Stop bragging about your company's awesome culture unless you have a commitment to embracing the fearless creativity required to sustain it
Culture relies on curation. Organizations need a dedicated team to curate amazing ideas in a creative and collaborative environment to sustain culture
You want to tell me that your company has a culture. I say that culture is bigger than work. It’s the manifestation of intellectual and human accomplishment. It’s the pursuit of truth and beauty. This article will cover the four components of company culture: creativity, collaboration, curation and continuity. But these four elements are only possible to discuss once you do the basics: pay people well, treat them with dignity and protect their civil rights.
I’m not talking about the kind of creativity energy that emanates from a bunch of knowledge workers — under the age of 30 — sitting in a room and talking about video games.(Those workers are imaginary, by the way. They wouldn’t be in a room talking about video games. They would be wearing headphones and playing those games.)
I’m talking about creativity that hits you in the face and expects you to apologize for being in the way.
Great cultures are driven by artists who are on a relentless search for truth and beauty. The best artists are both selfish and selfless, seeking to satisfy an internal desire for excellence while simultaneously believing that their quest will benefit all of humanity. And, by the way, those artists come in all shapes, sizes and ages. They’re not just Gen Z interns, born after 1995, with poor posture and acne. Creativity is subversive, coarse and shocking. Creativity is enmeshed with contradictions and complications. Creativity is authentic and abrasive. Creative people can be reasonable and charming; however, bold and original thinking often starts from a place of discomfort and despair.
But you don’t have time for creativity. You don’t even want your employees to make eye contact. You want them to communicate on slack so you can document it. Creativity eats up organizational time and patience. Creativity kills systems required to sustain capitalism. Your company is up against release dates and timetables. You have to ship widgets and chunks of products. I don’t know any CEO or HR leader who has time for artistic or imaginative thinking beyond his ego. What you call creativity is activated laziness. It’s nothing more than a slavish pursuit of modern trends meant to outgun your competitors. And that’s okay. Activated laziness is often enough to win your vertical. But truly creative people who work for excellent cultures don’t have time for your imitative and uninspired hunt for what’s next. So please stop bragging about your company’s awesome culture unless you have a commitment to embracing the brash and fearless creativity required to sustain the backbone of an intrepid culture. And, let’s be real, you don’t.
Collaboration is the second component of a great company culture. It’s about having a vision but also compromising for the greater good. But nobody collaborates at work when employees fight for a 3.8% merit increase. And nobody works with human resources professionals if we lie to our workers about a “fair and impartial performance review system” and act as if we’re doing them a favor by barely keeping their wages above inflation. If you want to create a great culture, start with the basics. Try collaboration, which is rooted in trust. How do you get your workers to believe you? Well, as HR professionals, we could all start doing our jobs a little better.
What’s our job? Work isn’t a democracy. Employees are rarely shareholders with voting rights. We are the first line of defense against unchecked hegemonic corporate power run amok. We are the descendants of the modern civil rights movement. Our jobs are cool. Our jobs are noble. We do important things like protect workers and end discrimination. We make history without making up fake stuff about culture.
But okay — you want to talk culture instead of trust and collaboration? I would ask: How many women serve on your board? How many LGBT leaders do you have? How many workplace accidents have you had? What does your HR data say about fair pay and equal opportunity in your company? What are you doing to improve disabled and long-term unemployment? Your job is to ensure that every employee — or applicant — is treated with respect and dignity. Not just the CEOs but the chief toilet scrubbers and the chief parking attendants, too. So praise good work across the board. Embrace organizational strengths. But be honest and transparent about your weaknesses — all of them — from hiring to promoting to paying people. And stop trying to make culture a thing before you make collaboration a normal behavior in your workplace.
A few years ago, I read an interesting book by Dr. Grant McCracken. It’s called Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. The author believes that companies need specialized workers, supervisors and leaders who understand cultural anthropology. Those new workers could create a culture that has a competitive advantage. And those employees could minimize organizational risk, too. That’s an interesting and groundbreaking perspective, which probably is never going to happen. Most CEOs and leaders believe that they are cultural ambassadors — “Chief Experience Officers.” They think it’s their singular job to instill a set of values into their organization, not yours.
When your CEO thinks he’s your dad and your boss, there’s a problem with culture right there.
There are a few companies who have been influenced by Dr. Grant McCracken and have hired chief culture officers and cultural anthropologists. So, who speaks truth to power? Who advocates on behalf of good ideas? Who tells CEOs when there’s a horrible idea or product that will hurt a company’s culture? (Probably nobody. Or maybe the CEO’s panel of advisors, who are just glorified sycophants.) And that’s okay. Most companies operate that way. But culture — the big movement you brag about, which is more than just beer and ping pong tables — relies on curation. Your Chief Curation Officer, which is a new job that I just invented, systematically dismantles nonsense and advocates for the good stuff.
But without a dedicated team to develop and curate amazing ideas in a creative and collaborative environment, you don’t have a culture. You just have a normal workplace.
We have talked about creativity, collaboration and curation. The final component is continuity. Do you work for a company that drinks its own champagne? My industry is thick with founder’s syndrome. Everything is great when you have a founder and a CEO who’s in the fishbowl conference room and inviting employees out for drinks. That man is visionary.
But what happens when he exits with a truckload of cash? Plenty of organizations can survive a founder’s exit. Such companies exist. They survive. Names don’t matter,
If you want to create an amazing company culture, think about how you can make succession planning come to life. Look at your leadership pipeline and ask them to forge a real and authentic connection with those kids who drive creativity and collaboration within your organization. If your company can’t move forward without its founder, you barely have a company — let alone a culture.