All Articles Leadership #SHRM19: Symantec's culture overhaul shows how data and communication work together

#SHRM19: Symantec’s culture overhaul shows how data and communication work together

Symantec's culture transformation weathered M&A and executive turnover to get the most out of data and people.

7 min read


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This year’s SHRM annual conference and exposition is focused on culture, and that is often something thought of in the abstract sense, or as a soft skill.

It can and is those things, but culture can also be a concrete achievement, something borne out of a dedicated strategy, rigorous data and a focus on customers, employees and results. Culture can also be molded, measured and improved even when rapid change is happening around the organization.

On Monday, Symantec Chief HR Officer Amy Cappellanti-Wolf showed how her company, through HR’s efforts and leadership buy-in, was able to restructure its culture for greater alignment, satisfaction and results even as the company underwent divestitures, acquisitions and CEO changes.

What was clear from her presentation:

  • Culture-building is hard work for the long term. It’s intensive work, and mistakes are inevitable, with winning back trust taking additional time. And alignment efforts don’t end, especially in a business as rapidly changing as Symantec has been.
  • Everyone plays a role. HR needs to tie culture to strategy and communicate the goals and ideas. Leadership has to buy in and set an example. Employees have a role in understanding and living the expected behaviors. Organizational processes and structures are needed to reinforce the desired culture.
  • Strategy is not incompatible with HR tech, metrics and deep-level HR thinking. Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but a tech-savvy, progressive HR function can be passionate about its work and still effectively present the business case to senior leadership — and the board, in Cappellanti-Wolf’s case. And HR’s work doesn’t have to get in the way of another initiatives. Symantec was also undergoing a deeply felt technological transformation in the same time span, as discussed in this Strategy+Business interview with Chief Information Officer Sheila Jordan.
  • There is no one concept of “culture.” Clarity and consistency on culture and values are nonnegotiable, but there isn’t one set version of culture and values that applies to all organizations. As Jordan told Strategy+Business, “The work will form the culture, especially if you all feel like you’re in the same boat, and it will drive the level of respect, trust, and credibility higher.”
  • How you structure and communicate your efforts can matter as much as what you’re trying to do.

That last point — how culture efforts are organized and communicated — is what I’ll be focusing on today. You might not be a multinational public company, and you might not be in tech. You might not even be an HR executive. But we can learn from Cappellanti-Wolf and Symantec’s journey how strategy needs to be coherent and logical so that HR can communicate it, implentation can successful occur and results measured.

From 21 points to 3

The Symantec culture effort is complex and complicated, as befits a company of 12,000 employees across many countries. One key step, as told in Cappellanti-Wolf’s presentation and slides, that included data and insights developed by LSA Global, was to structure all this data, technology, ideas and action items under umbrellas that organized the effort and communicated it to all stakeholders.

For instance, in one section of her talk Cappellanti-Wolf quickly mentioned what totaled 21 dimensions. That can be overwhelming. But, it wasn’t a list of 21 items without context. First, there was the idea of recognizing “culture” as three distinct pieces:

  1. Big C: Culture that drives strategy forward
  2. Medium C: The performance environment
  3. Little C: “The values and behaviors across the organization.” 

While those have 10, four and seven dimensions, respectively, grouping them into these three levels of culture helped Symantec show that it had a clear definition of culture in terms of the business. From there, it could become more specific about each level and the most relevant dimensions or actions for each.

Even the 10 dimensions at the Big C level are only a first step. From there, the company selected three key priorities and used analogies to show the choices being made (e.g. being less transactional with customers like McDonald’s and more intimate in the way the fictional “Cheers” bar was with patrons).

Looking ahead further, this transformation took many months and had endless moving parts. Yet Symantec was able to give some structure around it by dividing the transformation into four phases, each with an estimated timeline, clear high-level actions and objectives, and periods after each phase to “assess & determine readiness to move forward,” according to a slide Cappellanti-Wolf showed.

Human connection is a partner with data, not in opposition

Symantec is a company built on data and technology, and things like pulse surveys and dashboard factored prominently into how Cappellanti-Wolf and her team have carried out their work. However, human-to-human interaction is also crucial in developing a culture strategy and in communicating it.

First, data is not omniscient. Cappellanti-Wolf noted how certain data indicators can tell you one thing, and those results won’t be false but could only scratch the surface. She cited one instance in which the data suggested there was clarity among employees, yet deeper investigation revealed a level of confusion that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

To that end, Symantec’s culture overhaul has heavily used surveys and other data sources, but it’s supplemented those efforts with such things as listening tours at key domestic and international locations. 

Another lesson learned was in the only pulse survey metric to see a decline in favorability: career growth. This could be for a number of reasons, Cappellanti-Wolf said, including inadequate career or learning offerings and insufficient communication. Here again, technology plus human response revealed a problem that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, enabling Cappellanti-Wolf’s team to begin working on solutions.

Data can also help drive questions. For instance, in the aforementioned “Little C” bucket, a survey found a 75% favorability metric. In following up with how Symantec could improve, there was strong satisfaction found with managers and with teams, but less trust in people outside the team and with leadership, suggesting the presence of silos. The problems of trust and silos might have emerged, but the data appeared to have uncovered it more quickly.

You’ve got a strategy. Great. Does anyone understand it?

Strategy communications mapping was an area Cappellanti-Wolf highlighted as part of this culture transformation.

She shared a simple form of what this might look like.

  • It starts with a concise statement of vision, mission and values.
  • The target audience or clientele is defined, and there’s also an argument for why the company is differentiated for those ideal clients.
  • Also defined is what success looks like, the shortlist of priorities and the team’s key goals and actions.

In this way, the strategy can be communicated in a high-level, abstract way, in a way that ties to clients/customers, and down to the team level and understand the team and individual role in the bigger picture. For instance, what Cappellanti-Wolf communicates to the board isn’t in the same form that the front-line employee gets. As she told Adam Bryant in January, “Boards should expect regular reporting and discussions on pulse surveys from employees, alumni surveys that give you insights about why people are leaving, and retention rates for high performers. All those metrics will give them a sense of why people are staying and going.

Another challenge around communication was in the many changes to Symantec’s leadership team during Cappellanti-Wolf’s tenure, including multiple CEOs. In this case, an existing culture and mission was helpful in keeping her — and the transformation — on track. In some ways, she said, it “doesn’t matter who leads, our mission is protecting the data of our customers — fighting the bad guys.”

With that mission, data and stories, and a roadmap, Symantec’s been able to successfully change its culture in an ongoing, measurable way. While the details, the data and HR tech all are crucial, there’s a simple equation underneath: Culture + strategy = success. As Cappellanti-Wolf noted, we’re familiar with the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and the reverse is true: “culture without strategy is just words on paper.”


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact daSilva at @James_daSilva or by email.

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