What’s the key to success in business? It’s what all leaders hope to find out and pursue. For years, when asked this question, leaders have been unambiguous in their answer: Culture. As but one example, a whopping 94% of executives in a Deloitte study said they believed that a distinct workplace culture is the key to success. Absent culture, their words implied, sustained organizational success is hard to achieve. In my most recent award-winning book Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times I put it more bluntly to senior leaders: ‘It’s the Culture, Stupid.’
It all sounds good. But there’s a problem, and a serious one at that.
Under the rosy declarations of senior executives, Deloitte found scant evidence that leaders walk their talk. Their report’s conclusion minced no words: “There is a disconnect between organizations simply talking about their culture and those that are embedding their beliefs into their operations.” Which leads to the obvious questions, why and how – more precisely: Why are executives not prioritizing what they claim to be critical? And, how can that be changed?
The answer to the latter is simpler than you think. But before that, it’s worth reminding ourselves what culture is and why it even matters.
What Culture Is and Why it Matters
What is culture in an organization? Significantly, it’s a question most never actually stop to answer. Some do, and they suggest the answer is pretty simple: Culture is who an organization and all of its players are, and what they are doing, right now – not who they were, not who they aspire to be, but who they are in this moment. By that definition, culture becomes their ever-present guide. It’s a litmus test for every decision, every action, by every person, every single day. In short, those who ‘get’ culture operationalize it. For those who don’t and only pay it lip service, rather than being their chief competitive advantage, it’s more likely to become the source of the organization’s decay.
Mandating vs. Making Culture
Just as detrimental as failing to understand culture, is trying to mandate it. Many leaders carry in their heads a myth of ‘leader as hero.’ It’s the false belief that the individual senior leader equals or should equate to leadership in total. By this myth, all ideas, directions, and solutions emanate from the corner office. Why, such leaders conclude, would defining and deciding how to pursue culture be any different? So they mandate culture, framing it in their own image, briefly declaring culture’s importance, and then commanding everyone to get back to work.
When culture works, it isn’t created or commanded by one. Quite the contrary, it’s accessible, to everyone, every day. It’s used like a tool, not passively waited for like some miracle. To function in the manner that the most successful organizations know it can, culture must be cocreated, ideally at the start, with the expectation that it will be refined and tuned jointly ongoing. Co-owned in this way, it becomes operationalized. It’s no longer thought of as some far away, one-day dream. It serves as the catalyst for creating value right now.
If you want to tap its power, you can’t mandate culture. You have to make it.
How to Begin to Shift the Tide and Help Culture to Thrive
Leaning into the truth about culture scares many leaders. For them, it appears a cliff, one that when they step off of it will bring chaos, conflict, and a loss of control. The truth is far more benign, and more akin to stepping off a curb. For those who take that step, they quickly come to realize just how much others want their organization to succeed too – allies in a common cause. They gain quick clarity around shared purpose and how to pursue it, together. Most of all, they revel at the depths of the reserve of ideas, innovations, and energy that emerge when culture is given its due.
Still, that threadbare false impression of culture often prevails, leading many to stand behind the podium and in fancy business terms simply declare culture. What they ought to be doing is ‘chatting like no one is listening.’
Recently on a popular TV talk show, a well-known celebrity was being interviewed – not in the studio, up on a stage, in front of a live audience as they normally would be, but in three separate Zoom panels filling up the screen. Despite the atypical surroundings, the hosts and guests appeared real, the questions natural, and the responses genuine. The interaction was uncharacteristically meaningful. Midway in, the famed guest paused. “You know, I like this,” he said, describing the absence of the formality of a stage or an audience to be played to, of a conversation minus the typical questions and absent the scripted answers that the hosts, guest, and audience all expect. “I like it,” he said, “when we can chat like no one is listening.” It’s more genuine, he explained. We’re honest, he said, and we share things we otherwise wouldn’t.
It may feel as though it comes from a world apart, but it’s precisely the mindset senior leaders need to adopt –to come off the stage and out of the myth of what it means to lead, and cocreate with the people leaders need to make themselves, their organizations, and each other the successes they know they can be.
Written by Larry Robertson.
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