Faculty Spotlight: Change Leadership Expert Susan Berg on Leading through Inclusion

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Susan Berg

Photo: Susan Berg

Susan Berg has worked with major corporations, tech giants and even the White House. Now she’s bringing her award-winning expertise in corporate change management, leadership and development to USC Bovard College.

Berg first flourished in the corporate world with tech giant Unisys, where she once convinced the C-suite to let the company design its own change leadership program rather than hiring an expensive consulting firm. The program was a huge success and was eventually rolled out to 10,000 employees around the world.

Berg later launched two of her own change management ventures, including her current business, The Highline Practice. Her philosophy is that good leadership does not always come from the top down. Instead, she supports management in encouraging employees to take pride and ownership in their work, by helping to create and implement programs from the ground up.

She also authored Choose on Purpose (for twentysomethings), which draws on her change skills, to give the younger generation step-by-step advice on launching their adult lives. She encourages them to follow their curiosity, dive into the unknown and embrace change.

Berg has joined the USC Bovard College faculty as an adjunct assistant professor. She will be teaching two courses, Leadership in Human Resources (HRM510) and Employee Relations

(HRM535). She looks forward to working with students on leading change and designing skill development approaches that are more closely linked to the workplace, as learning labs.

Continue reading to learn more about Berg, how she got started in change leadership and what drew her to teach at USC Bovard College.

How did you get started in HR?

My journey started in the world of education and training. I spent several years in my early career working in higher education—in the community college system.

I mentored working adult students, helping them gain college credit for workplace learning. Because of this, I got into about 150 different companies in the LA basin in about a year and a half—which was an amazing learning experience!

This taught me a really critical skill—how to sniff out the environment, watch signals and pick up on vibes. I learned to scan the work environment, check out whether there’s tension or a sense of ease in the surroundings. All this made me appreciate how space, environment, and the cultural do’s and don’ts of a company affect people’s ability to bring their best to work.

For most of my career I have found myself in the role of advisor, coach and consultant to individuals, teams and organizations. After my community college experience, I ended up at Unisys Corporation, an IT company, and spent about a dozen years there between the ‘80s and the ‘90s. That’s where I got my corporate grounding.

I ultimately ended up working on the global leadership development programs that we offered at the time. I spent several years designing and delivering programs with a team all over the world that provided a core, mid and senior manager leadership development program.

My last program there was the field global change process I led for the CEO. The change leadership bug bit me then, and I’ve been in the work ever since. So in the mid-‘90s I started my own firm, and have had the good luck to work with every kind of company since then—from corporate Fortune 50 to community non-profit, and from government agency to start-ups.

What is change leadership and how does it benefit an organization?

Change leadership is helping your company to constantly reshape itself, adapting and evolving with whatever pressures are on it. It is how to lead our businesses through change, intentionally. Above all, it is the willingness to step into the future—an open, ambiguous space—and be willing to experiment with our teams.

My specialty is helping leaders and individuals, as they enter a time of change, figure out how to make good choices and how to influence one another in a positive way. A big part of this is learning to work in a way that the whole team is included and working on it together.

When we start to change as an organization, it is important to start together—to help everyone have a voice in the process and contribute. That means that you want to avoid, as a leadership team, telling people what to do. You want to ask people what is in the best interest of our organization to survive and thrive—then embark on a path to do it together. This follows a core notion I learned a long time ago—“People do what they create.”

We are much more productive when we feel good, we’re having fun, and we’re getting along. My team introduces our change leadership with this quote from Buckminster Fuller—a designer and futurist of the 20th Century:

You never change things by resisting the current reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

How has the corporate world changed in the last 30 years?

I think there’s a slowly developing understanding that the Taylorism management approach of the early 20th century—or “do what I tell you and don’t ask questions”—is on its way out. This is a management style that came about with the introduction of industrialization and manufacturing lines—and it is certainly not how people work best in the digital age. We let that outdated method of leading and managing projects creep into much of the fabric of the corporate world. And it’s time to escort it out the door.

We understand the brain a lot better now, we understand the role of emotion and connection and vulnerability in the workplace, and we have started to change our view of leadership. This notion of inclusion and not telling, but actually drawing on people’s capability, and hopefully assuming the best of people rather than trying to blame—I think that’s beginning to shape the way we are thinking about our 21st century work lives.

Of course the role of technology change—becoming workers in the digital age—you have to mention. The way we use the Internet and find information now actually changes the way our neural networks work. It’s an important part of change.

Technology has, in many ways, adversely affected our interaction and our connection at work. We don’t talk to each other, we email or text each other when we’re upset. My hope is that this will turn out to be a fad, and we’ll figure out pretty quickly how to use our innate abilities to connect, create and relate to one another to solve problems and innovate.

What are the biggest challenges facing companies today?

From my perspective the biggest challenge is how to get over the habits of the 20th century. During that period we set up a lot of hierarchies and organizational structures for static business environments.

Now we are the opposite of static. We are in a fluid and global business environment. I think about things like— how do we use that global connection in everyone’s best interest? How do we stay adaptive and flexible? How do we keep from getting overwhelmed? It’s a challenge! But a good one to have.

What motivates you?

Helping people find their AHA! Moments—hopefully through a good sense of humor, a mirror and a sense of balance. I’ve been married nearly 40 years—it’s the greatest team development adventure I’ve been on in my life! And believe me, I’ve had to use that mirror, keep a sense of humor, and keep my balance through the journey.

I have two children and two beautiful granddaughters. Playing with them reminds me of the power of being in the present moment, paying attention to one person’s experience at a time, and letting everything else go—it’s a terrific reminder of the power of attention and listening.

Also, I have spent nearly two decades as a volunteer with my local YMCA, including serving as board president, volunteer coach and trainer. I’ve had the honor of serving on other local boards, and coaching young couples about to be married. All of these experiences have contributed to both my personal growth and leadership development. It’s terrific to be challenged by highly diverse groups of people—it forces you to listen in a new way, to be patient, and to learn when to take a stand.

What drew you to USC Bovard College?

Bovard College is shaping their HR program towards innovation and student-centered learning—something that has a true 21st century feel to it. That’s absolutely the right direction.

They’re introducing learners to broad strategic thinking, a focus on change and innovation, and new approaches to learning and development. They are leading students to think about where the future is taking us. That’s an energy I want to be part of!

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