Leadership is culture management (Part 1)

THE MAIN POINT (445 words – 89 seconds reading time)

Some of those who study leadership will equate leadership with managing the organizational culture (most notably Edgar Schein of the Sloan School).  The above picture shows the culture of the Nebraska Cornhuskers fans, who my coworker from Nebraska tells me, was one of the first to establish the tradition of all the fans wearing the school colors.

In cultural savvy, the leader is well informed and perceptive about the assumptions and rituals of a specific group of people living or working together. Cultures exist in countries, in regions, in communities, in neighborhoods, in business, in industry, in individual workplaces and in families. In social savvy, the leader is well informed and perceptive about the assumptions, expectations, and rituals in social interactions where people are expected to behave in a certain way. The leader knows the fundamentals and practice of etiquette in celebration, mourning, interactions among strangers or newly introduced, appropriate dress, acceptable speech, etc.

Culture is what you believe in, what you stand for, and how you do things around here. Culture is probably the most powerful influence on organizational performance. Culture is emotional – the heart of the organization. Harold Kurstedt

What is culture? Culture is what you believe in, what you stand for, and how you do things around here. Culture is probably the most powerful influence on organizational performance. Culture is emotional – the heart of the organization. You don’t change culture easily or quickly. Therefore, culture is the stability and the inertia of the organization. For better or worse, culture is what we fall back on in times of crisis. Culture is probably the most problematic part of having successful joint ventures, acquisitions, or mergers. Getting past different values, different rites and rituals, and different unwritten rules is difficult, especially when the differences are great.

One place to recognize culture is in the family. A marriage is a merger where two different cultures come together. In marriages and in organizations, the most successful unions come about when the new entity forges a new culture rather than causing one party of the union to accept the culture of the other. Most of our rites and rituals in families and in organizations occur when we bring someone new into the group, when someone leaves the group, or when there are major changes in the group’s functioning. All cultures include heroes. Who are the heroes in your family or in your organization? When we discussed roles and ropes, we were alluding to the organization’s culture.

I find culture fascinating, whether at the family, organizational, or societal level. If you have the opportunity to spend a bit of time and observe the artifacts of the culture in different parts of the country or different countries in the world, you’ll notice how crucial culture is to a group’s functioning. Compare Manhattan to Fairfax to Tampa to Atlanta to Tulsa to Phoenix to Chicago. The people dress differently, play differently, speak differently, arrange their offices differently, and work differently. Compare large offices (regional organizational entities, not rooms) to small offices and offices with more engineering to offices with more architecture.

 

THE FOLLOW UP (563 words – 113 seconds reading time)

Culture is hugely powerful in your life and in your work, and therefore is important to understand and manage. Cultural values are so strong that the company you work for can affect the way you live and eventually influence what you believe. Without realizing it, when you choose a company, you can be choosing a way of life. I believe you’re better off knowing what you’re choosing as a way of life rather than falling into a way of life because you chose a company that offers you the highest salary. Therefore, you need to understand culture, diagnose the culture of the organizations and communities you choose to join, and consider how well your personal values align with the values of the organization.

Culture shock may be one of the major reasons why people supposedly ‘fail’ when they leave one organization for another. Where they fail, however, is not necessarily in doing the job, but in not reading the culture correctly. Terrence Deal and Allen Kennedy

Terrence Deal and Allen Kennedy, authors of the book “Corporate Cultures,” say, “Culture shock may be one of the major reasons why people supposedly ‘fail’ when they leave one organization for another. Where they fail, however, is not necessarily in doing the job, but in not reading the culture correctly.”

Deal and Kennedy add, “People who want to get ahead within their own companies also need to understand – at least intuitively – what makes their culture tick. If product quality is the guiding value of your company, then you’d better be thinking about getting into manufacturing where you can contribute to the work on quality control teams. If you’re a marketing whiz in a company where all of the heroes are number crunchers, then you may have a problem.” If your company is a project management oriented company, then you need to learn the values and practices of project management – whether you’re designated as a project manager or not.

I teach a course on “the bumps in the road at the intersection of software and systems engineering” – both are engineering disciplines. In companies such as defense contractors or the intelligence community in the federal government, most of their difficulties occur at this interface or one like it (business development versus project management, engineering versus procurement, and so on). The bumps and the resulting difficulties are due to differences in professional cultures. For example, systems engineers believe in optimizing the entire system, whereas software engineers believe in optimizing the parts of the system. You can’t optimize both. Therefore, due to different beliefs, these two professions are at cross purposes and the result is unhelpful behavior such as social conflict or passive aggressiveness. One reason we have professional societies is to teach and promote the culture of that particular profession. (If you’re interested in this particular interface issue, let me know and I can send you a longer discussion including nine different contradictions in belief.)

We’ll discuss culture in more detail shortly. For now, do you know what the guiding beliefs or values are in your company? Do you know which celebrations, rituals, and other cultural activities are most important to participate in? Who are the heroes (past and present) of the company, and what values do they exemplify? Who are the players in the cultural network, and where do you fit in? What are your personal values and how do they align with those of the company? How do the values of your profession and your company align? If they don’t, how much involvement do you have with formal organizations in your profession?