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C is for...Culture

Every group or organization has a culture – be it family, community, business, department, or nation. Those in a group may be aware of the culture they operate in but may not be able to define it consistently across members. Often, the essence of the culture is not formally defined, documented, or shared; but it is there, nonetheless. Culture is generally defined by owners, leaders, and/or senior leadership.

 

Culture within organizations has become a clear determinant of success of late. Emphasis within an admired culture on development, engagement, and alignment of commonly held principles is considered key in achieving core objectives. Without all members of an organization moving in the same direction with common purpose, the ability to achieve results will be compromised.

 

So, what do I view as culture? The foundation is philosophical in nature. It defines the WHO the group claims to be and WHAT the group believes. It is how the organization commits to operating, both internally and externally. Culture is ethos – the distinguishing character, sentiment, or guiding beliefs of a group.

 

It follows that core values and vision are basic to culture formation. Statements of belief for the organization with clear long-term direction become the north star. Core values affirm the defining truths behind the organization – the who we are and what we believe to be important. Vision defines why we do what we do, what we do, how we do it, and where we are going. This may come in the form of mission and vision statements, purpose statements, or a definition of the core focus for all activities – whatever will be the most authentic for the group.

 

What defines an admired culture? In my view it must meet three criteria: Is it smart? Is it effective? And is it healthy?

 

A smart culture is one that operates with a high level of awareness, both inside and outside the four walls. Smart culture is focused, nimble, and ready to learn what reality is willing to teach.

 

For culture to be effective, it first must be authentic. Many organizations go through the process of defining their culture as this is what is expected of them. Once you define the walk, you must walk the talk. People can spot phoniness a mile away; rather than undertake the exercise and not live it, it’s better to not do so at all. Culture must be real.

 

Healthy culture is positive, supportive, team-oriented, open, democratic, and compassionate. The opposite, of course, is a toxic culture – most of us have experienced just how ineffective that can be. By contrast, a healthy culture creates an ease and defines the optimum flow channel for an organization. When it is working, there is synergy, an overarching trust, openness, and caring for the company, its objectives, as well as support for all who participate. As a result, attraction and retention of great quality people is easier and the company is better able to compete in the labor market. Costly employer turnover is reduced. Results are achieved at a higher rate as the team aligns around the goals and take ownership of achieving them.

 

Yes, this sounds a little like being at summer camp, standing around the fire holding hands singing Kumbaya, but it is more than that. It is not about running a loose ship where everyone does what they want, where everyone is ‘nice’, and where all get what they want – far from it. It is about defining what is important and getting all on board and pulling in the same direction. It is about results, focus, and accountability, and in my view, a solid culture is the best way to achieve those results consistently.

 

Is it easy to do? Of course, it isn’t if the goal is to find and retain like-minded, core value-aligned people, to train the culture, establish core objectives, and empower people to pursue them. It requires constant effort; total buy in by senior leadership, investment of time and money, continual reinforcement along with the belief that running a good organization will lead to achievement of results. It ain’t easy, but it is worth it.

 

Now, can culture go astray? You bet it can. Culture can tip over the edge into ‘cult’ quite easily, and this is as unhealthy and ineffective as a toxic culture. When the push for unity of diverse skills and points of view toward the common good moves into the drive for uniformity and unquestioned adherence, so slips your long-term effectiveness. What once attracted great people to your organization can shift quickly to pushing them away. This can be as toxic, or more than not authentically living the culture or acting contrary to its stated beliefs. It is, as they say, a fine line to walk.

 

Peter Drucker once famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I take this to mean that well formulated strategy is important, but it is not the be all and end all. Senior leadership can go away on retreats and craft the best way forward for the organization, but without a smart, healthy, and effective culture, the strategic plan is likely to fall flat. At the end of the day, the people who implement and execute the plan matter more than the quality of the plan itself.

 

Until next time!

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