By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy
Culture is one of the most important concepts in leadership today. Culture is sadly also one of the most tragically misunderstood and mismanaged areas of executive responsibility today. Key word here is RESPONSIBILITY. Culture involves much more than free food, craft beer on tap in break rooms and foosball/ping pong tables. Culture is frequently misinterpreted as a “soft, squishy” exogenous environmental variable falling outside the purview of leadership responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leaders are responsible for culture. With Bruce Barnes, the former CIO at Nationwide Financial Services I recently convened 50+ senior executives at the College of Engineering at THE Ohio State University to workshop around what exactly leaders need to know and need to do about culture.
Leadership’s New Mandate
A recent Twitter poll revealed that 90% of workers would “leave their current employer for a better culture.” Culture is something that must be lead, measured, and managed. The concept that culture “trumps” strategy or “eats strategy for breakfast” has been kicking around B-Schools and the executive conference circuit since the 1980s. The meme that culture was something executives should be thinking about emerged as conventional wisdom simultaneously with the creation of the role of the CIO in 1981.
In theory we know culture matters. In practice we, for the most part remain confused.
Doug McCollough, the recently hired Chief Information Officer at the City of Dublin, Ohio is a culture whisperer. He believes that culture can be managed. His experience indicates that culture needs to be treated as a multi-stage project where senior management gets on the same page regarding what the target/aspirational culture is. With this goal clearly communicated throughout the organization, the next step is to create a series of milestones [i.e., this is where we expect to be in six months, 12 months, two years]. Doug cautioned that “culture change takes time – typically longer than you originally thought.”
One of the senior IT leaders at Honda Marysville seconded the value of treating culture as a project adding the importance of keeping apprised of “water cooler conversations.” Every culture change/culture management initiative has to have local “boots on the ground.” These local culture ambassadors have to monitor “employee voice” and personally exemplify the cultural norms and behavior sets the institution aspires toward.
I was reminded of the business school axiom I learned in my “Human Behavior in Organizations” class forty years ago, “Brand is what your customers say when you're not in the room. Culture is what employees say when managers aren't in room.”
Salema Rice, the Chief Data Officer at $16 billion Allegis Group [~400,000 contractors/~150,000 paychecks every Monday] shared how her organization successfully transitioned to a data-driven culture. Part of the success was due to communicating with employees in a format [e.g., text] they felt most comfortable with. The customer-centric nature of the culture at Allegis is strengthened by the weekly behavior of explicitly articulating the value delivered to each customer.
Culture is a many faceted phenomenon. There is “material culture” – the things of daily life and work. There is “non-material culture” – the ideas, beliefs, and values of daily life and work. There is a culture lag because material culture [e.g., technology] changes more rapidly than non-material culture.
How does your organization measure and manage culture?