A senior oil company engineer, responsible for safety said this at a conference I was at last week. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He went on to explain, you can have the best strategy in the world, but without the right culture you will not be able to deliver it. Equally, if you have the right culture, it will help to ensure you have the right strategy.
What this demonstrates for me is that we are moving beyond the era when it was common to believe that leadership and management were about working out what the right thing to do was (usually in isolation) and then telling it to the people. Who would then, presumably, do it – except of course, very often, they didn’t.
We are moving to an era where the role of management and leadership is not only to be responsible for strategy, it is also to take careful responsibility for culture.
At Razorfish in about 1999 I was asked to take some responsibility for the culture, so I convened a meeting of people who were interested and we tried to work out what “culture” meant. We didn’t have a clue. As a result the project fizzled out. It was a great pity that it did, because soon afterwards we integrated with another company with a very different culture. The two cultures clashed horribly and since we had not really articulated or explained our culture we were unable to protect it. I have learned a lot since that experience.
An organisational culture is simply the way a group of people choose to behave together. It happens quite naturally and very quickly in any group that spend time together. Typically it is defined by the leading characters in the group and can be deliberate and explicit or emergent and implicit. For example, if the lead characters are aggressive, critical, individual and unsupportive – it is highly likely that the culture will be too. The leading characters might include both formal and informal leaders.
Back to the conference, the company the speaker represented have identified that caring for each other is a critical component in making a risky operation safe. If you think of the image of heavy engineering, mining, oil rigs and so on, it is easy to imagine quite a masculine, individualistic kind of culture would prevail. What the speaker was saying was that rules and controls can only take safety so far and to go to the next level requires a culture of caring for each other.
Is the culture of your organisation appropriate to it’s needs?
Does it need to be safer, more creative, more collaborative, or something else, or a mixture?
What kind of culture would help to create the most effective environment for your organisation?
Safety requires everyone to take responsibility for doing the right thing, to really look out for each other and to look out for any and all risks.
Creativity requires a culture which supports experimentation and encourages people to take emotional risks with ideas.
Collaborative culture requires people to really understand each others strengths and weaknesses and to be sufficiently engaged and humble to allow leadership to flow to where it is relevant.
Having identified the kind of culture that is most likely to work, the next step is to identify the values and behaviours that are likely to encourage that culture (and the ones that are likely to discourage it).
Then to communicate them – this is not just a question of a booklet or a poster, but of really helping people to understand them, through deep communication where everyone gets the chance to discuss, internalise and own the values and behaviours.
Part of communicating the values is for the leaders (including the informal ones) to fully “be” the values and behaviours. Quoting Albert Schweitzer “Example is not the most important part of leadership – it is the only part”. If any of the leaders find it difficult to embody the values and behaviours they need to be supported (through coaching, mentoring etc) or they need to leave.
Communicating the values and behaviours is not a one time thing, it also needs to be embedded in and embodied by the systems of the organisation; the rewards and compensation structure, recognition and awards, reviews and feedback, marketing and communications as well as recruitment, on-boarding and training. There also needs to be processes for discouraging behaviours that go against the values.
How does all of this sit with authenticity and people being true to themselves – because in some ways this could sound like a charter for imposing an unwanted kind of conformity on people?
My view is this; If an organisations culture is explicit, people can choose to be part of it, or not, knowing whether that culture aligns with their authenticity. If an organisations culture is not explicit, it is confusing and hard for people to tell if they want to be part of it. In the end our authenticity is much more likely to be compromised by a culture that is hidden and opaque than one which is clear and unambiguous.
The most effective and successful leaders are the ones that take culture seriously.
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