How Leaders Should Look at Culture
Q: How do you define “culture?”
A: I can still remember the first time my wife’s parents met my family. To set some context, I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. My family descends from a mixture of very vibrant cultures: big, brash loud and honest.
My wife’s family is from Tennessee, reserved and reverent. When we got them together, you could have mistaken it for a new spin on The Odd Couple.
This is the power of culture. Culture is the sum of the tangible and intangible things that make us do what we do in the way that we do them. It governs the way we act and react, defines what makes us happy and sad, and guides us in what we love, hate, fear and amire. It is what makes us human, and there is nothing more important for a leader to understand and to shape.
Unfortunately, shaping culture is easier said than done. Abraham Lincoln once quipped that “[his] mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” The same can be said of culture. It takes time and deliberate energy to build. But, once established, culture will be the driving force in your business, for better or for worse.
I have thought a lot about this subject in my career and have always sought to influence culture proactively. But, it’s a challenge. There have been times when the teams I have led have “clicked” on all levels -- challenging me and each other to greater and greater heights. Other times, I have failed to achieve this same outcome. It is something that must remain a vigilant priority for leaders at all times.
A resource that has been incredibly helpful to me is Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, which I place in the canon of great business leadership books. Collins writes at length about “getting the right people on the bus.” His point is that the culture of your team is the most important thing, and that the “quality” of the people on your team is hugely dependent on their ability to fit within the framework that you have designed. Two people pulling in the same direction will always be more effective than three pulling against each other.
That means every hiring decision is a critical business decision. And, when you make the wrong hiring decisions, you must do something about them.
Any fan of professional football will immediately recognize the calling card of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. As a Buffalo Bills fan, it pains me to admit it, but the New England Patriots have dominated the National Football League for nearly two decades. They have done this by building a distinctive unifying culture within the team. Their famous mantra, “do your job” is evidence of this -- no person is more important than the team, even their famous quarterback.
Ultimately, culture is something that is up to you to define. As a leader, you must live that culture yourself, but you cannot fail to recognize the vital importance of every employee and interaction with your team in your efforts to build it.
For those who are successful, the rest is easy. Just ask my wife.