Culture Impacts. Source: Siobhan McHale, The Insider's Guide to Culture Change, page 164
Fig.3: Examples of Metrics to measure Culture Impacts. Source: Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 164

Leaders can think of culture not as the “soft,” relational stuff that resists measurement but as a business dimension that can (and should) be quantified.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 165

This part is also insightful as it is about building a constant change capability within the organisation. Which becomes a dual focus effort. Change Leaders, according to McHale, should Think like a strategist AND act as a tactician; Lead AND follow; Display high IQ AND EQ; Persevere AND adapt; Analyse data AND rely on intuition; Take life seriously AND have fun; Teach AND learn. Dualism is an aspect that is key in today’s world.

Conclusion: The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change

A Culture Change journey is a journey of continuous resilience. It’s not an easy task, and McHale is capable through her book to make the point through a holistic yet straightforward process.

Culture change is not for the faint-hearted and the journey is full of unexpected twists and turns. Those who prevail possess resilience: They have the ability to bounce back from the setbacks, that they invariably encounter along the way.

Siobhan McHale, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change, page 186

She shows how Leadership is critical, and how much the competencies we have seen for success, are critical to achieving change. She also implicitly acknowledges that we need a specific type of Leader for this, able to see the big picture and able to improvise. Creating a sense of Purpose is also vital for success.

The only regrettable aspect of this book is that it somehow fails to create a connection with scientific research on the topic. There are many implicit references derived from experience, but it would have been great to further support this excellent work with some more focused bibliographic research.

All in all, a genuinely actionable tool for the Leader that wants to engage in a Culture Change process, as well as for any practitioner that wants to undertake the journey of supporting a transformation process, making sure all aspects are correctly managed from start to end.

And you? How did you find this book?

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The Insider's Guide to Culture Change
Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Siobhan McHale
EBook | 208 pp. | HarperCollins Leadership | 11/02/2020 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781400214655
Buy on Amazon

The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change by Siobhan McHale Goodreads Reviews

  1. […] change programs fail. I suspect, for example, that a lot of the consolidated Patterns that Siobhan McHale mentions in her book The insiders’ Guide to Culture Change are a direct consequence of the Business Model of a company. We need, therefore, to ensure […]

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