More than nine hundred years ago the Clan MacDonald and Clan McLeod found themselves entangled in yet another battle—one of many that involved the two most powerful groups on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. As the legend goes, Donald, the clan chief of the MacDonalds wanted finally to stop the fighting between the two families. To that end, he proposed that the two clans engage in a sea race rather than a battle. He swore an oath that the clansman whose hand first touched the shore at the end of the race would be the owner of the MacDonald castle and land forever. The McLeods had everything to gain and nothing to lose—provided they agreed to live in peace with the MacDonalds, no matter who won the race.
At a critical point in the race, Donald realized that the McLeods were winning. Desperate to protect his property, he sprang to the prow of the galley, and with one stroke of his dirk, cut off his own hand and threw it to the shore, thus ensuring a victory and the ownership of the land for himself and his descendants. To this day the crest of the MacDonalds boasts a bleeding hand, and Ru Barnaskitaig, the point where the hand landed, remains famous on the Isle of Skye.
Most modern organizations can trace their origins back decades, not centuries. But many of those that have survived and continued to thrive in a tough economy embody the lessons learned from cultures that have endured through the ages. Historically, Scottish clan chiefs measured their success, not in financial wealth, but in the number of men they could put into battle. People not related by blood often applied to the clan chief for membership, swearing allegiance in exchange for protection. Today company chiefs measure their success in both tangible and intangible ways too.
Much has changed since the thirteenth century, but much hasn’t. Top performers still want to belong to a clan that has created a culture they respect, one that will protect them in dire circumstances—one to whom they proudly give their allegiance. Arguably, tangible characteristics like a strong strategic focus, effective leadership, and shared values form the foundation of any successful culture, but that doesn’t explain the entire story. Something abstract plays a role too.
The culture of an organization involves the shared beliefs and practices that have evolved over time as leaders solved problems and made decisions. Think of culture as organizational health and happiness. We can take an organization’s vital signs much as we would a person’s. Rather than running lab tests, however, we can infer health from robust activity, the demeanor of employees, what people say in the organization, and what people say about the organization. Here are five ways to influence what happens:
Model the way. Every thread of a tartan plaid plays a role in the overall appearance of the fabric, but at the point of creation, someone made a decision about its color and design. In an organization, that role falls to leaders. They have the responsibility of serving as avatars and exemplars of what the organization should look like, ultimately influencing how those outside it—customers, communities, the media, and prospective talent—will perceive it.
Encourage change. You can start building a change culture by replacing large-scale, amorphous objectives with results-driven goals that focus on quick, measurable gains. An empowered employee at the lowest possible level of the organization should “own” each goal for which he or she will be held accountable. This allows you to be flexible enough to react quickly to market shifts, threats, and opportunities. That’s how agility happens.
You’ll know you have the formula right when you see leaders continuously seeking new opportunities and overcoming challenges, delegating both decisions and tasks, people showing obvious commitment to continued improvement, and everyone showing a burning passion to succeed.
Demand learning. A learning culture must contain a shared assumption that the appropriate way for an organization to improve involves proactive problem-solving and learning. If the culture reflects fatalistic assumptions of passive acceptance, learning will become more and more difficult as the rate of change in the environment increases. Therefore, leaders must ultimately make the process of learning—not any given solution to any specific problem—part of the culture.
Reward innovation and tolerate risk. Learning organizations expect failure. They realize that if failure doesn’t happen, the company isn’t pushing hard enough. These leaders learn from their mistakes—all the while keeping their own motivation high so that they can encourage others to go through the inevitable pain of learning and change
To remain competitive and exceptional, a culture has to be one of incentive, tolerance, reward, experimentation, high risk tolerance, and a focus on the behaviors required to create that culture, not quick victories. Many organizations demanding more “innovation” simply want faster problem-solving, which will only return things to the status quo.
Realize it’s about success, not perfection. Leaders committed to learning discover where they’ve been successful by deconstructing successes so that those in the organization can replicate them. They understand why they’ve had great success, not just that they’ve had it. They also eagerly examine failure and cause/effect relationships—not to assign blame but to learn.
When we see operational efficiency, retention of top talent, and a strong brand, we can conclude the company has built a culture that works. More importantly, those engaged in the day-to-day operations of the company feel the intangible benefits of a culture to which they want to belong.
Many of the important aspects of culture never make their way to the policy manuals, forecasted revenues, or written summaries. Like the proud legends of a clan, people pass the stories from generation to generation. Leaders influence them through acts of courage and bravery, but ultimately the routine activities determine how the tapestry of the organization will weave itself together. Modern organizations don’t require bodily amputations, but they do need leaders to give them a hand in creating a culture where the best people can do their best work.
– Linda Henman, Ph.D. works with organizations that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully, both today and tomorrow. Read more about her at www.henmanperformancegroup.com. She is the author of Challenge the Ordinary (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
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