Lessons from the Field: First Comes Culture – Then Comes Change

Written by Anthony Aguilar

companyculture

“Complexity is suffocating our business operations. The use of obscure language and the adoption of complex processes add unnecessarily to an already complex environment.”

Organizational culture is a popular topic for business leaders. It is an accepted maxim that culture management is an essential component of effective business management. But, like most business fads, corporate culture as a concept has been distorted, co-opted, obscured, and made overly complex. What is the truth about culture?

For nearly thirty years I have engaged in deep-dive culture analysis of my client companies as a part of change management initiatives (mostly diversity management). I don’t claim to be the absolute authority on the topic of culture, but I do claim a level of clarity about corporate culture based on dozens of intense, in-depth, immersions into the culture of large corporations and hundreds of less intense investigations into the existing culture of organizations of all sizes. That experience has given me some clear insights about how to codify culture and how to assess how culture impacts the conduct of business.

I have never analyzed culture without cause (culture for culture sake). Instead, I have always analyzed culture in conjunction with major change efforts. The purpose of culture analysis is not to change culture (a misnomer), but to understand culture in order to facilitate change. Put simply, most change efforts fail to perform as planned. An understanding of the existing culture increases the probability of successful change by an order of magnitude. Taking that approach to culture analysis has yielded some insight about the nature and impact of organizational culture. Here is what I have learned:

There are no good or bad cultures

Culture is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing. It is a thing that must be managed as part of good management (along with mission, vision, values, and strategy). Behaviors (the manifestation of culture) that hinder success at one company can help another company thrive. In other words, a behavior or practice that is incompatible with one company’s underlying culture may be fully compatible with the underlying culture of another company and may contribute to that company’s success. In fact, there are ranges of behaviors that can be supported by the core elements of an organization’s culture.

A utility I consulted for had a core belief (level 1 culture) of being a public trust and a specific value (level 2 culture) of customer service. At one point they expressed that customer service value by telling their customers what good customer service looked like because (after all) they (the company) were the experts. When the external environment (regulatory) changed, they changed to a practice of asking customers what good customer service looked like. Both behaviors were manifestations of the same core culture.

The Personality Analog

A simple way to think about organizational culture is as the collective personality of the organization. Just like our individual personality, organizational personality is relatively intractable. That is why I suggest that the idea of culture change is an unreasonable expectation. Our objective should not be to change culture but to understand culture and understand how it impacts behaviors and supports business success.

Bad Habits Happen

Each of us has our own unique personality that drives our behaviors. For the most part, “being me” works well and produces good outcomes. However, occasionally we get into “bad habits”. In like manner, an organization can also develop “bad habits”. It doesn’t happen right away, but over time the collective behavior of an organization can become ineffective and incompatible with its core culture (see Inversion of Values). Overcoming bad habits requires the deliberate installation of better habits (leverage behaviors).

For instance, when IBM (now and back in the 1980s) began imitating new technology companies and losing sight of their core beliefs, their leaders (Gerstner and Rometty) had to install “leverage behaviors” in order to remind IBM employees of their unique culture and inimitable business model.

Culture trumps strategy and leadership

The late Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I would suggest it also eats leaders for lunch. No leader can change culture with a single two-year program, a massive rightsizing, or even a wholesale replacement of leaders.

In June 2000, Durk Jager, then CEO of Proctor and Gamble resigned under pressure after only eighteen months in the job. He had made promises that he could not keep. Among them, he promised to overhaul the culture of the old-line, household products division (makers of Tide, Bounce, and other well-known household products). This was a case of an executive derailed by the power of culture.

The problems that most often crop up and derail a change effort are associated with how the culture reacts to the change. Successful leaders learn to manage change because they have learned to honor the culture that exists instead of attempting to make radical changes to the culture.

Application to Change: Diversity Management

Every major diversity management initiative I have led begins with an assessment of the company’s culture. Ultimately, the purpose of a diversity management initiative is to influence behavior – we want people within the organization to behave in ways that are inclusive and that use the talents of all employees. Culture is a critical part of that behavior change. If the culture is not supportive of the desired behavior changes then over time people will regress to old behavior patterns (lapse back to natural) and the diversity management initiative will not be sustainable.

A CultureScan™ (my language) is a systematic investigation of an organization’s culture. The information that results from the scan serves as a basis for planning the change process and equipping organizational leaders to manage the change through the inevitable roadblocks. The goal of the CultureScan™ is to provide leaders and managers with the knowledge and tools they need to overcome resistance to the current change effort and to incorporate the conscious management of culture into their daily agendas.

Conclusion

The current efforts to meld quantitative and qualitative methods for culture assessment should focus first on establishing a common language and a common understanding of corporate culture. We need to define our terms and make sure we are not confusing core culture with other environmental factors, like climate, behavioral norms, or leader-influenced practices. For most companies, which have been around over ten years, the idea of creating culture or changing culture is an unreasonable proposition. Rather than adopt the latest shiny object that includes the word “culture”, leaders and culture analysts need to do their homework and adopt a simple, logical concept of culture that can actually be managed and used to sustain company success.

Author

James O. Rodgers FIMC is the leading strategist in the field of diversity management. He has led change initiatives in hundreds of organizations and advised C-suite executives in some of the largest and most successful companies in the world.

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How to Balance Management and Leadership in Your Organization

Written by James O. Rodgers

Business people in a meeting
With all this talk about organizations being over-led and under-managed, it can be easy to forget that, at one time, we had the exact opposite problem. Most organizations were arguably over-managed and under-led until about 30 years ago, when several academics recognized this trend. These academics started a movement that we call the leadership movement.

Unfortunately, that movement has overachieved: people fell in love with the word ‘leader,’ and they thought that because we were over-managed and under-led, we needed to switch 100 percent to leadership and ignore management.

In order to keep from making the same mistakes we made in the past, we need to keep a historical perspective when we talk about the topic of over-led/under-managed companies.

What I’m calling for is balance: as we emphasize management, we can’t also under-emphasize leadership.

Complementary Roles

Just like management, leadership is a critical component of success. By itself, however, it only produces organizations where everybody knows where we’re going—but perhaps nobody knows how to get there.

Knowing where we’re going is only part of the job. The other part of the job is knowing how to get there. This is the difference between leaders and managers, and it’s why a successful organization needs to emphasize both roles. Leaders have the very important job of helping the organization understand how it will succeed and where it is headed. The manager has the equally important role of supporting employees in their daily quest to reach the organization’s goals.

If we’re going to maintain the world-class results that we’ve gotten so used to, U.S. companies need to strive for a situation where management is equally as important as leadership.

Strike a balance, but don’t confuse the two: be clear about the definitions, and ensure that everybody knows what their role is and knows how to execute it. Hold everybody accountable for carrying out their specific roles: either as a leader, or a manager, or both.

Why Every Non-Profit Needs a Strong Manager

Written by James O. Rodgers

Manager sitting at table with employees

Unlike many commercial organizations, non-profits do a very good job of sending the message of who they are. Non-profits have narrow focuses, and their clear visions and missions are exactly what attract employees. People come to work for non-profits because they buy into the vision; they’re dedicated and passionate about the mission.

Because of this, the leadership job becomes very easy: leaders don’t really have to rally their employees around big goals. Employees were rallied the moment they signed up.

Unfortunately, non-profits tend to fall short in one crucial way: they overlook the importance of management.

Moving the Needle through Management

When you look at a non-profit, you can always see the enthusiasm, but you don’t often see the results. That’s because managers aren’t doing their jobs to corral the energy, passion, and enthusiasm of the employees and direct it toward those specific actions that actually make a difference and produce the results the agency is seeking.

People arrive every day enthusiastic and passionate, but they slowly lose that enthusiasm because they don’t see results from their efforts. Without managers that can help direct them towards the best use of their skills and their energy, employees cannot contribute their best all the time.

As with any organization, a non-profit needs to be doing something to move the needle to reach their goals every single day. That’s the manager’s job.

Avoiding the Trap

Because of their narrow focuses and clear visions, non-profits of all types are susceptible to over-led and under-managed workforces. To ensure that employees keep their passion — and achieve real results — a non-profit needs strong management, just like any other organization would.

Non-profits who want to see real results need to avoid the trap of poor management. To do this, each non-profit organization should take the following three steps:

  1. Train Your Managers. Non-profits tend to do a relatively poor job of training people to do their jobs—including managers. Often, non-profits make a deadly assumption when they hire people: You were good where you were before, so you should be good here.

    These non-profits assume that someone who has demonstrated functional skills will also be good at managing groups of people to deliver specific outcomes. This, of course, is not necessarily the case. Therefore, non-profits need to train their managers and ensure that all managers are clear on the difference between their technical role and their role as a manager.

 

  1. Hire Carefully. As is the case for any company, non-profits need to hire intelligently and efficiently, with an eye toward results. To get the “right types of people on the bus,” non-profits need to consider the value that each potential employee’s particular skills, mindset, and perspective could bring to the organization.

 

  1. Hold Managers Accountable for Results. Managers should add value—that is, people should perform better under managers than they would by themselves. Otherwise, they’re superfluous.

    This is key for effective management anywhere. Follow Marcus Buckingham’s advice and have managers ask themselves, “Are people more effective working for me than not?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then that person needs to get out of the way; they’re preventing results.

Don’t Get Swept Up in Leadership—Recognize the Value of Management

Written by James O. Rodgers

Two people discussing over a laptop

Some writers might tell you that management is simply an imitation of leadership, or that leaders and managers are one and the same these days.

Nothing could be further from the truth: managers can’t copy leaders—they serve two very different functions. Leaders point the way; managers develop the means for that way to be achieved.

So, how do we combat the rapid expansion of the leadership obsession? How do we change popular perceptions of management so that every organization sees the true value of its managers?

We start with articles like this one.

Spark a Conversation

A conversation, of course, requires multiple participants. Luckily, I am not alone in this endeavor: a number of my colleagues are taking up the mantle of management as well. They recognize that we’ve overstated the importance of leadership, and we’ve underplayed the importance of management.

Now we’re talking about it more. We’re starting conversations, we’re developing training, we’re speaking about the issue: in short, we’re offering tools to remind people of the importance of management.

It can be easy to forget how important management is from a productivity and performance standpoint, but managers are truly the backbones of any organization. Leaders don’t do the hard work. They take a big-picture view, and they say “Strategically, when I look at the marketplace and the future, here’s what we need to do to survive.” Then, they simply repeat their vision over and over again.

The manager does the taxing work of translating leadership visions into real actions that achieve results: selecting the right people, making sure that they have the tools they need to perform, encouraging them, supporting them, developing them, etc.

Recognize the Consequences of Bad Management

The other thing that needs to happen to change the perception of management is that people need to be reminded of the impact of poor management. Most of us know it, we just don’t focus on it, and bad management can be devastating, from a recruitment and retention standpoint.

When an employee leaves an organization unexpectedly, they rarely—if ever—leave because they disagree with leadership or dislike the company’s mission or goal. In fact, the most common reason why employees leave is because of their relationship with their manager.

Good management, then, is important for preventing high turnover rates, which is a costly problem for any organization.

Without managers, nothing gets done: managers, after all, are the ones who oversee projects, ensure deadlines are met, and enable people to contribute at their highest levels. As long as companies see managers as copies or extensions of leadership, they won’t be able to achieve real results.

Management Still Matters: Supervising the Over-Led and Under-Managed Workforce

Written by James O. Rodgers

Management versus leadership
At the team level and throughout organizations of all sizes, a lot of good management is taking place. The problem is that we often refer to that good management as “leadership.” By doing so, we confuse the people who are really doing the hard work of day-to-day, face-to-face interface with employees, the people who make sure that every employee has everything required to be successful.

The fact that we’re obsessed with leadership means that we often fail to acknowledge the good work of great managers. Therefore, managers don’t spend as much of their energy on perfecting the discipline of management. Instead, they try to show themselves as good leaders—though the job really does not call for that.

Part of the reason why so much rhetoric and conversation deals with the leadership obsession is because people don’t really understand the differences between leadership and management—or why management still matters.

Big Picture and Hands Off: the Leader’s Role

Leaders in organizations of all sizes serve a detached role. Their job is to point all members of the organization in the direction that the organization is going.
Management still matters
For instance, look at a major company like Procter & Gamble. The leaders of that organization have one message for all of their employees: We’re focused on trusted brands. Do whatever you can do to help develop and promote a trusted brand.

The same holds true for mid-sized organizations. Many organizations have overall leadership goals such as growing market share or improving visibility in the markets. The leader’s job is to rally everyone around these high-level goals by consistently keeping these goals in front of them.

But when you get deeper into the organization, everybody starts asking the same question: What do I, specifically, do to produce that outcome?

That’s where managers come in.

One-on-One and Supportive: the Manager’s Role

People working inside organizations need guidance and support. The manager’s job is to make sure that all employees have the guidance and support they need to contribute to the high- level leadership goals.

Support looks like a lot of things—providing the right tools and equipment, paying the right salary, etc.—but support also means creating the right type of environment for employees to contribute to the best of their ability. Companies hire employees for their particular skills, mindsets, and perspectives. Managers help employees figure out how they use their specific qualities to contribute to leadership goals.

Managers support employees by creating environments where they feel trusted and where they feel they can trust the leaders and managers of the organization. Managers make sure that employees know their performance and contributions matter.

For thoughtful insights and new trends in the field of diversity, follow me on Twitter.


When we over-emphasize leadership, problems often arise at the team level. Team leaders serve dual roles: they are both leaders and managers. However, roughly 90 percent of their job is management. Their main focus needs to be on employee support. Only 10 percent of a team leader’s job is repeating the goals set by higher-level leaders. However, the leadership obsession also pushes team leaders to lead more than they manage—meaning employees don’t get the support they need to succeed and contribute to the business.

This is why management still matters. The role of a manager is the lynchpin of effectiveness for organizations of any size. Without managers to support, encourage, and develop employees, an organization will never achieve the level of success that it’s looking for.