Hacking Culture_The Silent Supervisor

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, products for lunch, and everything else for dinner.   I used to think culture didn’t matter. And then my first company failed. I made the mistake about culture in my first company, but not in my second. Culture is the silent supervisor.” 

– Bill Aulet (MIT)

Culture is perhaps the most undervalued component of organizational strategy.  Much time is usually spent developing a product and go-to-market strategy, building the team, and prioritizing a list of goals and objectives.  But for most organizations, culture is a cursory project. Spend half a day in a strategy meeting, pick a handful of values, put them up on the wall, and expect everyone to live by them.  The average worker knows it’s a joke. Most can’t even remember what they are, especially if you have more than three or four. As a result, the common practice is culture by default, not by design.

So, what is culture? Culture is the pervasive beliefs, attitudes, and values that characterize an organization and guide it’s practices.  Culture is the silent supervisor for how people make decisions and the behaviors they choose for how they treat one another.  Culture is ultimately how an organization operationalizes its values.

The benefits of a strong corporate culture are both intuitive and supported by social science. According to James L. Heskett, culture “can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” That’s a BIG difference in a highly competitive market.

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture”.

– Edgar Schein

The problem is that people listen a whole lot more to what you do than what you say. More is caught than taught. They watch the leaders to see what they really believe by the actions that they take. So, if your organization’s values don’t reflect the core beliefs of the leadership team, they’re usually irrelevant with little impact on the day-to-day operations and behaviors of the staff. People know they will be judged, rewarded, and advanced in their career based on the behaviors used by their leadership. So, they will try to emulate those values and behaviors, not the ones written on the wall.

Your job as the leader, or leadership team, is to design your culture and then lead by example. What are the core values that you, and your team, are passionate about and will not compromise?  What do those values look like when written into behavioral statements?  If you can’t write behavioral statements, people won’t know what implementation looks like.  How will you weave your values into your core operations like onboarding, training, compensation, and career advancement?  How can you recognize and reward role models that live out the organization’s values?  How are your values implemented in relation to customer acquisition, relationships, and management?

Today, culture design and implementation has been significantly complicated by the rise of the millennial generation.  Millennials have a different belief and value system than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers.  Millennials are more individualistic, more cause oriented, more easily bored, and more interested in work-life integration versus work-life balance of the Gen Xers.  In severe contrast to the millennial, Baby Boomers are just plain workaholics following the party line of the Silent Generation that went before them. This is not to say that Millennials aren’t hard workers.  Engage them in their passion and they will go days without sleep (hackathons, makerfests, etc.) and love every minute of it.  The key point is that the Baby Boomers aligned with the work ethics of the Silent Generation before them and Gen Xers tried to bring some balance to the workaholic demands of the Baby Boomers.  Millennials want none of the above. They want freedom, they want flexibility, but most of all, they want to engage the things that they are passionate about. That’s why personal development and career planning is so critical to the millennial worker.

“I came to see in my time at IBM that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game”

– Lou Gerstner

A few things to consider:

  • How important is the organization’s culture to you and do you give it the focus it deserves?
  • Do your actions reflect your organization’s core values? Why or why not and in what ways?
  • Do your organizational values reflect the core beliefs of your leadership team?
  • Do people treat each other in a way that reflects the organization’s values?
  • Does the way your staff treat your customers reflect your organization’s values?
  • Does your organization have a high turnover rate with millennials?

7 Actions for Hacking Culture: The Silent Supervisor  

  1. If launching an organization, take however much time is necessary to nail down the top three values of your leadership team. Many more and people won’t remember them. If they don’t remember them, how can they implement them?
  2. Engage the workforce and come up with behaviors statements that reflect what your values look like in action. People only commit to what they help create.
  3. If you are transforming organizational culture, engage the workforce to come up with “more of” and “less of” behaviors statements that reflect what the change in behaviors looks like.
  4. Measure the cultural climate of your organization to find out if people are engaged. Studies show the majority may not be.
  5. Give people a purpose at work that engages their passion and they will love their job.
  6. Conduct personal development and career planning for all your people, especially millennials. After all, your people are your most valuable resource.
  7. Engage staff at the front line for innovation and improvement. No one knows the job, along with its challenges and opportunities for improvement, better than the one doing it. Again, people engage in what they help create.

Learn more about how you can intentionally design your startup culture in the Curating, Scaling, and Managing Culture course.

Mike McCausland-Founder-CEO

Mike McCausland

Founder and CEO, Leadership Institute For Entrepreneurs