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If your company is in the process of going through or preparing for a merger or acquisition, then you know firsthand that combining the cultures of two organizations is no easy matter.

Last fall, I had the honor of giving a talk along with Carol Montgomery, senior VP and chief human resources officer of York Risk Services Group, at the first annual Ultimate Culture Conference in Chicago. Carol and I presented a case study to show how York, following a major acquisition, was able to blend two very different approaches to workplace culture.

How did the company achieve the integration it so desperately needed?

Fortunately, leadership recognized the importance of clarifying York’s mission and aligning its behavior with its values. As part of the process, I was invited to come in and help facilitate a discussion among top team members.

The real meaning of values

Like many companies, York had its values posted on the wall. You can walk into any company in the U.S. and see a similar list. But we took the values down from the wall and examined them. We spent a lot of time inspecting each one and asking, “What does this mean?” In the process, some values were thrown out, others were added. And then we went further.

I asked, “Okay, if this is your culture, what are you doing to create it? You’ve articulated the values and behaviors that you want. What are you doing every day to show that you’re living those values?” Because if leadership does X, the people will do X. If a leader does Y, people will do Y. Leaders need to be extremely conscious of what they’re doing every single day.

York’s CEO had sensed a lack of collaboration and teamwork across the organization. So we used an assessment tool called Leadership/Impact to measure how people viewed the capabilities of the company’s 11 senior leaders. What we found was that while many of those leaders did a good job with the people they managed, as a leadership team they did not work well at all.

It was a very powerful step that took us on the next part of the journey. I give Carol a lot of credit for helping orchestrate that discussion.

“What we found most emphatically,” Carol said, during our talk, “was that we were doing a terrible job of collaborating. For a lot of these leaders, it was the first time they’d had a feedback instrument used, and it was a wake-up call for a lot of them. It was very threatening for them, even though we tried to make it non-threatening. I couldn’t just sit there and tell people what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. In the interest of fairness, we knew we needed someone from the outside to do this.”

How coaching made a difference

Moving ahead, we took those 11 senior leaders and broke them into coaching groups of three or four. Over the course of a year, I led coaching circles every two weeks. To their credit, the York people were so committed to making those circles happen that we scheduled them six months in advance.

“For the first time,” Carol said, “I think they saw each other as fellow employees, as human beings with the same fears and the same issues. And that built more collaboration.”

Not only were those coaching sessions designed to help the leaders themselves, but we also created executive coaches to train the next level, and that level is now training the next level in the organization.

Another positive result from these sessions was that they helped break down the silos between the departments in the organization. “We created a lot more collaboration among the entire leadership team and the organization as a whole,” Carol said. People were picking up the phone and calling each other, when they never had before. “When you have an organization with 82 offices across the U.S. and Europe, that’s a big plus.

“I think overall it gave the organization a much greater sense of accountability,” Carol said. “It created tremendous connections among the leadership and the employees in general.”

Changing culture, changing lives

One of the most gratifying things for both Carol and me was when people came up to us and said, “You helped my marriage. You helped my relationships outside the workplace because I didn’t realize I was having that kind of impact on people.” To be able to change people’s lives in that way, as a consultant or HR professional, is very powerful.

Carol and I agree that one of the key components of York’s success was the invaluable data we gained from the assessment process. Many companies claim awareness of their culture — but aspirations are not always the same as reality. Just as important was keeping in mind that cultural transformation is not a one-shot deal. It’s a journey. There are going to be setbacks, because people are always changing.

York recently moved its corporate headquarters. And Carol is delighted to report that when she went into some of the leaders’ new offices, she found to-do lists of their coaching objectives on the backs of their doors. “There were things they’ve worked on that they’ve checked off,” she said. “And other things that they’re still working on.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “We’re still on the journey.”