Is there a right or wrong culture?
Leaders need to identify all the key processes and systems in the company and critically examine those to be sure that the processes and systems are not destroying the culture they are trying to build
Someone has said that an organization is a long shadow of its leader. That is true when it comes to organization culture. The right organization culture can be a great competitive advantage. Its absence can be a key reason why businesses cannot realize their vision and why they fail to execute their strategies. Most experienced leaders would agree with that.
Leaders play a very important and singular role in building the culture of their organizations. While some can describe the prevailing culture, others go ahead and compare the culture of their organization with others and also talk about what needs to change in their culture. This is where it starts becoming a bit more complex.
To be able to leverage organization culture for business success, leaders need to be able to define their existing one and also articulate the desired culture, which can support their unique business situation. Sometimes, leaders tend to overlook their role as people who shape culture of their organizations. Worse still some leaders end up unknowingly or unintentionally creating a dysfunctional culture in their organizations. Leaders have a tendency to think that they need to focus their energies on more ‘concrete’ things rather than focusing on something intangible like culture. That can be dangerous because little do they realize that they are shaping the culture through all the ‘concrete’ stuff they do every day.
When I started working with this company as one of its new leaders, I sensed that there are some great things about the culture here and there were some things that needed to be changed. I could either adopt the culture and assimilate myself in the new organization or fight it with all my resolve and energy. The first option would defeat the reason the company brought me in, while the second would in all likelihood frustrate me and the organization will reject me sooner or later.
So after a lot of introspection, I came to the conclusion that I need to gracefully accept what is good and evolve the culture into what I think it should be. That was a longer process and takes a lot of conscious thinking and work. And it also required me to put my ego aside.
Understanding and defining the culture
The culture of an organization gets manifested through various big and small different things. But broadly, it is about three main things: Leadership behaviors, organizational processes and symbols. Let me describe each one in some detail.
Behaviors: Leaders’ behaviors not only reflect the culture but also shape it. Think of a leader who is trying to create a culture of predictability and discipline. If this leader is not disciplined and predictable, there is no way s/he can create the culture s/he wants to see in the organization. So leaders need to start thinking seriously about their behaviors and reflect whether it is helping the cause of the right culture. The next thing is about what leaders acknowledge and recognize. If leaders recognize the desirable behaviors in a very deliberate way that can be very powerful. Remember the cliché - catch people doing the right things.
However, leaders need to be looking at this with the ‘end in mind’. What is my vision of the business? What are my key strategies? What kind of culture will help me drive those strategies? What type of behaviors will help me make that strategy successful and which behaviors are not acceptable? So if I am in a business where innovation matters a lot and product innovation is part of my strategy then I need to think about culture and leadership behaviors which will harness innovation.
Processes: If a company requires umpteen approvals before a decision on capital expenditure or the headcount is approved, what does that approval process tell you about the culture of the company? Can that company develop a culture of trust and empowerment? Or think of a company where a customer support officer needs several mails and phone calls with senior managers before spending Rs 1,000 that is going to delight a customer. Can that company promote a culture of customer centricity? So leaders need to identify all the key processes and systems in the company and critically examine those to be sure that the processes and systems are not destroying the culture they are trying to build. It requires the leaders to get people involved - not just employees but even external stakeholders - to look for processes, which are damaging the culture of a company.
Symbols: These can be the most innocuous tools for either building a desirable culture or destroying it. Think about a company that talks about professionalism and egalitarianism, but has a large parking lot right in front of the main entrance of the office earmarked for the seniormost leader of the organization. That parking lot will become a great symbol that is contrary to the espoused culture. There are companies where leaders always dress up in suits, maintain separate executive cafeteria and need prior appointment before an employee can see them. But they want an ‘informal’ culture! There can be many examples of symbols including such simple things as whether managers have closed office rooms and what is the size of office rooms or even whether meeting rooms have transparent or opaque glasses.
How to drive cultural change in a large organization? Making a shift in the culture definitely requires a lot of deliberate effort. But it becomes easier if the leadership team of a company and not just the top leader drive the shift. Collective efforts yield great results. The process needs to be started at the top and then cascaded to the first level of leadership team and then through all the people managers or team leaders.
Is there something like the right culture or the wrong culture? In my opinion, companies need to think about the culture best suited for their business model. Desirable culture for a company is determined by what the company is trying to accomplish. It is a function of the market place and the customers that the company is serving. The role of the leaders is to understand, articulate and communicate that. A leader should proactively shape the right behaviors, processes and symbols and cannot ignore it as something which is a ‘given’ or something which is too fuzzy to work on. Ultimately, leaders need to remember that the right culture can be a big competitive differentiator – something that is hard for competitors to copy.