There’s an old adage commonly attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Along with Drucker, other noted consultants, authors, and management gurus have affirmed that one attribute all great organizations share is a unique cultural dynamic which drives their corporate success. But what is culture, and how do we equip our teams to fully embrace and live out the culture we as leaders are responsible for defining?
Leaders should articulate the values that undergird their corporate culture.
Culture may be defined as a commonly held set of values that support and drive the actions of an organization or institution. A significant part of our role as leaders must be to define our culture, drive the adoption of that culture, and defend our culture from forces which seek to dilute it.
Recently while traveling, I received an email from one of my teammates requesting that we get together when I returned to the office. She had an important matter she wished to discuss with me. She acknowledged that I had a tight schedule but suggested that we meet on my first day back in the office. As we sat down, she explained she had been working on a project for one of our clients and believed she had discovered a significant error our team made which cost the client thousands of dollars. The situation was complicated, but further research revealed that she was correct; we had made a significant mistake. We would need to apologize for our mistake and refund the money.
I believe this is exactly the type of situation that drove Lou Gerstner, the CEO of IBM, to state, “I came to see, in my decade at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game–it is the game.” The values that undergird our culture here at Cornerstone are what helped prompt my team member to come forward with information she discovered, press for a meeting, and seek prompt resolution to the problem. Those same values drove our corporate response to our client, and that same culture affects everything we do.
Great leaders realize that such responses don’t simply happen! These responses are carefully cultivated through the enhancement of corporate culture. Great teams adopt a common set of values through which they buy into the culture of their organization. Consequently, their situational response will reflect the corporate culture while also reinforcing it. Developing a unique and dynamic culture requires that leaders provide their team with M.A.P.S. (Model, Articulate, Practice and Support).
Leaders must first model the values that they wish their corporate culture to represent. Many organizations post values around the office and expect team members to simply “buy in” and, in effect, “do as we say,” not necessarily as we do. As anyone around at the time can attest, this was the ultimate failure of Enron. Leaders said one thing publicly but did quite another; living out the values we attest is the first step in creating a cohesive culture.
Leaders should articulate the values that undergird their corporate culture. Ensuring that your team has a clearly defined set of values that support your cultural identity is an important step in promoting buy-in and ensuring accountability. After all, it is difficult to hold someone accountable to a standard they are not familiar with.
Like they say in sports, “You play like you practice.” Practicing your corporate culture is an essential part of maintaining that culture. Offsite events often provide teams a unique setting to work on reinforcing their culture. Our team has utilized offsite engagements to work through trust issues, and to practice holding one another accountable for the desired results associated with our values. However, teams can practice without ever leaving the office by creatively using meetings to enhance culture. At our weekly team meetings, we regularly review our corporate values of Integrity, Stewardship, Teamwork, Excellence, and Personal Responsibility by highlighting examples we see in the daily activities of our teammates. We also craft responses to challenges in terms of the corporate value that a particular solution would uphold, or the corporate value that could be compromised through an alternative response.
Finally, support is essential. Southwest Airlines is known for its humorous, flexible, creative culture. Long time CEO and Founder Herb Kelleher said, “One must realize that we have become what we are today because of that culture.” In one incident a patron sent a letter to Herb complaining that a flight attendant was not serious enough and was improperly dressed… Southwest needed to change or she would find another airline. Herb supposedly wrote back suggesting she choose another airline!
Our teams must see us model the values we articulate and embody the spirit of the culture we create. As we help our teams practice those values, and support our organizational culture even when we find it painful, we ensure that cultural identity creates a dynamic force leading to organizational success.
Bryan C. Taylor, CFA, is a frequent writer and speaker on all aspects of investment management, having conducted numerous training seminars for the staff and boards of various Christian organizations. Bryan is a principal of Cornerstone Management Inc. and serves as the firm’s CEO and CIO, providing direction and investment expertise to the 75 Christian nonprofit institutions they serve.