“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A statement read in a lot of articles and heard in a lot of speeches about organizational development. But how do you create a progressive culture in your organization? Leo Puri, MD, UTI Asset Management, shared his insights on the tenets of architecting a progressive culture in an organization from his rich experience as a CEO, investor, and a culture transformation consultant. As a part of the mega keynote in the People Matters Total Rewards and Wellness Conclave 2018, he shared what is important and what isn’t while building a progressive culture. In this article, we highlight the tenets of architecting a progressive organizational culture.
Culture is born out of alignment of the sense of purpose
Fundamentally, culture is a social contract, and social contracts rely on people having a shared belief in a collective sense of purpose. ‘Shared’ and ‘collective’ are the keywords in the aforementioned statement. Because if people do not have a shared belief and a collective sense of purpose, then they will not be aligned with that purpose. And it is this alignment of the sense of purpose that gives birth to culture.
Culture is a system of shared beliefs and behavior of how you define those beliefs
Culture is organic
The thing about culture is that it cannot be imposed. Whether you are a CEO of a company, an investor in that company, or a cultural transformation consultant helping the company adopt a new culture (something the keynote speaker Leo Puri has been) – you cannot coerce people into adopting it. Any coercion into adoption is a recipe for disaster. Leo Puri argued that some CEOs tend to develop a cultish tendency around what is the right culture and impose it on the organization. For instance, during M&As of two entirely different types of organizations, a CEO must not impose their beliefs on a progressive culture. The two cultures need to be embedded together. There has to be a consensual understanding around the shared beliefs of the organization’s people, and when that is accepted, it translates to the organizational culture.
Organic adoption of culture is particularly challenging when the organization is undergoing a cultural transformation or changing its culture if you will. In such a scenario, Puri advised to “go with the grain.” By this, he implied that organizations need to underpin the areas of strengths in their culture; strengths such as domain knowledge, sense of community, or respect and humility. Organizations sometimes do the mistake of transforming every aspect of the culture and let go of the strengths that defined them till date and brought success and sustainability. Use empathy to understand where your strengths lie, adapt your strengths according to the new culture and get rid of your weaknesses.
Culture is fairly subjective, fairly informed, and it tends to evolve for better or worse” – Leo Puri
Culture is adaptable
One cannot view culture as unchangeable. One of the fallacies that organizations have is they believe in a notion that culture is like religion and they worship it. A refusal to let culture adapt to the rapidly changing world can lead to organizations falling behind. The notion that culture is constant, immutable, and revealed to us in a greater force is a myth. When you bow down to the culture, it becomes an oppressive force.
What leaders need to do to change that notion is contest it where it needs to be contested. It is when you set an example from the top is when it percolates down to the organization. The real question is – “How do you contest culture?” Puri advised that to contest culture, a leader has to contradict the elements of culture. These elements may be as simple as the importance given in the organization to cohorts, respect to seniority at the expense of unfair treatment to people lower in the hierarchy, providing people endless opportunities to continue despite it being proven unfit for the organization, promoting people only from within, and never promoting people from within. All of these though, need to be contested by organization’s leaders. Take IBM for example. Louis V. Gerstner took charge as CEO of the sinking ship that was International Business Machines, with reported losses of 8 billion dollars. He took a head-on approach to contest IBM’s cultural elements such as eliminating the concept of various departments in different geographic locations working independently with little or no accountability, or tying employee compensation to the company’s performance instead of the employees’ particular divisions. The first intervention led to increased team-work, and the second intervention ensured that customer success becomes a bigger priority than the department’s success. Such cultural interventions from a man who thought he had no technical know-how to run a company like IBM turned losses into profits in a decade (IBM made $8 billion in profits in 2002).
As Leo Puri suggested and as Gerstner proved, the job of a CEO is to contest the wrong cultural notions, and you need the courage as leaders to do so.
Culture is very context-specific. And any definition or a blueprint of a culture’s design cannot be developed without the context of the organization. The probability of rejection of pre-decided architecture of a culture (for instance a culture design duplicated from best practices of other companies’ contexts) is immense. There sometimes are cases when a transformation isn’t enough, when you do not need to develop the culture but put it to sleep. A CEO must act if this situation arises. Because despite the subjectivity that revolves around the concept of culture, its importance cannot be looked down upon. It can make (IBM) or break (Enron) businesses. Culture is a journey in progress, and nobody can claim to have crossed the finish line of success. Despite an organization’s sustained success for years, culture can break down in an instance; something Puri says from his decades of experience. Hence as the CEO, “your job is to ensure an institution survives, and culture plays a huge role in it,” he says.