I’ve spoken to more than a hundred audiences over the past two decades addressing the topic of organizational culture.
Everything you value as your competitive advantage no longer is. Your product, supply chain, cost model, partnerships, brand, inventory turns, technology, you name it—all of it can be copied—and it is as I write this. Every aspect of your business model can be stolen and replicated.
Except for your culture. It’s the one asset that sets your organization apart and is, in fact, your ultimate competitive advantage.
When I’ve asked groups to define culture, two responses come up the most often: 1) it’s how people treat each other and 2) it’s how we get stuff done around here.
I’ve come to expect these answers and have grown to appreciate them. I’ve also often heard culture defined as “how the vast majority of people behave the vast majority of the time.” If most people in your organization gossip and tear others apart, that’s your culture. If most are punctual and efficient, that’s your culture. If most assume good intent in others, that’s your culture.
From my work in this industry for nearly thirty years, I’ve come to realize a vital fact about shaping your culture, and it debunks some of the common rhetoric you hear. People are not the organization’s most valuable asset. That sounds great, but it’s just not true. Rather it’s the relationships between people that are your most valuable asset and comprises your culture.
Jon can be a Rhodes Scholar and Tina can be a Master Black Belt Six Sigma process engineer, but if they can’t work well together, build trust with each other, forgive, or even pre-forgive each other, they’re generally useless to the culture of the organization. Jon and Tina need to be able to appreciate each other’s talents and differences and work proactively and abundantly to complement each other. When this happens, their technical expertise, education, and intellectual genius are released to the benefit of all stakeholders. When it doesn’t, it creates a toxic environment that not only affects the two of them, but spills over into the broader team, consumes everyone, and slows work to a crawl. It sadly too often becomes the new cultural operating standard.
Leaders who value culture deliberately cultivate it, measure it, invest in it, and acknowledge when it’s “off.” Culture is treated just like any other line on the P&L or balance sheet.
These same leaders recognize that culture is created or destroyed in every action. Every meeting, conference call, text, email, or interpersonal interaction. Passing someone in the hall, in between back-to-back, multi-hour meetings, with your head down in your phone—that’s a cultural moment. We’re all tempted to be efficient and rarely mean to diminish our cultures, but in a hyper-productive work environment, it’s become an easy standard to slide towards.
Slow down. Become more deliberate. Look up from your mobile device. Look people in the eye, ask them how they’re doing, and stop enough to care about their answer.
Are you aware of your own contribution to building or destroying your culture? You can’t outsource it or blame others. It’s your responsibility.
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