Changing The World – One Organisation at a Time

Founded in the US in the 1970s, Human Synergistics works with companies to improve culture, develop leadership, create more effective teams and improve productivity.

The company’s globally recognised approach to cultivating successful organisational management attracted Shaun McCarthy to the fold, who proceeded to open the first Asia Pacific branch in New Zealand. For 38 years Shaun has worked tirelessly to build on the company’s reputation throughout Australia and New Zealand. Business First speaks with Shaun about the growth of the business in Australia and how businesses can outperform the market by creating a constructive culture.

Business First (BF): How would you define a successful organisational culture? Shaun McCarthy (SM): A successful organisation is one that achieves its goals, integrates its structure, people and systems and adapts well to changes in its external environment. As successful organisational culture is one that facilitates the organisations achievement of these. In short, a successful cultures is one that enables the organisation to effectively implement its strategy.

BF: What is the key to building a successful culture? SM: The key to building a successful culture lies in firstly understanding exactly what organisational culture is (and isn’t), secondly being able to articulate what behaviours are currently being reinforced by structures, systems and leadership processes, and thirdly being constantly mindful of how any changes in structure, systems, leadership and communications systems will impact on the current culture.

BF: What signs negative or positive do you look for when you go into a workplace? SM: Human Synergistics actually measures the organisations culture. Based on sound research, we can survey the people within the organisation to learn how they believe they are expected to approach their jobs and interact with each other in order to fit in, get ahead, and in some organisations simply survive. Then based on applied research regarding the impact of culture on performance, we can help the organisation leaders learn how the current culture facilitates and inhibits performance potential.

BF: How do you decide what needs to be done once you’re in? SM: Again, based on 30 years of research, particularly that of Dr Robert A Cooke, the survey process identifies exactly what is causing the culture to be as it is and what needs to be done to improve it.

BF: How do you get everyone on board? SM: Commitment is the key change or improvement  does not happen without people being committed  to  achieving some goal. Effective change is about learning. People don’t change by being told what to do. They change by learning that there may be a different way to achieve greater  results.  We  therefore apply the principles of adult learning – that adults learn best when  they  have  the  opportunity to enquire into  the  information and form the conclusions  for themselves. So we don’t just present data – we work with leadership groups to help them learn what the data means for them and to help them come up with ideas for  improvement.

BF: You talk about a culture of innovation, what do you mean by this? SM: With digital disruption and rapid change, everyone is talking about the importance of innovation. So a ‘culture for innovation’ is top of mind for many senior executives right now. But what many fail to understand so that innovation is an end result of having in place a number of organisational conditions that allow innovation to happen. So rather than simply attempting to ‘be more innovative’, organisations need to examine their internal systems to see if they will support innovation. For instance – an element of job design is autonomy.

If jobs within an organisation are low in autonomy, then the message (culture) people take from such job design is that they are not required to ‘think’, they are simply required to ‘do’. Then if the organisation gives them the message that “we need to be more innovative”, the actual job design does not support people being able to do this. Then senior management will moan about people not ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘being accountable’ or ‘not using their initiative’. This will be followed by training or some other initiative, as management see this as a ‘people’ issue, rather than a ‘systems’ issue.

Another common example is inter-departmental coordination. Most senior executives would admit that ‘silos’ exist in their organisation. If work is not well coordinated throughout the organisation, this will limit the ability to innovate. Essentially the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. So if the organisation does manage to innovate with a new product or enhancement to an existing product, it is highly likely that there will be performance issues with the product as the part developed by the right hand may not ‘talk to’ the part developed by the left hand. There are so many examples of this there have been whole books written about it.

BF: How do you define what is innovative for each organisation? SM: Innovation is a term that must be seen as being relative to the organisation. What might be innovative for a Government department may not be innovative for an FMCG. But for them it’s innovative. The key lies in one of the elements of a successful organisation I mentioned earlier. Every organisation needs to be able to adapt to changes in its external operating environment. Being able to adapt to change is what is commonly referred to as ‘innovation’. Any organisation that does not adapt will not last.

BF: There are many companies that do what you do, how do you set yourself apart, what is your difference? SM: I believe what genuinely sets us apart is the depth of the research behind our measurement tools and our consulting approach. Human Synergistics, through Dr Robert A Cooke and the Human Synergistics Center for Applied Research has been researching leadership and culture for over 30 years. This has resulted in a number of different leadership feedback tools and the organisational culture survey which is the most used culture survey in the world. When providing measurement tools it is absolutely essential that these tools are accurate and meaningful.

The fact that these tools have been published in over 75 different academic journals, reports and articles and are used by around 2,500 organisations in Australia and New Zealand is a credit tothe way in which these tools can help organisations address the real issues they need to address in order to improve organisation performance.

BF: How do you apply psychology to what you do? SM: Organisational behaviour and organisational development are based in the human sciences of psychology and sociology. How people think and behave and how organisational systems reinforce certain behaviours are fundamental.

BF: What do you put the company’s longevity down to? SM: The depth and breadth of the research underlying what we do. Human Synergistics had been operating in the US now for over 40 years and our business has been going for nearly 40 years in New Zealand and nearly 30 years in Australia.

BF: How has the practise evolved? SM: Human Synergistics began as  a consulting business. In 1990 we developed the accreditation system whereby we train other consultants and HR/OD professional inside organisations to use our tools and approach. We provide extensive training and ongoing professional development to these accredited practitioners and they now form the basis of our growth throughout the world. In Australia alone we have over 2,000 accredited practitioners, providing us with a very large reach for our tools and an enormous amount of data for ongoing research.

BF: It has international reach, what does this mean for the business? SM: That the world has become very small has gone beyond cliché. It has become very real. Multinational organisations want to be global organisations. They want much more consistency around the world in how they operate and standardization of HR/OD practices. So for us, that means global projects involving multiple languages and many other challenges. It’s also exciting seeing some of the ‘newer economies’ jumping straight into approaches that we have taken years to learn.

BF: Do you find businesses have similar requirements around the world? SM: Yes we do. The issues are always about adaptation to external change and integration of the organisations people, structures, systems and leadership. We find ourselves having the same conversations in Sydney as we do in Chicago, London, Budapest, Beijing or any other city in any part of the world.

BF: Where will growth come for you? SM: Growth will be both organic and developmental. There’s still plenty of market out there for our existing tools and consulting approaches and we will always be looking at how we can develop more tools on the basis of the ongoing research that we do.

BF: What does the next 5 to 10 years look like? SM: Lots of technological innovation in the measurement and survey business and increasing competition within all of our markets. That simply mean we need to continuously concentrate on providing excellent service to our clients and looking at ways in which we can innovate our own business. Leadership will always be there and organisational culture has become very topical. Our next adventure is into measuring and providing real-time feedback on group and team performance.

BF: What have been your biggest achievements in the role? SM: The achievements have been extraordinary. As an organisation we help change peoples’ lives. It is incredibly exciting when you bump into an individual who has gone through one of our individual leadership feedback processes and they tell you who that changed their life. Or seeing an organisation leap ahead in performance as a result of making some changes to their culture. That’s why our mission statement is: “Changing the World— One Organisation at a Time”.

BF: What more do you hope to achieve? SM: I love what I do so I hope I can keep on doing it for a long time yet. I have some fantastic people around me and it’s great to see those people grow and expand their capabilities. BFM



Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.