Culture Talk with Ron Schrader & Jennifer Pietrzak
This month we sat down with the dynamic culture-savvy duo of Ron Schrader and Jennifer Pietrzak Carlson. Ron and Jennifer have their own respected firms and clients, but have also collaborated often over the past nine years. We have had the pleasure of working with them also and were so pleased to catch up and hear what they're up to.
Working together, Ron and Jennifer have built a reputation for helping organizations realize the business benefits that come with having a healthy, active and evolving company culture.
What is it about the work that you do that gives you the most positive energy?
J: We’re both really energized when we get to work with organizations going through transformation. It could be implementing a new system, a merger, a sudden growth, or a business realignment.
R: Yeah! These are the very situations where culture is a major contributor to the success of the endeavor.
Why does it give you energy?
J: I love when an organization thinks about culture as a living and breathing thing, not something you create once and put on a shelf. They get it. They understand that what I do, and what they believe in, really matters. Helping organizations turn culture into a competitive advantage is to me, the “wow” factor.
R: I agree! The other element that excites us is having the creativity to do things that the client hasn’t tried before. Sometimes we get called in to help a client who is stuck—they don’t know what’s getting in their way of achieving a given business objective. We see that more and more clients discover that it is about their culture. The clients that are designing creative cultures understand that this ultimately moves them and their organization forward.
Do you have an example?
J: One client had acquired 4 separate lines of business, with different processes, values, cultures, etc. The objective was to evolve into one organization with one set of values and a common culture throughout while still allowing for some individuality among the lines of business. We developed a recipe book, not the expected way to communicate a major business initiative like this. So it had a surprise factor, and that made it interesting to read. It also fit the situation well because just like food, to get real culture change you need to invoke all the senses. The recipe ingredients (core values, mission, vision, etc.) were the same, but each business line was able to customize the way those ingredients were folded into their business.
R: Organizations value a tailored solution. Needs vary and what works somewhere may not work everywhere. We agree that a custom designed solution is best. We’ve developed unconventional tools like comic strips to illustrate process, storybooks to share the vision, and homemade videos to generate grassroots excitement. We love figuring out how to craft something that is unexpected and novel, but also meaningful to our client’s audience.
Bringing up the idea that you’re using unconventional artifacts and visual elements to communicate culture… is this something new that we’re seeing in organizations today?
R: I don’t know if it’s new, but it’s not common from what I’ve seen. And that’s what makes this work exciting. It can inspire your own teams to think beyond what might have worked before. When a company says they’re really hip and innovative, but they communicate to their people through very formal, corporate-sounding memos, there’s a cultural disconnect. Paragraphs in an email aren’t the only way to get a message across. We suggest helping your internal clients bridge the gap through the use of visuals, artifacts, language and other creative approaches.
What’s changing in the work that you’re doing today?
J: Executives say, “Oh culture, we’ve done that”. But the reality is that as your organization lives, so does your culture. It needs to adapt. A lot of time people feel like they are being disingenuous to their history when they say they want to do something new with their culture. But your culture is like a sea nautilus. As the nautilus grows, it adds layers to its shell, but never discards the previous stages. In the same way, you can add to and adapt your culture while still preserving the best of who you are.
R: Your culture is being actively created every single day, either consciously or unconsciously. People need to understand that when you take your eye off culture, it can go adrift really fast. And I think there’s a growing awareness that culture is not just a fluffy HR thing. There’s loads of research that shows that culture has a tangible impact on your bottom line and business success.
In the future, 50% of the work in companies will be done by project-based, contingent workers. How will cultures be built when we’re committed to projects or skills and not to the company?
R: There’s going to be more of an onus on having the culture defined and healthy so the project-based workers can come into something that already exists. It’s then easier to find people that align with your vision.
J: In those situations with 50% of your workers project-based it will be even more important to have clarity in all aspects of culture. “Here’s our expectations for behavior. Here’s how work gets done. Here’s how you’re rewarded and recognized.” That will expedite onboarding new people and getting the work done. It saves time and money too because you don’t have to figure out the culture as you go.
Culture can propel your organization forward or hold it back. Every day the people in your organization live out your culture. They are either doing this consciously, resulting in behaviors and norms by design, or unconsciously (culture by default). In order to get clear on this, talk to your line leaders and bring them together to ask, “What do we value and celebrate? And, how might we get to understand each other and our employees even better?”
About Jennifer and Ron
The self-proclaimed odd couple of organizational development consulting, Jennifer and Ron (they sometimes humorously refer to themselves JennRon) have spent the last 9 years collaborating on culture engineering and change design work for companies large and small, established and start-up, formal and casual. They’re known for their energy, passion, and their unique design approach. And they like to draw pictures.
JPCarlson.com / firstname.lastname@example.org