On one occasion, a young man approached British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and asked him what his greatest challenge was. He responded, “Events, my dear boy, events.” Is it any different for you? Is this not the precise nature of the challenge you face as a leader? You don’t know what’s next, but what you do know with absolute certainty is that there’s another challenge around the corner. In the meantime, one of the most important things you can do to get ready is design and build a high-performance culture.
If I walk into your organization, do I feel lighter and younger or heavier and older? Is the culture energetic and stimulating or bureaucratic and slow-moving? Is it a me or we culture?
Culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual. It’s what most people think, believe, say and do most of the time. When people come together on a regular basis, a culture is born — not immediately, but gradually. It’s the natural result of interaction. Every organization has a culture. Some are healthy, adaptable and prone to cultivate high performance. Others are toxic, encrusted and resistant to change. The question is whether you have the culture you want, the culture you need.
We used to think about culture as a by-product of what was happening. We didn’t realize that it could be molded to fit the specific purposes of an organization. Nor did we understand that it could be a major strategic asset in governing the way the organization created value. We’ve done a complete 180 on that. You should address it directly and shape the culture best suited to influence and drive your chosen mission, vision and strategy. When you shape a desired culture, that culture becomes the guidance system or DNA that influences how and at what level the organization performs. Culture shapes an organization’s decision patterns, guides its actions and influences the individual behavior of its members. You get what you design for and consistently reinforce.
Two layers of culture
Culture can be divided into two layers: visible and invisible. The visible layer of culture is what we see in terms of behavior, symbols, traditions and artifacts. Over time, organizations naturally develop common ways of doing things. Our interactions create prevailing norms in what we say and do. But the outward manifestations of culture are only half of the picture. The invisible layer of culture refers to what people think, believe, assume, feel and value. The problem is you can’t see this layer of culture. It’s below the surface. The invisible layer of culture precedes the visible layer in terms of sequence. People act and behave based on what they think, believe, assume, feel and value. Taken together, the invisible and visible layers of culture represent the overall culture of an organization. Every organization has one.
To change your culture, find the things that shape culture in the first place. Fortunately, the levers that shape culture are always the same regardless of the industry or organization. The most important levers of culture have to do with what is:
Model what you want
Of all of the levers that shape organizational culture, the single most important one is leadership behavior. Leaders shape culture through “modeling.” Modeling is simply demonstrated behavior. Organizational cultures don’t change unless leadership behavior is manifestly different and reflects what you want in your culture. Keep in mind that organizations don’t perform above their cultures. As the axiom goes, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.”
Of all the categories of organizational change, changing culture is the most difficult because it is rooted in human behavior. You should expect a culture change effort to take longer and require more effort than other types of organizational change, such as changes to structure, process, systems, technology, capital assets, cost-cutting and the like.
My last point is this: Maintain a maniacal focus on what you want in your culture. It will take time, but it will be worth it.
Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org