Harry Nelson

It’s Time to Talk About Culture

Most business leaders have a hard time defining organizational culture, let alone discussing it. I remember being blown away when I first read Tony Hsieh‘s Delivering Happiness, because Hsieh did such an amazing job of articulating the essentiality of culture in his story about building Zappo’s. I was familiar with the quote attributed to Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but Hsieh helped me understand what it looked like. Hsieh’s story of building a billion-dollar shoe business by harnessing culture as a collective product of the workforce is a must read.

I felt the same way Wharton Professor Adam Grant‘s simple yet powerful piece on the culture puzzle in his New York Times op-ed today (“The One Question You Should Ask About Every New Job”). While Grant frames his article as advice for jobseekers, his point has much broader value for organizational leaders. First, Grant gets to the heart of how to assess organizational culture, distilling it down to “the Passover question: ‘How is this organization different from all other organizations?’” He observes that, while every organization thinks itself unique, studies show that most are, in fact, less distinctive than they imagine. By eliciting the stories about organizational differences, you can gain valuable insights into the culture.

The classic corporate examples revolve around stories of CEO humility (or the lack thereof), the potential for advancement, and compassion to displaced staff in a downturn, which Grant identifies as getting to the essential issues of (1) whether an organization treats people fairly, (2) whether it’s a safe place to work, and (3) whether employees can have influence. Grant counsels steering clear of workplaces when employee stories indicate “no” answers on these key questions.

Grant’s article reminded me of an idea that Patrick Lencioni espouses in The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family. Lencioni posits that even families need to ask themselves how they are different in terms of what they value. One key to improving the quality of family life is to identify your family’s difference and translate it into an action plan, and then identify which activities you say ‘no’ to based on your family culture. It’s more challenging than it sounds: in identifying your core values, it can be hard to winnow down what really matters, and even harder to distinguish between what you aspire to be, and what you actually do.

This gap, the difference between what you say matters and how you actually behave when there are consequences, is the essence of integrity. Grant uses the example of CEOs who set rules and then don’t live by them to demonstrate that leaders show through their actions, positive and negative, what their real values are.

It’s tough to have conversations about culture and values. Years ago, we had an all-team meeting and I asked everyone to express what they thought was the most important value for us as an organization. The 25-30 people present came up with an inspiring list. Then I asked, by a show of hands, how many agreed that each item should be a value for our organization. We winnowed the list slightly, mostly where certain items were in tension with each other. Then, for each value that the group agreed was important, I asked how people rated us for living up to that value. People were honest (I think) and we produced a real working list of where we had a gap between our aspirations and our reality. That gap was bigger on some issues and smaller on others. While I walked out of the meeting energized, it became clear that other senior people in our organization didn’t take it seriously, viewing it either as “soft mumbo-jumbo,” in the words of my friend, Brian Portnoy, or as a threat to their power. We had identified the problems, but without a mandate and with active opposition from part of the leadership team, there was no way to take it further.

I am happy to say that, almost four years later, things have changed. Today, our entire leadership team gets the importance of how our values need to translate into our working environment. We are able to talk about our culture. We managed to get rid of many of the toxic behaviors that plagued us years ago. But there’s still hard work to be done.

As Tony Hsieh emphasizes, culture is a collective undertaking, so each new person adds a layer of perspective and experience. This means that growth presents an inherent challenge to sustaining the aspects of your culture that you like. It also means that perspectives can vary widely on what’s working and what’s not working. It can be challenging to have hard conversations with each other about when we aren’t living up to our commitments. But the fact that we’re having them (and that everyone, including me, is on the receiving end) tells me that we’re on the right path and headed in the right direction.

For us, the next step ahead is to take a cue from Adam Grant and ask people to articulate the stories of what makes us different, so we can celebrate the positive and work on the negative. I believe it will be a major opportunity for growth, and hope to share the results ahead.

How is culture being addressed and nurtured in your organization? I’d love to hear from you.

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