I had the good fortune of having my interest in the power of culture sparked nearly 20 years ago when I was a VP with a major automotive supplier. We wanted to foster a positive environment and build an “involvement culture.” I had great mentors and read everything I could find on leadership and culture.
I learned about “building culture muscle” through rigorous feedback and prioritization to foster ownership with groups, transparent and regular communication habits, proactive resolution of major employee frustrations, and consistent tracking of strategies, goals, and measures.
The Main Learning Years – Trial and Error
I moved through a series of roles with different regional and global groups over the next eight years, each with a different sub-culture and urgent performance priories. One exciting principle was further building ownership with the goal of having every employee feel like they were part of team “running their own business.” We implemented extensive cross-functional team structures to support this goal. The same fundamentals worked across the world but customization was needed for communication, and different aspects of the operating model were emphasized based on the local culture.
I learned about the importance of understanding the history of an organization, a documented vision and strategy, large group “involvement meetings” to keep a team on the same page, and innovative group reward and recognition. The learning continued through regular community service activities and employee wellness improvements to support a deeper purpose, leveraging technology to streamline work, and proactively using feedback to refine communications and drive clarity. I also learned about the incredible power of strengths-based employee development.
The Financial Crisis – Fear, Uncertainty & Failure
Next, the financial crisis hit, automotive volumes tanked, and my responsibilities changed to focus on managing an urgent restructuring plan in North America. The same operating model was implemented as in prior roles but there was an incredible focus on performance. We were bought by a private equity firm, managed a massive downsizing, restructured the global business, and I lost my job at the end of it all.
I learned about urgently driving improvement because peoples’ lives are at stake, relentlessly emphasizing performance metrics, and confronting reality in extremely difficult times. I also learned about fear, self-doubt, sadness, and regret.
Moving to a New Organization
I was out of work for a year before landing a role as president of a great family-owned business. It was a massive turnaround effort but most aspects of the same operating model worked in an organization where I had no history.
I learned about the importance of having only one “top” priority at a time, focusing on 1-2 key values or behaviors to improve (discipline, teamwork, etc.), and about how to hold off on sharing my ideas or proposed plans in favor of starting with a vested group and a clean sheet of paper. I also learned about eliminating fear, growing pride, phasing improvements, hiring for cultural fit, and proactively communicating with a board / owners so they feel involved.
A World of Culture Education
I moved to consulting as president of a culture assessment and consulting firm, before a transition to independent consulting and business coaching. It’s been an amazing experience to see cultures across a wide variety of organizations.
I learned extremely effective organizations, small or large, apply relatively similar habits to support their purpose, values, and performance priorities. The vast majority of those organizations did what I did – they pieced things together over a period of many years without following a clear framework, model, or guide to help them sequence or prioritize the work.
It doesn’t make sense to me that leaders should have to go through a long learning process to deal with the complex subject of culture with confidence. Culture is a hot topic but we’re buried in the popular press of disconnected tips, keys, and levers that over-shadow fundamentals about culture and the direct impact it has on performance. Sustainable culture change takes time but the initial efforts to build clarity, alignment, and leverage your unique culture will often have a rapid impact on performance as momentum builds.
I learned the lack of understanding the subject of culture is dramatically impacting results in the vast majority of organizations. There is also a huge social impact (think about organizations in education, healthcare, government, non-profit, etc.) where meaningful change could be accelerated.
The Bottom Line and a Predication
Leaders need to:
1) See through the popular press and understand culture fundamentals
2) Focus on specific problems, challenges, or goals and identify very specific values or behaviors to evolve that have been holding back performance
3) Apply culture fundamentals as part of clear plan to engage their workforce in solving problems, achieving goals, and improving performance with a sense of urgency
4) Connect the right set of improvements to get over the “culture tipping point” where momentum, results, and buy-in grows.
Culture will be widely accepted as the ultimate differentiator in organizations within the next 20 years. The focus will over-shadow strategy, talent, technology, and all other areas.
What have you learned about the subject of culture? Is it the ultimate differentiator in organizations?