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Keys to success in culture change and strategy with Alexa Pitoulis.

By Anthony Taylor - December 12, 2016

Alexa Pitoulis is a change management consultant in Vancouver who spent the past few years growing and scaling a non profit called Open Media.

Many of the keys to success in their strategic planning success were transparency, communication and culture change.

In this interview, Alexa speaks about the importance of strategy while managing growth within an organization, as well as crafting organizational culture, while creating a great experience for your people. 

Learn about her strategic planning process, and her best practices for creating culture.

You can connect with her on Linkedin:https://ca.linkedin.com/in/alexapitoulis 


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00:01 Anthony Taylor: So hi everyone, Anthony Taylor from SME Strategy. I'm here with Alexa Pitoulis who is a Change Management Consultant here in Vancouver, and also works across North America. Alexa, how is it going today?

00:15 Alexa Pitoulis: Great. Thanks for having me, Anthony.

00:17 AT: It's my sincere pleasure. So, I appreciate you coming on to our podcast here and sharing with some folks some of your experiences being in change management and working with different types of organizations. Do you want to tell people just a little bit about yourself to get acquainted?


00:34 AP: Sure, sounds great. I come from about 17-plus years working in Federal Government, non-profits, and private sector. Really leading teams and when I went back to school and did my MBA about five years ago, I woke up and realized that I'd actually been in the organizational development, change management's sphere for most of my career. And so, a lot of the work and my core skills set revolves around leading change in organizations which has to do with culture but also start-up growth phase, downsizing, any type of movement really. And of course, really important through all of those processes is, where are we going? Why are we here? Strategic questions.


01:22 AT: Well, you know I love my strategic questions. And so, what have you been working on recently? I know we chatted a little bit about before this interview but, what's a big project that's been keeping you busy most recently?


01:37 AP: Most recently, I worked with a team at OpenMedia which is an international digital organization that works in the space of online digital rights advocacy. And there, I was really there to lead that team out of a start-up phase, and also to assist with the leadership transition. But really pretty rapid growth, especially for the non-profit sector over a very short period of time.


02:07 AT: Awesome. Are you able to share some of the... Without breaking confidentiality, some of the results or from where you guys ended up at the end of it?


02:17 AP: Absolutely. One of the really interesting things about OpenMedia that attracted me is they have a really interesting set of core principles, operating principles. A few of them which are transparency and collaboration. And so, as part of the process, of our growth process and leadership transition and strategic planning process, we really tried to share that externally as much and as often as we could with the community that we were growing and that we considered to be our community members. And so, at the OpenMedia website, openmedia.org, there is a series of blogs called Under The Hood series, that actually goes through... Trying to give that kind of under the hood feel. 'Cause I think sometimes we're hesitant to share the messy details of how stuff needs to happen, and where the shifts and the tensions come up when you're trying to shift culture, grow organizations, and serve customers and communities.


03:19 AT: Cool. So, to that point, what sort of things, I think you touched on it, but what sort of things do you personally... And then, with the last organization that you were working with, do to develop and foster culture? Because we both know that, I know everybody else in the podcast knows, that you can really drive results by doing culture. But what does developing culture really mean from a tactical perspective?


03:44 AP: Yeah. For me, my philosophy is to really start by making culture visible, and so that's explicitly talking about it. Depending on the size of your organization, that can look like in different ways. The team I was working with is 12 to 20 at any given time. And so, we had full team sessions where we explicitly asked questions such as, "What do we, as an organization, as a team, get status to here?" Which is a real interesting question when you get into it. And on the flip side is, "What are our taboos? What are these implicit or explicit norms that this group has? And name them." And some things that come up aren't always things that people want. For example, OpenMedia, and this was something we definitely talked about and openly is we were really working with a young group that was working flat out, near burnout oftentimes. It's just not unusual for start-ups.


04:40 AP: So, one of the things as we were shifting and maturing as an organization, we're like, "How do we bring that capacity into check and really care about the well-being of people so that they can be doing the highest quality of work at every given moment?" And yet, when we sat down and we talked about culture, we were still giving status to people working really long hours. And so, that was like an opportunity to have a discussion about, "Okay. So, we say we wanna do this and this is our culture and everyone has this nice work-life balance. But yet, the people who stay late or work on the weekends still have the status rank accorded to them." So yeah, that's one way. The other way we worked out was developing team agreements that we actually had printed on massive posters, sticky on the wall, right in our main office. And those shifted and changed. And then, every time we hired somebody new, we had a pretty interesting process of bringing them on board and talking about what those team agreements meant to us. And so, those are a couple of simple ways that I think which get missed often.


05:55 AT: Excellent. I totally get that. One of the ways that we talk about an SME strategy is we talk about you're "Talking the talk", and then you're "Walking the walk". But then, what are you actually rewarding? Are you rewarding the right behaviors that you want? Or, are you rewarding something else that's sort of against the cultures and the values, that you basically said, this is important, but you're not really rewarding the right thing. So, that's really interesting.


06:21 AP: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I would just add to that, I think, for my philosophy as a manager, and a leader within organizations, is always to be thinking about how am I building the capabilities of the people in this organization, so that they can go out and do their best work, and serve whoever we're serving. But, not even just in the work life, at home life. And part of that is core is communication, and getting people well-versed and practiced in managing conflict effectively, and actually embracing conflict, as a way of bringing a diversity and different perspectives to the table.


06:57 AP: I believe that the strongest teams, the most creative and innovative teams, are the ones that have the highest degree of diversity, in terms of perspectives, religions maybe, whatever types of... However you wanna define diversity. But often, that also involves really needing skills to be able to talk about, and how to build the understanding for each one, and the different perspectives that the people bring.


07:24 AT: Yeah. I totally get that, and I 100% agree. So, you alluded to it a little bit with the team agreements, the culture, communication, and then conflict, and sort of bringing in diversity. But what are some of the other best practices you would share for leading strategy, and leading teams?


07:44 AP: Yeah, strategy. Well, to speak to an example... And this is not, I tell this story, not from a pointing a finger that anything's bad. I think that it's just normal evolution in organizations. But when I did arrive at OpenMedia, there was a strategy, a strategic note. But unfortunately, it only being developed by about two people in the organization. And to my... When I kept asking people about it, really nobody else on the team was connected to it, had read it, was involved in the process to create it, and definitely was not using it, or referencing it in their day-to-day work as they were actioning all these things. So, that got me really on the train of... And taking a big step back, and slowing the strategic planning process down.


08:30 AP: I really come from a place... And again, this looks differently in different sized organizations, but fundamentally believe that all people need to be involved in the strategic planning process to some extent. So my process was to really slow it down, bring the whole team together in varying things. Sometimes it can be in smaller working groups organized around buyer groups, unique buyer moves, depending on your business structure. But there needs to be, ultimately for me, strategy is about... It's really a process that needs to be alive. And in order for it to be alive, the whole point of doing a strategic planning process in my mind, in my view, is to really energize and motivate every single person in the organization on the team so that they can see clearly what they're contributing in their day-to-day tasks, and how that's contributing to what they're trying to... The value they're trying to create for their customers, their community, their buyers, or their stakeholders.


09:40 AP: So for me, it's really much more about the process. To me, if it's gonna be a just a plan and document at the end of the day that get shelves, then that's really a waste of time.


09:51 AT: Yeah, absolutely. Totally get that. So yeah, you definitely touched on that. The communication piece, and getting everybody onboard, aligned on the same page and just getting everybody communicating. Top down, bottom up, and making sure everybody knows where you're going. Is that basically what you were saying? Anything I might have missed?


10:11 AP: No. Absolutely. I think it's that strategic alignment. I think a strategy, a strategic planning process does... First step requires a really clear corporate direction. And I'm kind of moving away, this is where I say that my thinking is a bit evolving, I'm moving away from vision, traditional vision, mission. Not that they're bad, but they're not often that fantastic, to be honest. So, corporate direction in sort of how I'm understanding it, it's sort of counter intuitive. It's actually based on looking a little bit inside, and to try to ask the questions about the business like, "What is the core value that we are bringing to then be able to image out to our customers, our clients, our patients, how we are adding value to their lives."


10:58 AT: Yeah, I totally get...


11:00 AP: And having that very, very clear, because that will lead your strategy. So, I'm kind of heavy on the corporate direction and the process, unless I really believe that less is more when it comes to strategy, and getting really... I think that you absolutely need to have very concrete goals, but more based on everyone being in alignment about imaging, what is the value that they're creating? And then... I'm losing my train here but... Yeah, giving a bit more ownership over the actual details of how the strategy gets implemented. So, if we're talking about cascading strategy, over to the people who are in the jobs who know it best.


11:47 AT: Yeah. Okay. I get that. So, I have two questions, and they would probably tie together as, in your job, as a change manager. But one of 'em is really building on your last thought was, how do you align strategy and performance and then I guess the other side of it, what are some of the risk to avoid when you're going through that implementation phase and the strategy in the actual execution? That's really two questions, so approach them however you feel...


12:17 AP: Okay. Strategy and performance... Well, yeah they're very... But they are connected, so thank you. [chuckle] [12:24] ____ once. Well, I think that speaks to just the strategy. This is the uniqueness of any organization. I really don't do the same process twice. I design for what is in front of me for the people, and the business lines, and the... Or the services, and what the needs are.


12:42 AP: In keeping it alive, at OpenMedia just to use a specific example... We made a commitment that the strategy... The strategic note was gonna be a living document. We even... We worked exclusively in Google Docs, so things could change at any given moment with the teams. All the teams... After we had done the organization wide strategic note, where we articulated five clear goals, and some specific actions under each of those... Each team, each functional area went away and developed their own micro strategies that fed up into those.


13:19 AP: But the really interesting piece around it, was that we made a commitment to have quarterly check-ins on those strategies. And we tried to do it in a very living way about sort of seeing what was moving, and really sort of celebrating the success and celebrating what... But also asking... This is where the strategy comes alive, what shifted? What shifted for our community? What shifted in the legislative policy environment? Where are we going? What needs to be adjusted? So we're not just blindly following a set of goals and action items or priorities that we set six months back, but that we're ever sort of requiring a thoughtful critical thinking process around, does still make sense? Is this still aligned to where we're going and what adjustments are needed?


14:06 AP: To me I think that avoids some of the risks in implementation and really does keep the strategy aligned. But plus, also just a really beautiful way of bringing the teams together to reflect and really own what they have accomplished for their communities, customers, patients, etcetera.


14:28 AT: Yeah, absolutely. Just making sure it's paraphrasing. Keeping the strategy, and the plan, and the execution at top of mind at all times, and so everybody knows in whatever vernacular they're gonna use, the vision, or the direction, or the plan that everybody knows, "Here's where we are now. Here's where we're going." But it's not like a yearly sort of exercise. It's really part of who you are as the organization. It's part... It really becomes part of your culture, right?


14:58 AP: Absolutely. Let's just... To give a fun example, 'cause I also believe strategy and this is... I think you talked about this at the very beginning where we're talking about the walking the talk. If for example... A lot of... I think businesses are often built on caring for whoever clients they're trying to serve, and you're really trying to contribute value to somebody else's life. And so, in that model of walking the talk is really important to be developing and caring for the people that are in your business, in your organization, in your team. So I do think that strategy also has to have those bits that talk about how we're walking the talk internally.


15:34 AP: So that was a long segue to get into a bit of a story from OpenMedia where, again, kind of really speaking to the start-up phase that we're in. We had... One of our strategic goals was to... We basically get our house in order was what we called it. And so, there's a few things that fell under there. But one of the things was around keeping personal... People's personal workload capacity in check. And all sorts of strategies that we were... And discussions we are having as a team about how we organized our work, what we said yes to do that.


16:07 AP: And one of the fun things that we did is we called... We ended up having kind of a motto and a mascot called the 'capacity elephant' that we really played with but also made it become that whole goal, become really a living conversation. We got a couple of different sized elephant stuffies that we're throwing around the office. We had... Yeah, we had just images of elephants everywhere. We used Slack as like an IM messaging thing and we had sort of the autobot trained to... If anyone said 'capacity' it would pop up this huge picture a GIF of a capacity... An elephant with this capacity word written on it.


16:46 AP: I don't know, I say be playful. Find ways that are aligned with your culture and your business and what you're trying to do that bring the strategy to life. And it doesn't have to be a traditional form. [chuckle]


16:57 AT: I love that.


16:57 AP: Yeah. [chuckle]


17:00 AT: That's awesome. Any other sort of risks to avoid in the planning process? I think you sort of encapsulated with some structure on how to really bring up the stuff at the forefront and be honest, and transparent with... This is really where we're at and this is a real issue, so we need to address it. And it's the elephant in the room literally and figuratively in your case, where it was capacity. But any other risks to avoid in the planning process that might hold the team back from just making their plan and then trying to sort of set it and forget it?


17:33 AP: Yeah, I don't know if this is the type of risk that you're thinking of. I know for me and my approach, my principles, is I really... I always try to design... Keeping in mind, asking... Moving the team away from existence based thinking. Because you're trying to... Usually as a business owner or organization, you're trying to move something. You're trying to do more, grow more, get more sales... Again, create more value out there in the world. And I think that there's often off the shelf tools that really get us stuck in thinking only in existence, and we can't get to thinking in terms of the potential and visualizing. So I guess the risk in that, in the existence-based thinking is that it's really hard to imagine and feel the will and energy motivated to trying to create something that's bigger than what we can already see.


18:33 AT: Got it. Yeah, I totally agree with that, and resonate with it. That's why I find a vision, a really, really powerful vision that is inspiring enough to get everybody bought into, and then also keeping in mind that just because your past is your past, and that's how you got to where you are now, but if you really wanna take that next step or that next leap or whatever it is to you, that you need to make different behaviors, take different actions that are in line with that desired future. And I think that not only applies on the organizational side, but as you and I, as professionals, and everybody else listening to this podcast, if you're a manager now and you wanna be an exceptional manager or even more exceptional, that you need to take different behaviors to level yourself up and take yourself to a new existence, so to speak.


19:23 AP: Yes, absolutely. So that is really fundamental. You reflected that back really nicely. So really core to a lot of the work I do and I talk about is really trying to build the capabilities of managers and leadership teams through... And I'm on a learning journey too, but I know that I'm more engaged when I'm learning, and using, and getting challenged to keep thinking in more critical ways, and pushing my learning edge. So those are skills I'm constantly thinking about how to develop.


20:02 AT: Awesome. And so this might be another, a perfect... You're so good at our transitions here, but as a final question for today: Is there anything else that you would recommend to a CEO or a manager who's responsible for leading strategy, leading people, or leading change?


20:27 AP: Yeah, I've got two books. Is it okay to make book recommendations here? [chuckle]


20:31 AT: Absolutely. Even if they're your own book.


20:34 AP: There's two books that are top of mind this last two weeks, and one is called On Average, and the other one is called Wired To Care. And both speak to... I am really playing on the idea of a paradigm shift around how we build businesses. And again, it speaks to... The Wired To Care... A fundamental belief that I think most organizations and businesses arise because of, again, trying to provide value. So in your strategy process, in your corporate direction setting, get to that place where you're visualizing in very concrete terms. Who are your buyer groups in a very unique sense? 'Cause I think when we can connect humans to humans, and maybe it's not humans, there's lots of businesses that are actually contributing value to different ecosystems, or other things that are not necessarily humans, but being able to actually image. There's a fantastic story in one of these books that speaks to a gaming industry example that we probably don't have time to go into. But, yeah, I guess I'll leave it there. Anyways, fundamental... There's some really interesting thought process around how to shift, how you're visioning what your consumers, what your customers are.


22:02 AT: Perfect. And obviously, I'll put a link to those books in the show notes, so that anybody who's interested in learning more about that can get access to it.


22:09 AP: Great.


22:12 AT: So I've been chatting with Alexa Pitoulis. Thank you so much, Alexa. Can you tell people how they can get a hold of you if they wanna get a hold of you, or learn more about your process?


22:22 AP: Sure. You can definitely find me on LinkedIn, or just alexapitoulis@gmail.com works.


22:29 AT: Fantastic. Awesome. Well thank you so much for taking the time today. It's been a real pleasure.


22:34 AP: Thanks, Anthony, have a great day.


22:35 AT: You too. Bye.


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