Choreographing, or at least dancing in step with your organization’s "culture" is critical to leadership. Move well with it, and it enables you to get great things done. Buck it, or be victimized by it, and it can be your downfall.
What do I mean by "culture?" There are many definitions, but I think of it as the unspoken yet key rules of the road for your organization. For example, candor/directness among colleagues is the norm in Company A, while people at Company B tend to avoid it. Of course, you’ll rarely hear someone volunteer that "we avoid candor here."
Creating / changing these norms is a leadership function, one which often happens more haphazardly than intentionally. Yet ask someone in the organization about culture, and they’ll describe to a tee.
Given that, it’s not surprising that many leaders just don’t grasp, notice, or focus on the criticality of culture, much less influence it. Those are usually the ones swimming against the tide of what’s truly needed to make change and/or achieve big hairy audacious goals, and wondering why.
To be an effective leader over time, I believe it’s necessary to operate well in three areas: the technical (being knowledgeable and skillful at your job), the political (being consistently influential), and the cultural (leveraging those unspoken rules of the road).
As a coach, it’s easier to notice culture. I work in many different companies and industries. As I coach specific executives, I usually do some form of interview-based 360 evaluations, and, knowing how critical it is to sustainable achievement, I always ask about “culture.” The question I ask is this:
“Describe your organization’s culture, and then tell me in what ways (CLIENT) is in synch, and out of synch with it.” The immediate response is typically “That’s a great question.”
Considering many recent sets of interviews, and having gone through my notes for this piece, I’ve identified the common themes of culture people note, and present thirteen factors (below).
While I’ve framed these factors as “A versus B,” below, for the sake of brevity, I’d like you to think of them on a scale, as culture is usually shades of gray, rather than black or white. For instance, “Candor versus Directness” in an organization is never one or the other. You can think of candor as a 10 and indirectness as a 1, and imagine each culture falls somewhere on a scale from 1 to 10.
My challenge to you is to assess YOUR organization’s culture in these terms, and notice / discover what there is to learn from them:
1. Honesty among coworkers: Candor versus Indirectness
2. Making Significant Decisions: Analysis-bias versus Action-bias
3. Work ethic: Intense versus Light
4. Specific Words / Language: What’s Acceptable versus Unacceptable
5. Organization’s Values: Stated and Adhered To, versus Not
6. Overall Vibe: Warm versus Tough / Formal versus Informal
7. Individual Responsibility: Entitlement versus Self-starting
8. Having Fun: Acceptable / Encouraged versus Not
9. Intramural Teamwork: Collaboration versus Competition
10. Negative Consequences: Done versus Avoided
11. Mutual Encouragement: Fostered versus Absent
12. Buy In: Command versus Consensus
13. Organization’s “Story”: Strong Influence, versus Not