Keynote Speech Re-Cap At SynFiny

I recently spoke to the partners and employees of SynFiny, a Cincinnati-based global consulting firm, about my leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs.  I was asked to talk specifically about how to change corporate culture.  I began my talk by asking an important question, “What do you do, and what steps do you take, when you are asked to take over an organization in crisis?”

7 Tips for Managing an Organization in Crisis

Once you have accepted the challenge, here are some steps I suggested from my personal experience.

  1. The first step may be to analyze the current situation.  To do this an analytical model is needed as a framework for that analysis. In my case I used the High Performance Organization Model I used at P&G.  The foundation of any high performance organization is its Purpose, Values, and Principles (PVP).
  2. At the VA I discovered that our PVP was violated by employees in the cover-up of Veterans seeking care at our Phoenix VA Medical Center.  Because of these violations we started PVP training and certification, which we did each year.  We also started every meeting, every speech with a review of our PVP and how it applied to our business decisions.  High performance organizations make their PVP central to all they do.  It is pervasive in their culture.  Employees have line of sight from their daily activities back to the Purpose of the organization.  (For example, this is the employee at the Kennedy Space Center sweeping the floor with a broom saying that his activity is “putting a man on the moon”.)
  3. I spent considerable time talking about how you change the culture.  Behavior inconsistent with an organization’s PVP’s suggest an organization has an issue with its culture.  We talked the importance of the leader setting and raising standards.  At P&G if you perform a year from now how you are performing today, your rating will actually go down.  Standards increase over time.  We clearly had an issue with standards at the VA.  When I took over 90% of all Senior Executive Service employees were rated “outstanding,” yet VA employees rated the department toward the bottom of all Federal government departments.  Why did employees think we were a bad place to work, yet our supervisors were all rated outstanding?
  4. We created training called Leaders Developing Leaders (LDL) to train the organization in our PVP, strategies, culture, human centered design, journey mapping, and more.  An outcome for LDL was for every leader to have a personal project to improve their area of responsibility.  Training impacts culture.  After the training of the top leaders, we enabled them with DVD’s and workbooks to train the next level leaders.  We cascaded the training through the organization to achieve the line of sight of each employee back to the PVP.
  5. Another big change we sought through PVP is to move from a rules-based culture to a principles-based culture.  All great customer service companies are principle-based.  They have to be.  To deliver great customer service employees have to be trained to take initiative to delight customers.  In a large government bureaucracy oftentimes rules dominate the culture.  Congress passes laws.  Laws become regulations.  Employees in the VA are unionized.  Union contracts create rules.  Rules lead to employees not wanting to take initiative.  We used the example of our receptionist in a VA facility in Washington State, who told a Veteran to call 911 when they needed help getting into our facility.  EMT and firetrucks came to help them in.  We contrasted that with the nurse in our Vermont facility who encouraged VA and local police to break into a Veterans house when he missed a mental health appointment and saved his life by finding him wedged between fallen furniture.  This nurse took initiative and some would say risk in getting the police to break into this Veteran’s house, yet it was the right thing to do.  We the leaders of the VA had to provide the context and psychological safety for employees to take initiative.
  6. We talked about the importance of training the organization in the most up to date techniques of customer service.  We trained human centered design.  We journey mapped the Veteran journey, from raising one’s hand to be sworn in until the VA would bury the Veteran in one of our cemeteries.  We measured efficiency and effectiveness along the journey map.  We re-engineered the touch points with the VA, continually measured the results, and worked to improve outcomes for Veterans.  In the end we raised Veteran trust and use of the VA.
  7. We also spoke about getting the right team in place to create and sustain this new culture.  I changed 14 of my top 17 leaders in about three years at the VA.  All 14 were not fired, but, some were simply in the wrong jobs.  So we worked hard to get everyone in the right job and performing at their peak potential and some individuals were exited.

We concluded with many questions, which I tried to answer.  Afterward there was a reception to celebrate the five year anniversary of SynFiny.  It was my sincere privilege to participate.

Note:  The comments of my speech do not imply that SynFiny is or will be an organization crisis in any way.  Rather, my topic for conversation covered the tactics that have worked in my personal experiences when being a part of organizations that were in crisis and needed change.

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