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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

REVIEWED: The Insider's Guide to Culture Change

Siobhan McHale’s The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change is an ambitious work with a great deal of potential. It covers a wide range of the functions of leadership, with a massive number of case studies both from the business school repertoire and the author’s personal experience. Unfortunately, these elements are also the reason the book is a disappointment as a tool for practitioners.

The premise of the book is a system for intervention to create cultural change. McHale calls this “the cultural disruptor”. The stages are, in my words:

  • Explore culture, identify excellence and goals

  • Diagnose patterns that produce negative results

  • Change patterns by acting on roles and policies

  • Measure impact with business goals, repeat as necessary

This approach has many of the same characteristics and interactions as a functional intervention in relationships. An exploration of a parallel system would complement an understanding of the functional approach, and the cultural disruptor structure offers some interesting perspectives. Her discussion of roles as a means of cultural change is insightful. Separating roles from what McHale calls instincts and personality is useful to the degree that it facilitates behavioral change and the creation of a productive functional environment. There are a half dozen or so other nuggets throughout the book.

Unfortunately, moving beyond this is where the book fails to reach its potential. As a pedagogical tool, case studies are difficult to turn into real-works behavior, and this book exemplifies the challenge. Theory and implementation are tucked away in paragraph after paragraph of stories, requiring a reader to seek them out. The “Points to Remember” at the end of each chapter are business school platitudes. From its focus on case studies to its approach to theory, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change lacks any effort to facilitate the learner’s progress to behavioral change. Any learner, even an experienced one, will have to be very deliberate in moving through the learning cycle to get value from the book.

There are additional problems in McHale’s method of the cultural disruptor. Because so little of the text explores the concepts, the author fails to connect pieces of the model to each other. For example, she explains the concept of patterns (relationships by another name) as somehow distinct from behavior (“Culture… was less about what happened (the behaviors) and more about how the workplace functioned (the patterns)…”, 26-29), but then goes on to describe behavioral change as the means of cultural change. This lack of clarity occurs throughout the book and on multiple topics, and as a result, the way to create change itself is left in an abstract. It feels like the book is a consultation proposal – swoop in, make “change”, and everything will be better – rather than a practitioner’s approach.

In all, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful work. A shallow exploration of theory is overwhelmed by examples, leading to neither a useful approach nor any in-depth examination of a specific situation. In its hurry to show how much it knows, The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change reveals it has very little substance.

There is one group that would benefit from this book, and that is the experienced functional leader who wants a mental puzzle. I enjoyed exploring each case study to catch the threads and fit them into a proper framework. The book is a great opportunity to challenge your mental stamina in the application of the functional approach to leadership, but it offers little to a learner seeking new tactics to grow his or her leadership practice. Unfortunately, this one is almost certainly not worth your time or money.

McHale, Siobhan. The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change. HarperCollins Leadership, 2020.

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