The Two Levers of Culture

Organizational culture is an important driver of any business. 3891544806_a7b01c8a63_b But culture is often seen as some vague organizational presence, typically personalized in the senior leader or owner. Culture is much more. 

For example, take a person. Hair, skin color, gender, height, shape, family lineage, geographic location and many other facets of a person are the things that distinguish us. But our hair, or lack of it, does not define us a whole person. It is all these things and more. The whole of a person is very similar to what we think of as the culture of an organization or a town. 

The culture of an organization therefore is something whole and complete, always shifting and changing as the context and the people within the organization change. Changes that are happening on a global scale are requiring us to pay more attention to precisely what is the culture of our businesses.

The shift that is taking place in organizational cultures is not incremental, but transformational. The mechanistic culture of the Industrial Age, think Henry Ford, defined the culture of most businesses over the past century. Today a more organic culture based on human interaction is emerging.

Australian Futurist Ross Dawson sees this Transformation of Business being driven by the following developments.

Flexible organizational structures

Distributed innovation

Tapping talent

Dynamic strategy

Scalable relationships

Governance for transformation

What drives these drivers? People, and the changes that they bring to their work in organizations.

A New Kind of Culture

Zappos.com is known for being a unique place to work. Its organizational culture stands out as distinctive. It is one of many businesses that have figured out how to engage its employees so that they want to give their best to their work.

Read the latest edition of their culture book (free for the asking at Zapposinsights.com), and page after page are brief stories by employees of their love and commitment to Zappos. Is Zappos the answer to the question about what the culture of work will look like in the future? No more so than any other business is the answer for every other business.  Zappos does provide an indicator of the kind of cultural change that is possible.

In the 2010 Zappos Culture book, CEO Tony Hsieh explains the Zappos culture.

“For us, our #1 priority is company culture. Our belief is that if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like delivering great customer service, or building a long-term enduring brand and business – will happen naturally on its own. … So what is Zappos culture? To me, the Zappos culture embodies many different elements.  It’s about always looking for new ways to WOW everyone we come in contact with. It’s about building relationships where we treat each other like family. It’s about teamwork and having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s about growth, both personal and professional. It’s about achieving the impossible with fewer people. It’s about openness, taking risks, and not being afraid to make mistakes. But most of all, it’s about having faith that if we do the right thing, then in the long run we will succeed and build something great.”

Tony Hsieh understands what Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, describes. Pink sees that people today are not motivated to excellence in their life or work by fear of punishment or just by financial rewards. Instead three personal factors - autonomy, mastery and purpose – are the key motivators.

Two Levers of Culture

At a deeper level, organizational culture is a values structure, especially those focused on purpose and mission, and respect, trust, openness and mutual reciprocity.

We can describe this human centered system by identifying two levers. These levers provide energy and strength to the system. One is self-leadership. The other is the functioning of the organization as a Community of Leaders.

Self-Leadership

The old industrial model of leadership was built around the idea that leaders control and the rest follow. That worked when followers lacked education and training, and business systems were relatively simple and predictable. Today, nothing is simple, and the complexity of organizational systems is such that talent has become an important differentiator between businesses.  Talented people need development and the right culture to be able to reach their potential.

These changes also mean that each employee has greater responsibility for their work than ever before. That responsibility is carried out through their own personal initiative.

Personal initiative is the origin of all leadership. Without it, nothing begins or is sustained. In the past, this initiative came from a small, select group of people in positions of leadership. Now, leadership is less a role and more the way a person conducts themselves within the culture of the company.

Personal initiative is product of self-leadership. It comes from the individual him or herself. It is that expression of inner motivation that turns a person who is only there to do the job assigned into a person who is a creator and contributor to the developing success of the company.

Where does this drive for personal initiative that is leadership come from?

It begins with values. Not generic ones that appear on rest room walls with not so subtle reminders to do your best. Rather these values are personal ones that transcend the individual and form a basis for collaboration. These are the kind of values that are expressed by Zappos employee Darrin S. in the 2010 Zappos Culture book.

One of the best bits of advice I've ever received was, "Surround yourself with people that make you want to be your best self."

My Interpretation of "best self" is this:

- Purpose greater than one's own personal interests.

- Fear of stagnation

- Relentless quest for the truth in decision making.

- A thrill for the unknown when the right answer is difficult to determine.

- Trust in the effort of others.

- Genuine desire to watch others succeed.

Zappos has a high concentration of people with these values and the Zappos Culture is a product of these people.

People like Darren are self-motivated to lead from their individual place within the company's structure. They look for ways to contribute, to innovate, and to create an impact that matters.  Grow up a company filled with people like Darren and the company is transformed into a culture of committed contributors.

Community of Leaders

Two experiences inform my understanding of the phrase "community of leaders."

One was a project where issues that began at the lower level of the company's structure would get passed up the line until it reached the head of the business unit. Instead of the issue being a dispute between two people or the performance of one person, as the issue was passed on, it changed into being a dispute between the union and the company.  It was a culture problem. Managers and supervisors avoided taking responsibility because of a culture of mistrust.

The second experience was the tour of a local hospitals where we had the opportunity to meet and dialog with department heads and floor leaders. My opinion of the organization changed as I found middle-tier leaders who not only had a tactical and technical grasp of their specific area of responsibility, but also had a strategic grasp of the region's healthcare issues with an understanding of how the hospital was positioned to meet them.

A Community of Leaders is a way to describe an organizational culture where self-leadership is wide spread. It is more than just a collection of self-led people. It is an emergent culture where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The key change is relational and social.

As I describe above, a culture that avoids responsibility is not a culture where the relationships function well. Lack of respect and trust in any social system is sclerotic, creating an environment that is rigid, unresponsive and unable to adapt.

How many times have I been in a planning meeting with an organization and the group is pushing for greater accountability, not greater trust.  In effect, they are looking for scapegoats to blame poor performance on.  It is a symptom of a failing culture.  If people are not willing to take initiative, to build open, respectful relationships, then something is wrong. I know this is the norm in many, many organizations. Conduct anonymous surveys of employees, and you'll hear it. The social/ relational dimension of an organization is not a second level area of leadership, it is the connectional, the ligament, the glue of the system.

A Community of Leaders is an organization whose self-led members contribute through the leadership of their own personal initiative to build relationships of respect and trust. In order to see this, we have to think a bit differently about how an organization can be a community.

There is the formal structure of departments, business units and process. And then there is the informal structure of relationship. It is this latter structure that needs development in most organizations. It is developed by creating a culture of respect and trust. 

What can an executive leader of a company do to create a community of leadership culture?

First, YOU cannot create it. WE have to create it.

It cannot be controlled or mandated. It must be permitted to happen. There must be openness and freedom for people to take initiative to create the social environment that allows them to show up like Darren S. of Zappos to be their best every day. All you can do is support and facilitate, and most important join them as a co-participant.

Second, you have to understand what people want. Three Goals of Life-Work - Simple

 1. People want their lives and work to be Personally Meaningful In other words, there are ideas, values, a sense of purpose or personal calling that they want to express in the way they spend every day.  Work is personal, and becomes professional as it defines and guides their relationship to the company. The more a person’s core values are in synch with his or her work and aligned with the company’s mission, the more significant the workplace becomes as place to invest oneself in high endeavors and excellence in performance.

2. People want their lives and work to be Socially FulfillingThey want their relationships to be whole and healthy, for respect, trust and openness to be valued and practiced in the workplace. This is more than just about the functioning of a project team or a business unit. There is unfulfilled desire that informs the cynicism and fear that is prevalent in so many organizations.  It is a belief that better work results from relationships of trust and respect.

3. People also want their lives and work to Make a Difference that Matters This desire is more than just to being successful or having a fun.  People want to see the product of their effort at work creating a lasting benefit for their customers and clients.  The sense of accomplishment that comes when one’s mission or their company’s mission is fulfilled through their contributions is what I identify in people. To Make a Difference that Matters is to create change. 

Third, you have to be an example. If you are, then people will follow you. Deeds are much more important than words. If you are starting from square one, then let me suggest you take on developing the Five Actions of Gratitude as a discipline of relationship building within your company.

The Five Actions of Gratitude are five strategic actions that elevates the collaborative work as an organizational asset.

The Five Actions of Gratitude are:

Say Thanks in gratitude to those who make a difference that matters in your life and work.

Give Back in service to those who make a difference that matters.

Make Welcome in open hospitality, inviting people to take personal initiative to make a difference that matters

Honor Others in respect and recognition, as the foundation of healthy relationships.

Create Goodness through one’s own personal initiative to make a difference that matters in life and work.

What I have found is that the greatest change happens within us. The world's needs are not as insurmountable as our own fear and reticence to change.  It may be part ego, but what I find more often is that it is our lack of confidence in being able to succeed.

To take these three steps:

1. Letting go to let a community of leadership culture to develop,

2. Facilitating the development of a corporate culture which allows for people to find their life and work to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and To Make a Difference That Matters, and,

3. Making the Five Actions of Gratitude the basis of your personal and professional relationships,

will initiate a process of personal change that creates the opportunity for others to join you.  As a result a cultural change will take place that will release the unrealized potential that resides in every company. 

People are the levers of strength and change in organizations. Encourage their self-leadership and the result is a community of leaders. This is the future, possibly the only future that we have.

SelfLeadershipInLife-Work
Self-Leadership in Life and Work is available for download.