Culture – Think globally, act locally but lead individually
I work with companies helping them to reorganise, improve and grow. Every time I go into a new organisation I have to quickly check out what makes the organisation tick, what is their DNA, what’s their entrenched culture.
Just as we individuals are all wired differently so too are organisations, and mostly the cultural scene is set when the business is in start up mode. For me, as an interim, it’s crucial to review the history of how and why the business was shaped, the individual/s who formed it and the original objectives of the firm. Just getting my head around that really does give me a head start.
There appears to me to be 3 interlinking cultural elements:
- That which is visible to the outside world – the brand that attracts customers and employees (or does not)
- The vision, mission and goals – what the business tells us it will achieve and how it will do it
- The actual ways of working and behaviours that are so embedded into the firm that they are taken for granted, but drive the customer experience
(Schein did some great work on levels of culture back in 1992 in his book, Organisational Culture and Leadership. See his brilliant work here.)
Of course, points 1 and 2 always need to be considered when working with an organisation that wants to improve, but the nut most difficult to crack, to both decipher and therefore alter, is the third element in the diagram above.
That’s because even in a well-established organisation, the culture will still reflect some of the behaviours and values of the person or people who first set up the organisation. It will also have a flavour of the sector and industry norms and invariably it will mirror elements of the geographical culture in which the business was begun.
It can be remarkably difficult to shift the culture at this level. It cannot and will not be rushed because it involves real people who will push back if they don’t understand why things have to change or, worse, they may move on leaving you with knowledge gaps
A few years ago I worked in a British business trying to dictate British values on its Asian operations, I’ve witnessed an Indian business apply Indian values to a British based subsidiary and a US business enforce US values in French operations. All three cases led to attrition and knowledge gaps which in turn led to poor performance before the firm recognised the error of its ways.
A very wise person once said think globally, act locally. I’d take it one step further and add “lead individually” to that phrase so that you are taking account of the local history, traditions and beliefs but also personal principles, preferences, circumstances and tenets that affect the way a person likes to be managed.
To change the culture at an embedded level requires strong, astute leadership who provide behavioural example to staff, who are ready and able to educate employees on why the change will benefit the business and their career, and to understand what people policies will help to drive the change. That could be the reward system, the learning infrastructure, monitoring and control, staff engagement or the way that people are managed day-to-day….or a combination of them all.
I can’t give you all the answers in this article (you can hire me for that) but I hope that I’ve made you think about becoming more aware of the embedded, involuntary, unconscious DNA of your company
When I first roll up my sleeves and work with an organisation, I measure culture by determining whether the staff there have a sense of purpose. A purpose that makes them want to come to work and do a good job for their customers and have an enjoyable time doing so, because invariably, customer satisfaction reflects employee satisfaction.
If you have any qualms about the health of your culture at this embedded level then do yourself a favour, get to understand it more and then take some tempered and realistic action to improve it.
Kai Hammerich and Richard D Lewis in their latest book say “Management are often blind to their own culture – fish can’t see water – and may not see derailing dynamics. They may have a point you know!