Peering Through The Mist: Organizational Culture

“ … organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs, and principles of organizational members and is a product of such factors as history, product, market, technology, and strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture. Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.”
—excerpt from Wikipedia’s definition of organizational culture

If there’s a term more shrouded in mist than “strategy,” it’s “culture.” I don’t claim to have a lock on business definitions, but I find that if I can make them actionable, they have purpose. If not, they’re like watching the chairman of the Federal Reserve talk to Congress — lots of words with no meaning and certainly not actionable.

My definition of culture is “the sum of the behaviors that you reward and accept.” Period. I came to this definition after helping numerous companies codify and fix or change their culture. I assure you that I didn’t look at “values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits,” because we wanted to finish the project before Vladimir Putin found his soul.

If there are two great questions to understanding an organization’s culture, they are, “Who are the heroes around here?” and “What is most likely to get me fired?” I’m not kidding. People laugh when I ask them, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and gives me a quick and accurate read on the culture. Unfortunately, what I often hear is not what’s hanging on the plaque in the CEO’s office.

So assume you’re unhappy with your company’s behaviors. Perhaps they don’t align with your values or strategy. What do you do? Here’s the four-step formula:

1.    Define the culture you want.
2.    Attract the right people, those whom you bring in and allow to stay in your culture.
3.    Build commitment through vision, strategy and your behavior.
4.    Cement the behavior you want through management practices: rewards and punishments.

Sounds simple, but it’s not easy.

After working with and observing CEOs with organizations that have a healthy culture that’s consistent with their values and strategy, I developed my top 10 list of defining characteristics:

1.    Look in the mirror; it starts at the top.
2.    Define it with clear language.
3.    Remember that it is what you reward and allow. Don’t just let it happen.
4.    Systematize it: Hiring, communication, rewards and punishment.
5.    Hire slow and fire fast.
6.    Don’t be a copycat. Your culture can be unique.
7.    Make the first sale to yourself. Convince yourself of the ROI of working on your culture.
8.    Don’t espouse X and do (or allow) Y.
9.    Look under the hood; measure and codify your culture.
10.    Understand that it takes dramatic action for dramatic change.

Culture is not words on a page. It’s the sum of the actions that are rewarded and allowed in your company, regardless of the speeches you give, the shareholders’ letter in your annual report or the framed documents hanging in your office.

Todd Ordal helps senior executives lead better, profit more or sleep soundly…without narcotics! I can be reached at 303-527-0417 or [email protected]. Follow me now on Twitter @toddordal

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