What is Culture? Why Does it Matter?

posted by wmcuser

Some time ago I was privileged to attend a presentation that focused on a particularly challenging set of events for a large organization, the changes in leadership that took place at the time, and the dynamic environmental circumstances that this organization faced in overcoming its time of crisis. There were a number of gems of perspective and wisdom that were presented by the guest speaker. Amongst these were the need to persevere through adversity with optimism and energy, a commitment to celebrate milestones and achievements even in tough times, a need to continuously develop one’s own leadership and the leadership skills of your team, and the necessity to balance work with one’s whole life.

In and of itself there was more than enough food for thought in the presentation to spark my thinking and reinforce some beliefs. But for the purpose of this post I choose to focus on a question that was posed by an audience member in relation to whether the guest speaker had a recipe for culture change in large organizations. As the guest speaker themselves identified, if they had such a recipe they likely would be retired by now! So being either bold or foolish I’ll take a crack at the question.

First, I believe there is some value in defining what we might mean by the term culture. Being a creature of our time, I googled the term and came up with the following – “…the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which constitute the shared bases of…action..” and “…the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group.” I’ve highlighted what I think are some key elements of the definition and upon which I will now touch on.

The phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” is probably familiar to most of us and reflects the very real challenge in moving an organization forward or changing its direction. As many an executive will attest to, you can have spent countless hours and money on developing a world class strategy, putting together and delivering a slick internal marketing strategy, and engaging all manner of expertise and external resources and yet find that after a year (or less) that you have made no progress on your lofty goals – and may actually have taken your organization a step or two backward. The culture of the organization – it’s inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge – became an effective barrier or block to your strategy.

So instead of developing the glitzy strategy, or restructuring the organization, or implementing new processes or systems, why don’t executives focus on organizational culture? My perspective is that it often appears easier to tackle structure and process than it is culture. One can implement structural and process changes in a far shorter time frame. Quick or easy, however, doesn’t equate to effective. Such initiatives can certainly disrupt the organization and give the appearance of action especially to those looking at the organization from an external perspective (e.g., shareholders, community leaders). Cultural changes take a much longer period of time to realize and take more intense and sustained effort. Unfortunately, our leaders (and too often a variety of stakeholders) don’t have the patience for these types of efforts. We want instant solutions and instant results.

The term “inherited” implies to me something that is built or created over a long period of time. And it will take just as long to mold, alter or modify something as it took to create in the first place. Moreover, it’s critical to understand that, for the most part, this set of shared ideas, beliefs and values have worked for the organization or key stakeholder segments. It doesn’t mean life has been easy or great, but that the culture has worked at some level for people and has done so for some extended period of time. So change will not come easy or without effort.

One of the first key steps in changing culture will be defining the characteristics of the new culture and why it is important to shift to this new set of beliefs, behaviors and practices. If the leader doesn’t have a clear idea about where and why they want to take the organization it will be impossible to overcome resistance from the current culture.

Just as important as defining the new desired culture will be the concrete actions that a leader and the organization as a whole must take to reinforce and support the shift. This includes such steps as recruiting, hiring, retaining, rewarding and promoting individuals who will by their behaviors and actions develop and reinforce the tenets of the new culture. People build culture. Behaviors build culture. Actions build culture. Talk alone does not. Focus on cultivating the right people. Make a long-term commitment to them. They become your stones thrown into the water, with ripples emanating out from them and influencing the behavior of others.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Along with that becomes the importance of leadership visibility and reinforcement, by word AND action, of the key organizational values. As a leader you are being watched all the time and people will rapidly determine whether you hold the values of the new culture sincerely or merely as another fad of the moment. Your energy is going to be critical to success.

Make sure that all processes and systems of the organization are aligned and supportive of the culture you are trying to create. If you are marketing yourself as an organization that prides itself on innovation but have an incentive system that rewards everyone at the same level regardless of performance than creativity may be adversely impacted. If you are touting yourself as an organization that fosters empowerment and employee participation but have a human resource system that tolerates old-style management practices you will quickly short-circuit your efforts.

As leaders you also have to ensure that your own personal words and actions are aligned with the corporate culture you say you are trying to build. If you set yourself apart from what you are expecting of your staff – do as I say, not as I do – you will have compromised your leadership credibility. You won’t be able to retain your best leaders or get the kind of change you were expecting or hoping for. In addition, you have to have patience for this effort, you have to be in it for the long haul. Culture happens through long-term, consistent behavior and effort. The best and most successful organizations build from within and stay true to their core.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is the culture of your organization created or changed in a fiscal year. And building a new temple to the gods won’t keep the barbarians away from the front gates. Only strong and vibrant citizens/staff working from the same page will ensure long-term success.

Greg Hadubiak is an Executive Coach/Consultant with with Western Management Consultants (WMC) and a TEC Canada Chair. He is passionate about supporting and developing great leaders. He brings to bear over 25+ years of senior leadership experience, a commitment to life-long learning, and a passion for his client’s success in all avenues of his work.

See Greg’s original article on LinkedIn.

The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent WMC’s views as a whole.