I had the pleasure of attending this year’s Ultimate Culture Conference hosted by Human Synergistics International. It was held at one of my favorite hotels—the Fairmont—in one of my favorite cities—Chicago. So, of course, I was a happy camper right out of the gate! And I just so happened to be staying at the Hard Rock Hotel the weekend that one of my favorite rockers, Tom Petty, passed. It was bittersweet to hear his tunes blasting in the hotel lobby literally minutes after the news broke.

While in the Windy City, I got the chance to connect with friends, old and new, and see parts of the city I hadn’t experienced before. The icing on the cake for me was having the chance to connect with hundreds of like-minded professionals who live and breathe change at the Ultimate Culture Conference.

At the conference, I sat at a table with a woman named Kim from Indianapolis. And another woman who lived in Chicago. There was a guy there from San Francisco. And a gentleman named Drew from Australia who had the best accent ever! We were all there for one reason: To exchange business transformation ideas. And, boy, did I walk away with some good nuggets of information. I thought it was only fitting that I share some of the highlights with you.

Dr. Peter Fuda on transformation and influencing others

By far, the best part of the conference for me was listening to Dr. Peter Fuda talk about transformation and influencing others. So, I’m starting with the highlights from his presentation. For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Fuda, he’s an international authority on business and leadership transformation. In his words, he’s obsessed with transformation. Good thing, because so are we!

There were so many great takeaways from his presentation. He talked about how transformation is a matter of alignment, not intention. And how change agents should pay attention to the “2 percent.” He stressed it’s not about one big thing, but rather the culmination of a lot of little things that drive transformation. He also acknowledged the tough road many of us face in managing change, saying “this work is not for everyone.” To help those who do choose to go on this journey, he provided these seven practical tactics:

Set a higher standard: This one is pretty self-explanatory. As change agents, we should all set the bar high—and resist mediocrity.

Eliminate frustration: Dr. Fuda defined frustration as the space “between taking action and accepting the situation.” My takeaway: If it’s worth changing, take action. Otherwise, accept the situation and move on.

Assume a noble intention: Dr. Fuda made an interesting point, saying “we judge ourselves by our intention, and everyone else by their actions.” Pretty powerful statement when you stop and think about it. It’s true. We all generally have good intentions. Yet, we don’t always end up with the outcomes we had hoped for. His point is that we should always assume the good in people. This really resonated with me since I think people can sometimes zero in on what went terribly wrong and why. All the while forgetting that the person probably started down the road with good intentions.

Create the gap: This was probably the biggest “aha” moment for me. As a consultant, I often know pretty quickly how I can help someone. But the problem to solve isn’t always as apparent to the other person. Dr. Fuda warned the group not to sell change, but rather show the gap. In other words, help people see what they either stand to lose or gain by doing something different.

Ignite the fire: According to Dr. Fuda, igniting the fire is about defining the “big why.” This is about connecting with people’s hearts, not their heads. So, getting at a person’s values and beliefs, hopes and dreams, fears and worries. And make no mistake, Dr. Fuda said we should work only with those who have a “big why.” If you’d like to learn more about he calls the Fire Metaphor, check out this YouTube video by Dr. Fuda.

Shift from agreement to alignment: Dr. Fuda explained that agreement is engagement at a high-level, while alignment is engagement at a much deeper level. I connected with this statement because I’ve seen more than once where people agree to change, but then resist it when they realize there’s real work to be done.

Inspire hope, not fear: The final point from Dr. Fuda struck a chord with a lot of people in the audience. He said, “Ignite the fire within, not under.” I loved this! It’s easy to motivate someone through fear, or light the fire under someone. But isn’t is much more rewarding when you can inspire hope and light that fire within them? Harder, yes, but more rewarding.

Robert Cooke, Ph.D., on climate vs. culture

Now that I’ve shared my favorite part of the conference, I’m going back to the beginning of it! The CEO of Human Synergistics International, Robert Cooke, Ph.D., kickstarted the conference by talking about how to disentangle climate from culture. I think most of us agree the two are not the same. Dr. Cooke explained how climate is visible, salient and easy to measure, while culture is quite the opposite. Culture is often invisible, latent and difficult to quantify. He went on to say that you can change culture by changing the highly visible, yet malleable, climate factors. And he said one of the best ways to accomplish this is to support leaders in changing climate factors that better reflect the ideal culture, not the actual culture. The bottom line: Incremental and sustained changes in climate can eventually lead to a transformation in culture.

Trent Sunde on culture at The Clorox Company

Another great speaker in the morning session was Trent Sunde, vice president of Manufacturing and Operations Services at The Clorox Company. He focused on the reorientation of leadership’s role in building a successful brand. According to Trent, gone are the days of “I lead, you follow” and the withholding of knowledge as a power play. Instead, he said many organizations are replacing this archaic approach with a more collaborative one that positions “leaders as coaches.” He stressed the role of a leader as coach is to set the tone and direction, establish boundaries, provide resources, remove barriers, develop people and recognize successes. More importantly, he encouraged leaders to adopt a model that allows their teams to experiment, fail, learn and then repeat. He believes this is key in unleashing a team’s or a person’s full potential and driving business results. I couldn’t agree more!

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith on creating positive, lasting change in leaders

The morning session ended in grand finale-style with a lively presentation by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. Dr. Goldsmith is a world-renowned executive coach, speaker and author of several books including Triggers and What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. If you’ve ever crossed paths with Dr. Goldsmith, then you probably know he’s a genuinely warm and engaging person. You probably also know he has some amazing insights from his experience coaching executives at some of the world’s biggest and most successful companies. Think Alan Mulally at Ford Motor Company.

Dr. Goldsmith covered a lot of ground in an hour and a half. I’m going to highlight two of his main points. The rest you just have to see in person! Oh, and I found it absolutely mind-blowing that his daughter, Kelly, was on Survivor: Africa. Because anyone who knows me, knows that Survivor is my jam!

Practicing Feedforward: Dr. Goldsmith led off with an exercise that I found rather fun. He calls it Feedforward. It’s like speed-dating! We were asked to quickly find partners and state one behavior change we thought would make a significant, positive difference in our life. Our partner was then supposed to respond very quickly with something that would help us in achieving that change. When I say very quickly, I mean each exchange was less than 30 seconds. And we were instructed to accept whatever advice we got, even if we didn’t like it, and say “thank you for the gift.”

The point was to get 360-style feedback in a positive, simple, focused and FAST way. Nothing complicated. So, for example, if you said you wanted to be on time to more meetings, your partner might advise you to set an audible reminder that would go off 15 minutes before a meeting to help you get there on time. If you said you wanted to be a better listener, your partner might respond with a tip on how to actively listen to others. If you stated that you wanted to be more patient with people, your partner might have suggested that you take a deep breath and count to five before you respond to someone. You get the idea.

Active questions: Dr. Goldsmith also challenged the group to regularly ask active questions of themselves. Below are some questions he said we should consider asking ourselves daily. These questions are so important to him that he pays someone to ask them of him every day! And he suggested we start a spreadsheet to keep track of the questions we ask ourselves. His point: We should do whatever it takes to proactively engage ourselves, instead of waiting for someone or something to engage us.

Dr. Goldsmith encourages asking, “Did I do my best to:”

  • Set clear goals?
  • Make progress toward goal achievement?
  • Find meaning?
  • Be happy?
  • Build positive relationships?
  • Be fully engaged?

Dr. Edgar Schein and Peter Schein on humble leadership

Dr. Edgar Schein and his son, Peter Schein, joined the group via teleconference and spoke about evolving the culture of management to facilitate humble leadership. So, what does humble leadership mean? According to the Scheins, it’s about evolving from a management ideology that deifies control to one of relational thinking that involves joint inquiry and problem-solving. In other words, moving from “leader-follower” to “leader-leader.” It’s about adopting a new mindset, shifting attitudes and using new skills, such as:

  • New listening skills: listening to self (reflection), listening to worries of others (empathy) and reading the room (perceptiveness)
  • New interpersonal skills: how to help others and whole “person-ization” (personalization without violating privacy)
  • New group skills: better management of relationships and meetings and helping groups become effective teams
  • New design skills: designing better relationships

Mike Marino and Mark Wilson on culture’s impact on performance

Mike Marino of the culture-sharing firm Senn Delaney and Mark Wilson of Loblaw Companies in Canada conducted an experiential workshop on culture as an accelerator to performance. Senn Delaney offers tools to help clients like Loblaw transform their culture, often starting with a candid assessment of where they fall on the culture continuum. This 0-5 scale spans the gamut all the way from complacency, where people are content with how they get things done, to continuous, where people consider their culture a strategic asset. They also highlighted the four principles of culture shaping: purposeful leadership, personal change, broad engagement and focused sustainability. All great insights for people like us who counsel others in change management!


In addition to all the presentations, the Ultimate Culture Conference also featured several case studies during a networking event at the end of the day. It was great to see how leaders from across the country are using change management strategies to make a tangible impact on their organizations. All-in-all, I had a blast and I can’t wait to see what next year’s conference brings! Speaking of conferences, we’d love to hear which ones you’re attending and why. And we’d like to hear what insights in this article jumped out at you. Shoot us a note!