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On Culture (again)


Organisational culture is a nebulous thing.

In many discussions over the years with customers, colleagues and others, the issue of what is a “good” culture is the hub of the conversation.  Everyone wants to work in or with a business which has a great culture.  Not surprising really, but what does that actually mean?

One of the most interesting conversations on this topic was with a colleague a number of years ago.  He viewed our business as having a “great culture” and wanted to replicate this in his own business.  Fantastic.

Even though he is a competitor, I wanted to see him have a wonderful culture in his operation as this would make him, his people, his customers – and us, better.  Why?  Because, as his business improved, he would provide more and better competition to us which ensures that we keep ourselves sharp, challenged and developing.  This can only be a good thing.  I have always found that where you develop everyone around you, you improve yourself.

In our discussions about how to undertake this, he wanted to know what we did and how we did it.  That’s fine, but you need to remember that you cannot copy a culture.  It is something unique to every group (business, social, sporting etc) and what works for one will not work for another.

I have just read a very interesting article on this topic by Steve Tobak in Entrepreneur.  In short, I agree with his thinking, but believe that trying to copy what works in one organisation won’t work in yours.  Take the lesson, not the method.

Getting back to my discussions from some time ago, we were discussing how our approach is that we try our best to “set our people free”.  This means that we empower them to take their own path and develop in ways that matter to them.  If this is broadly in line with the organisational vision and purpose, this has to be a good thing.  Where you sit on them and ride the hell out of them, life becomes that much more difficult.

In discussing the management style in my colleague’s firm, he explained that he was a micro-manager.  In effect, he was showing his crew that he didn’t trust them, that he was fearful that they might go “off reservation” and that his issue was one where he needed to feel in control at all times.

Not sure about you, but I could not work in an environment like that.  Tried it decades ago when I started by accounting career and it was so stifling that I had to get out.  It doesn’t instill enthusiasm (in fact it kills it), severely constrains innovation and creates an environment which people want to leave.

This past week, I have revisited a TEDx presentation by the great Ricardo Semler.  He gets the idea and has been practicing the approach for decades.  Yet most organisational leaders are fearful of adopting the approach which he did in his organisations.  In most respects, they are the same as my colleague – unable to make the leap of faith in their people to enable the culture that they desire to have a chance of living.

We must remember that the vast majority of people in the world want to do good.  They want to be involved in an organisation that exists to deliver something and provide some value to the world.  Not wanting to get philosophical here, but it is part of the human condition.

By not trusting your people, by sitting on top of them and communicating (through words, actions and example) that they aren’t good enough, you’re getting the desired outcome – they will believe they’re not good enough.  Then they will leave.  Or, worse still, they will stay.

You need to release yourself from the thinking that holds you and your business back if you are going to truly lead.  Simon Sinek, in his inimitable style, puts it beautifully.

Near the end of our discussion, my mate asked me when I knew the culture in my organisation was good.  I told him that I didn’t.  But I did know when things weren’t right as the “feel” of the place changed and became less “flow-like”.

If you want to create a superb culture in your organisation, you need to get out of your own way.  That’s not nebulous.

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