The Values: espoused and held to be important.
The Competencies: nurtured to drive performance and build talent.
It is a pretty simple formula – so simple that many seem to think they need a greater order of complexity to justify adopting a set of basic principles to ensure the culture can be self-sustaining, healthy and productive.
I couldn’t disagree more.
In fact, organizations overcomplicate and over-engineer in order to hide from the truth that may emerge if they were to focus on just the “vital few” and make them visible to the entire organization.
In my view, attitudes and beliefs correspond with character, while values and competencies correspond with competence. Together, they define the culture of the organization and the genetic code, or DNA, that will either allow them to thrive, survive or die.
In our continuing study of organizational culture and high performance, which has incorporated the thinking and efforts of many others who practice in this field and whose contribution is enormous (if unheralded), I am constantly amazed by how much “noise” exists in the typical organization.
The noise amounts to the cultural equivalent of toxic waste and displaced energy and is a sure sign of lack of focus. Chatter, confusion, speculation and miscommunication all contribute to a loss of value – but does anyone care?
Here are some simple principles I have come to believe in:
1) A culture that suffers from noise cannot be a focused culture.
2) A culture that is not focused on the right stuff cannot aspire to high performance.
3) A high-performance culture makes crisp focus a competency for all leaders.
4) A good leader makes focus on the customer the critical imperative for everyone.
There are a few things we know for sure about talent. Simply put – talented people want to work with other talented people and will only work for talented leaders. In this case, it is pretty easy to see why the cultural environment matters so much to talented people who will only work in conditions that maximize their abilities and potential.
The truly talented have options, alternatives and confidence that do not exist in the more mediocre layers of the human capital structure and so are less loyal on one hand and much less tolerant on the other.
Leaders of an organization that genuinely seek to perform at the highest level know they need talented people (from both within and outside) because they know there are some special tasks and responsibilities that need to be addressed. The more talented the people, the higher their ability to live with ambiguity and the better the odds they will be able to:
- Identify, define and scope the issues
- Solve the frustrating dilemmas and wicked problems
- Resolve the hidden tensions and incongruities
- Overcome the barriers and obstacles
The reason culture matters, and the reason the environment a leader creates is so important, is not simply to win an award or have satisfied employees. The real reason is to drive business results and achieve superior organizational performance.
That is the only way to secure the necessary resources to implement the programs, create the tools and develop the talent that allows performance to be sustained. I don’t want to be unkind, but have you ever conducted the “lobby test”?
Here is how it goes:
Walk into the lobby of your best customer, your major competitor or, even better, your most underperforming business unit and just hang out for a morning. The things you see and hear will scare you to death.
High-performing cultures don’t accept what you will find in those lobbies. Not because they have abolished the pollution and shame with policies, but because the culture looks after the little things through a combination of pride and accountability.
Let us assume, for a moment, that any organization worth its salt wants to achieve superior results and wants to do so for as long as it possibly can. If so, it should realize the price it has to pay is in doing whatever it takes to create “winning conditions.” These are the conditions, reflected by the cultural environment, that allow people to deliver results by creating a willingness to devote a higher share of their “discretionary investment” than in an average or mediocre organization.
But extrinsic, that is, non-essential, motivation will only take you so. The more powerful enabler is intrinsic volition, which can only emerge in an organizational culture that understands how much the “contract” has been re-written.
At the end of the day, organizational strategy is not implemented in a vacuum. The success of a particular strategy depends on the environment within which it is set. In organizational life, that environment is the culture. Great strategy, to be successful, needs to be augmented by great culture and needs to be monitored.
But you have to know what you are dealing with.
First, identify the gap: There is absolutely no point avoiding bad news. Ignorance is not an excuse. The worst truth is still better than the best lie. If you are going to be serious about building a better, healthier culture, then you’d better find what’s broken or not working well and begin to address it – head-on.
Second, think forward: Most of us get some comfort from the past and the warm memories that wrap us in nostalgia, providing some temporary relief from the stresses and strains of the day. However, when it comes to culture, the key is to aim for a moving target, off in the future. It’s not good enough to reflect on yesterday, or even build for today. You have to predict the future.
Third, make hard choices: There is always more than one choice when you come to a fork in the road. Typically, there is the tried, tested and comfortable path, and then there is the other one. The road less travelled. In the case of organizational culture redesign, it’s better to make the tough choice rather than take the easy path.
Fourth, enforce accountability: It seems that all too often, the best intentions of the leadership team are not fulfilled and the promise that existed evaporates into thin air. All too often, this is because the escape hatches were left wide open and, when it was convenient, some people found it too tempting to avoid accountability.
Fifth, keep score: The joy of victory is sweet. When the trophy is lifted over your head, and you look into the eyes of your opponent and see their disappointment, you do not so much gloat as be glad the game was played and you came out on top. In any game, including the game of business, you need to keep score.
Doug Williamson is President & C.E.O. of The Beacon Group.
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