First published in November 2018
If one thing has become clear after all these decades of management soul-searching for more or less universal truths, this is one of them: cultures make or break. Culture is probably your most important asset. Entire companies thrive commercially on the back of a culture, or fail miserably because of it.
Culture is never ‘done’, like a project finished and milestones achieved. Culture is in construction every day. Also, it’s not the simple sum of components, processes, systems and behaviours; written and unwritten rules, leadership and fellowship. Even the type of furniture and the size of the windows is a component of the culture. The size of your inbox is also culture, the number of meetings per week and per capita is also culture. Leaders eating in the cafeteria, or not, is also culture. Certainly the voice at the other end of the telephone in the call centre is culture.
Culture is the smile of the receptionist, the way a nurse introduces herself in a hospital, the hotel room service, the speed of a reaction to a complaint.
All working practices are culture. All ways of doing, all airtime, the concept of a priority, and the differences, or matches, between the values on the wall and behaviours on the ground.
For years I have tried to navigate company culture; when I was in somebody else’s payroll and when I was outside the walls, looking inside. I’ve seen places where happiness is contagious and places that would have deserved Dante’s sign and the entrance of Hell: Abandon Hope. I have seen suffocating cultures dressed as human. I have seen very human cultures without trumpeting their values.
Having been in my old past through a great deal of corporate toxicity, I have become cynical of the ones that talk too much about them. But this is a conversation for another day.
You can start anywhere you want but, not just my own heuristic (full of bias) but all those decades of soul searching, leads me to one point of departure and one point of destination. The alpha and omega of culture is behaviours. Behaviours create cultures. I don’t have to study reams of corporate documentation; tell me what behaviours you have and I will tell you what culture you are in. Tell me what you do, not what you think, not what you proclaim.
Culture is simply strategy in action. Magnificent or sloppy, ambitious or middle of the road, thriving or broken.
Culture is strategy.