Ed Toner

An Army Brat's Views on Culture Change

On June 9th I celebrate my third year as CIO here at the State of Nebraska. It has been a great experience and an honor to represent the State’s technology organization. This milestone serves as a good time to look back and appreciate how much we have accomplished as a team. It has also caused some self-reflection, as I think about my experiences growing up and how they still influence me to this day, especially so close to Father’s Day.

Over the past three years I have seen a lot of change in the OCIO. I would even go as far to say that our culture has changed. In a meeting with the leadership team a few weeks ago I asked my team if they also see a culture change in our organization and they enthusiastically agreed. Then I mentioned, to their surprise, that I experienced the biggest culture change of my life at the age of 15. You see……. I’m an "army brat", which is insulting to some people, but not to me. I did not know there was any other way of life until my father retired when I was 15 years old.

The military lifestyle is a very unique culture with ingrained values and norms. Values such as idealism, loyalty, respect and patriotism which were engrained even more during the time my father was serving in the Vietnam War and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. Our family spent this tour in Alaska waiting for his return. Alaska itself has a very different culture than the lower 48 states. During our time in Alaska we communicated with my father only through letters and occasionally an exchange of reel-to-reel tapes sent through the mail. I loved the salute my mother and I would get when we drove past the guard gate as we entered the post; it gave me the sense that my father was doing something important, something noble and worthy of respect.

When my father was stateside I saw the respectful salute he always returned at the gate, even when he was in the middle of lecturing me which was always well deserved. While we walked together on post he made sure he returned the respect as we passed each soldier who was offering a salute. My father taught me that everyone is worthy of respect. Whether the person standing duty at the gate was a General or the MP, he always showed them respect and courtesy. My father lived through boot camp and an armed conflict and he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an officer. Humility was required. In the twenty years that my father represented our country in service he always considered his job his duty.

Hanau Post Guard Gate in the 1970s Hanau post guard gate in the 1970’s


When my father returned from Vietnam we moved to Hanau, Germany where I spent 5th – 8th grades very isolated from civilian life and the United States. Our post had only one English-speaking radio station, AFN (Armed Forces Network), until my 7th or 8th grade year when we were able to get (in addition to radio) one television station. The T.V. station went off-air at 10:00 p.m. and always ended with the National Anthem. Looking back, I consider myself fortunate for not having had a cultural influence of late night T.V. as it gave me an appreciation for reading. Living on post while overseas was very different than the lives of many of my American teenage peers. Movies shown on post had previews like other theaters, but just prior to the start of the movie they played the National Anthem and the entire audience would stand with their hands over their heart.

We experienced terrorist threats against Americans while living in Germany during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. My classmates and I were evacuated from school too many times to count, and I remember us all being moved to another location on green U.S. Army military buses. When placed on alert, our housing, Old Argonner Kaserne, had a large presence of military police and check points to enter and exit the barracks. The military regulations, laws, and social expectations of conduct are different than I imagine they were for most civilian towns at that time.


Argonner Kaserne Officers Housing 1970 Picture of Old Argonner Kaserne Officers Housing, taken in the 1970’s.


Argonner Karserne 2011 Picture of Old Argonner Kaserne taken during a business trip in 2011. The post was closed in 2008.


Growing up, everyone I knew worked for the same company (U.S. Army) and that company was not a democracy which set it apart from the civilian population. Members of the armed services do not get to choose their assignments or where they were stationed. As a child I learned very quickly not to complain. When I was in DOD (Department of Defense) schools it was easy to traverse the two worlds, but when I returned to public school for my High School years I had to learn to negotiate a completely new and totally foreign culture. The culture I grew up in was significantly different than my civilian counterparts’ in school. It is stated that an organizational culture is formed over years of interaction among the participants in the organization. I certainly understood that at a young age.

I have always been told that changing an organization’s culture is the toughest task to take on. We did not intentionally or even consciously set out to change the culture, but from the feedback I am getting, we have definitely gone through a culture change. We began by establishing the values and beliefs which eventually formed the basis for our culture. It all started with our goals and mission statement placing more emphasis on client service and efficient delivery of IT services.

Experts say that the most successful strategy is to begin with a compelling vision of the future. Our Website landing page says it all starting with our logo:



“Good Life. Great Vision”

We have a vision of what our future looks like and we have made great progress towards our goals, also found on our landing page:

“We value our clients and their needs”

“Respect for the taxpayers of the State of Nebraska”

The OCIO culture and reputation is becoming more and more client motivated. This is not a criticism of the hard work everyone has always done, it is more a new respect for what our customers need at the most efficient cost. Changing the accepted organizational culture can be overwhelming. Experts say it is not enough to come up with a list of company values and post them online or on an office wall. Senior leaders in the company must live by those values every day because employees notice how people at the top behave.

As a leader and team you have to believe in and support everyone in the organization to obtain shared cultural values. There are four areas, I have learned, every leader and team must live by:

Accomplish work through Empowerment

Employees need to be able to make their own decisions to help our customers at no risk. If it is in the best interest of the customer, just do it. Let employees know what they need to get done, but not necessarily how they should go about doing it.

Ensure the Adequate Tools

Provide employees with the tools necessary to get the job done effectively and efficiently – it is essential to do great work. This includes onboarding. The way you bring employees into a company is all-important.


Great customer service should be great by comparison to both public and private industry. The best regardless of who you benchmark against. Use the right metrics, and get rid of the wrong ones.


Look at all your processes and continuously improve. Once we started, we found we needed to look at even more. Every process needs to include the reason for the process and how it achieves our goals.

Studies show that for organizations the size of the OCIO, cultural change can be completed in three years. We are certainly on track. New organizational cultures form for a reason, I believe it transforms to match the style and comfort zone of new leadership. I have been told that leadership means no micromanagement, simply definitive direction and expectations of results. A leader must trust their team to effectively accomplish important goals, provide communication with a vision, and show the team respect, letting them know they are valued and trusted. This means the organization must have a plan (a roadmap) of where it wants to go before trying to change an organizational culture. The organization must be realistic about where it is when creating the starting point for future benchmarks. Then, the organization can take the new vision and work together to make it a reality.

As always, I appreciate your commitment to the citizens of the State of Nebraska.


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