Skip to main content

Interview with Carolyn Taylor, CEO of Walking the Talk

Carolyn Taylor is one of the world’s leading experts in corporate culture transformation. She is the CEO of Walking the Talk. We recently caught up with her to discuss the role that collaboration and inclusion can play during a culture transformation journey.

Deloitte and Walking the Talk are proud to have worked in partnership to deliver culture change programs to clients in Australia.

We recently caught up with Carolyn, who graciously offered her time in this interview to discuss the role that collaboration and inclusion can play during a culture transformation journey.

Three key takeaways from this interview include:

  1. Culture transformation is a hot topic for a large majority of organisations; but there is a need to focus on the ‘human element’ during these change journeys
  2. It is about uniformed behaviour, and certainly not uniform ‘employees’ that will enable an organisation to achieve their desired culture. Note that uniform behaviour may at times be difficult to define across multinational organisations
  3. Inclusion and collaboration are recognised as important and are on the agenda for many businesses; so it is important for leaders to be able to openly talk about desirable behaviours and to see the world through a perspective that is bigger than their own.

With that, here’s what Carolyn shared with us during the interview:

My view is that there is an increasing swing toward, rather than a swing back to, a focus on organisational culture. The first time we did a project that focused primarily on culture change was in 1993. At that time, there was nothing happening in the field of culture change in Australia. Some organisations did not even have values developed! But now, the focus is increasingly on the role that culture plays in shaping organisational performance. Previously, initiatives focused on defining values and using generic tools. Now, leaders are looking at what will shift culture at a much deeper level

Three key drivers are contributing to this trend. The first driver is an increasing media focus. Recent high profile corporate disasters are increasingly being linked to poor corporate cultures: for example, poor risk behaviours in US banks contributing to create the Global Financial Crisis, BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Mexican Gulf being linked to poor risk and safety behaviours, and the UK’s phone hacking scandals a result of poor leadership and a “get the story no matter what” mentality - just to name a few.

The second driver is today’s new organisations. Many new entrants are coming into the market with very different cultures and attributing their success to their culture. Employees and customers are looking in at these new organisations and going: “Wow! Ok. Things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been.” Older organisations are being challenged by the cultures of these new entrants, and are looking to culture change as way of competing better in the war for talented staff.

Finally, traditional change management practices do not sufficiently address the human dimension of changing culture. Changing culture requires a much better understanding of human thinking patterns and behaviour than is currently addressed by existing change management approaches. Organisations cannot change fast enough because their culture is holding them back, and this needs to be managed as a critical force in its own right. Management must take into account the unique factors of the human change process

So yes, everyone is talking about culture now. I have noticed it more so in the last 3 years. For example, when I first wrote my book, 10 years ago, it was pioneering work. And there were only a few organisations tackling this type change – and now everyone is seeking to change their cultures. But many executives do not actually know how to go about doing it. Our work today is centred on making culture do-able.

To understand how culture change management competencies will develop, it is worth looking at brand management. Brand management is about 30 years further advanced than culture management, and both are aimed at changing perceptions and behaviour. Marketers understand this better than many other disciplines. Brand management has moved from something a bit flaky to mission critical, and it is a credit to the Marketing profession. It is now the turn of HR professionals to demonstrate the business impact of organisational culture, just like Marketing has with corporate brand. We need to take this as far as we can, and focus on the science of understanding people and what drives behaviour. This should be our new approach.

Fifteen years ago I gave a talk at the London Business School on the future of culture change work. At that time I did not know who would end up dominating the culture space. Was it to be marketers, consultants, leadership gurus? We didn’t know. Now every discipline see the importance of culture, and all are seeking results from culture. Having said that, many clients still do not fully understand culture or how to manage it and they are receiving confusing advice. Getting culture change to stick is difficult. It’s an interesting place to play right now!

You use the word ‘type’. ‘Type’ can mean style, and we don’t want everyone to have the same style. Or it can mean behaviours and values. And we know that some of these are more beneficial than others. Culture is the patterns of behaviours that are encouraged or discouraged over time. Performance outcomes occur through the behaviours people display and the decisions they make, and these are influenced by the values they hold. As culture professionals we need to be able to identify the ‘universal’ patterns of behaviour that ensure an organisation’s success. Behaviours that are integral to business performance should be considered to be ‘universally important’. They are ‘must-haves’! For example, taking ownership rather than blaming would be an important pattern of behaviour. The ability to listen to others and see the world through their view is important for customer centricity. These are patterns of behaviour that need to be common, if you have identified them to be important. Therefore, the goal would be to achieve the same pattern of behaviour across the organisation, rather than everyone being ‘the same’.

In large groups, particularly those from different nationalities, it does get more complex. There are variations in behaviour driven by national culture as opposed to organisational culture. For example, there are some groups or individuals that find the behaviour of ‘constructive challenge’ difficult. In an organisation that has defined this behaviour as a universal behaviour, leaders will need to stay true to that particular universal behaviour, and look for ways to foster it in the context of national culture norms. The thing is to recognise that there are always some variations on what this behaviour might mean, and to work with affected people to co-design that meaning.

Organisations which deal with global realities and where you see diversity as being much more apparent, have to learn to do this well. For example if you work out of London, lots of these organisations are dealing with groups in Asia, America, and Latin America. In these organisations you would certainly see universal ‘characteristics’. Equally, employees from different national cultures may respond differently or display these characteristics in different ways. Let’s look at a universal behaviour like ‘keeping your word’. If I come from India, would I take that to mean something different to those with a Latin American background? As leaders, we need to understand these nuances.

Another example relates to a universal behaviour like ‘taking accountability’. If you are from Spain or Portugal, you will have a challenge. There is no word for ‘accountability’ in the Latin languages. There is only a word for ‘responsibility’. The concept of holding people to account is not naturally in their linguistic models. A global organisation that has ‘be accountable for your actions’ as one of its universal behaviours might need to consider how this would apply in a Spanish cultural context.

The ‘universality’ of behaviours and creating these universalities is an ongoing challenge for culture professionals. Global organisations are very conscious of what it means to instil centre-led global standards in countries with very different national cultures. Let’s look at the issue of bribery – Australians define certain behaviours as bribery and as ‘wrong’, while others with different local experiences might not see it the same way. An understanding of diversity and inclusion is such a critical piece in culture change. The goal is to create universal behaviours, some of which should not change at all, while others could reflect local nuances. It requires sensitivity and a great deal of focussed effort.

In most circumstances culture gets set from the centre. I don’t personally believe in defining culture as a democratic process. It has to be a consequence of what you are trying to do in the business. It must support your strategic direction. Some roles have the best sense of that future, and therefore they should set the cultural direction. 

In the “Walking the Talk” methodology, One-Team is a key cultural archetype. Collaboration is a universal behaviour, and generally a very desirable one. It exists in nature, even animals survive by collaborating. Collaboration is how people work together to get more done than they would have separately, and it is the ‘how’ that differs across different cultural communities – and all the while the intent is collaboration.

Our first job is to create shared intent, intent to be collaborative. You need to think about that through different eyes, through the eyes of your customers, staff, stakeholders and broader community. Then we need to work out how we go about achieving that intent. The ‘how’ is where you would find variations within an organisation, From time to time, these variations can cause conflict. For example, if the way you are collaborating does not meet my expectations of collaboration, then there may be tension. But if we at least have the expressed intent as an organisation to focus on collaboration, we can recognise the conflict and work on an effective resolution.

You will not change culture unless you are able to talk about behaviour. We need to be able to have honest conversations, give feedback, and call out certain behaviour. Culture is about what gets discouraged or encouraged. Calling out behaviour? Everyone finds that difficult! As leaders, we have to work hard at doing this, to talk about behaviour together, no matter what background we come from. I have only ever seen organisational cultures change when expected behaviours were openly talked about.

In order to collaborate, you need the ability to see the world through a perspective that is bigger than your own. Whether this is essential in all culture transformations will depend on what your imperative for cultural change is. With some business drivers, it is the number one priority.

  1. Be clear on what good looks like – how do we need people to think, feel and behave in the future which may be different to how they are now? You need to have this picture – what behaviours you want to encourage and discourage – to explicitly state those. That is about not just walking the talk yourself but about helping others to do that as well
  2. Recognise that you are contributing to the culture – as leaders ask ‘are we walking our own talk?’ Leaders need to ask ‘can we own this journey ourselves?’ Do not externalise it, look at yourself, look at your team, and think about the shadow you are casting
  3. Be very active and call it out – creating a culture is much more than what you think and what you feel comfortable doing. It is easier to let something like poor behaviour slip rather than to raise it. But you have to do it! It takes attention and effort; you have to be honest and conscious, more conscious than we are a lot of the time.

If you wish to discuss what your ‘walk’ and ‘talk’ may be doing to your organisational culture, or if like many others, a collaborative culture is top of mind for you, please contact Carolyn Taylor via email at