January 18, 2023
by John O. Burdett
Culture is a complex system. Where many teams struggle is that they either take a simplistic approach or don’t know how to have a rich and vibrant culture conversation.
Supporting Pillars of Culture
Culture is the often overlooked, all-pervasive, enterprise-wide, organisational DNA that dictates whether your strategy lands or if your brand sustains. It’s “a way to be” shaped by the past but continuously honed by the emerging business, social, economic, political and customer context. Unless your name happens to be Steve Jobs, managing the culture from the inside-out is the commercial equivalent of driving down a busy highway wearing a blindfold. Xerox, Nokia, Northern Telecom, Kodak, Blackberry, Lehman Brothers, Carrefour, British Home Stores and the record industry come to mind.
Where many teams struggle is that they either take a simplistic approach or don’t know how to have a rich and vibrant culture conversation. Culture is managed from the outside-in but demands leadership from the inside-out. There are four essential, supporting pillars of culture:
- Mission (why do we do what we do?)
- Diversity (diversity fuels innovation)
- Brand (why buy from us?)
- Speed (Focus – Anticipation – Simplicity – Technology)
The four pillars act like the foundation of a house. If they are poorly constructed nothing will stand for very long. And miss one out – or any of the other building blocks of culture covered in the next paragraphs for that matter – and constantly recycling the past is the best that can be hoped for.
Those four pillars are braced by the organisation’s values. An organisation without values is a ship without a rudder. Values give people permission to act. The values represent the CEO’s and top team’s leadership point of view. Co-creating the values – involving as many people as possible in drawing up the values – sounds like a good idea but there is a reason the expression “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” came into being. Ask, involve, confer and listen but don’t abdicate. That said, the organisation’s values must hold meaning for all of the stakeholders, especially the customer.
It should be added that in a multicultural environment the term “values” comes with a good deal of baggage. “Why is the organisation telling me what my values should be? That’s very personal?” The confusion between organisation and personal values is overcome if we think of the organisation’s values as “guiding principles.”
The Cultural Canvas
The four pillars, when married to the organisation’s values, frame the context – the cultural canvas if you like. The most forceful elements on that canvas being:
- Vision and strategy;
- Measurement and rewards;
- The talent management system (e.g., who gets hired and/or promoted, the leadership development agenda); and
- Technology (quickly becoming an irresistible force).
Bringing the intended culture to life means also working on:
- Core processes;
- The nature and degree of freedom to act (how decisions get made and who makes them); and
- How people learn (learning how to learn, speed of learning).
Meanwhile, if the “culture anchors” don’t “introduce” the culture the organisation needs … stasis is assured. Leaders who stumble tend to focus on the drivers without, at the same time, addressing the cultural anchors:
- Behaviour at the top of the house,
- Letting go of, as appropriate, past history,
- Symbolism and
A cultural anchor is so called because it describes behaviour that, unless reframed with tomorrow in mind, puts a brake on progress like an anchor thrown from the back of a car.
Addressing the white space on the organisation chart – the informal organisation – completes the picture. That white space isn’t a vacuum, it’s full of noise; a cacophony of often confused and conflicting babble … that you need on your side. If you don’t manage the informal organisation it will manage you!
The Organisation’s Story
All of the elements described come together to shape the organisation’s story. You are your story. Culture is story and story is culture! We are the storytelling apes. Story touches a part of the brain that nothing else can. Customers don’t buy your product … they buy your story. They buy why you do what you do. When top talent is evermore difficult to find and attract – as it is – a winning story is essential. Talent isn’t attracted to your balance sheet; they want to join your firm because they love your story. And they stay – not because they swoon over your strategy – but because they are a happy captive of your culture.
It’s not enough to have a great story – you need to know how to share it. A great story has five parts:
- Why do we do what we do?
- Where are we heading?
- What do we believe in?
- What makes us special?
- How does what we do make a difference in people’s lives?
Recognising that millennials and iGen employees will soon be the bulk of your workforce – make sure that number 5 includes giving back, building community and the environment. When the road ahead is uncertain, speed of learning becomes the ultimate competitive advantage. Best practice (improved on), listening, story, symbolism, creative tension, a great question, challenging the status quo, risk, leadership reach, comfort with ambiguity, coaching, catching people doing it right, reflection and language become the oxygen upon which learning how to learn thrives.
What we observe shapes what we do. Until we listen to others – really listen – we can’t listen to ourselves. The stories we share influence how we think. A compelling symbol cuts through the clutter. A great question makes people think slower … in order that they can act faster. When the status quo remains undisturbed … opportunity remains unfulfilled. When we coach others we tap into the best of who we are. In affirming others we give them permission to act. Wisdom is insight tempered by experience. Without reflection there is no learning. Language isn’t important; it’s everything. We navigate “what’s possible” through metaphor. Same old language, same old behaviour!
Culture Imperative: Culture is a system. If you leave something out expect unintended consequences. Do you separate from the organisation those who don’t live the values? Are language, imagery, metaphor, story and symbolism central to how your team seeks to create tomorrow today? In difficult times, how people learn is more important than what they learn.
This article is an extract from “The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture“, © Orxestra® Inc.
John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »