A Culture of Individuals
In this excerpt from their new book, ‘ Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch,’ Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen explain how their search for organizational success brought them to this simple truth: The very essence of all organizational energy lies in each individual member
We began our journey with a single overriding concern: How do we create a culture that engages the hearts and minds of our people, connects their passion to the organization’s purpose, and delivers extraordinary performance?
In other words, how do we create a culture that fulfills our collective dream for a successful future? In the decades of work that contributed to this book, thousands of individual interviews, research projects, and surveys revealed the secrets of extraordinary cultures and their uninspiring counterparts – cultures that violate employees’ sensibilities and mock their values. Each discovery added to our collective awareness of culture; each piece of the puzzle forced us to reconcile the intent of our actions with the reality of our results. It has been a bittersweet journey, full of high expectations and scattered with disappointments.
A Simple Truth
Our discoveries have led to a deeper appreciation of a simple truth: The core of the culture is the individual. The very essence of all organizational energy lies in each individual member. Again and again, we are reminded of a critical “aha” moment in our research when a close colleague and family member noted: “We have completely undersold the potential of every living human being on the planet.”
Excellence begins with each individual, capable of amazing creativity, inspiration, and fortitude, with potential for incredible acts of kindness, generosity, and service. An organization must celebrate the variation in human talent, perspective, and capability as the fundamental strength of its culture. Extraordinary performance begins with what we call the “MicroCultures,” where each person’s individuality connects with his or her role, team, and manager. MicroCultures that honor individuality and create trusting environments bring out the best of each member.
This is not an exhaustive proposition, but a simple one: 1) Help me know what is expected of me – and how what I do adds value. 2) Know me, trust me, and accept me as your full partner. 3) Let me use my gifts to contribute, grow, and to realize my own potential as a talented person. All associates are conduits for a successful Culture Connection. Everyone shares reciprocal responsibilities to accept, to help, to honor, and to inspire the culture to which they belong. We look to the organizational structure for guidance – the definitions of our jobs/roles, the workflow, and the procedural rules that define our interconnectivity. At each juncture where humans interact with structure, an opportunity is born; the outcome may either be something greater than, or less than, the sum of its parts.
A Synergistic Community
These opportunities belong to what we have dubbed “BridgeCulture,” which can galvanize individual tribes from departments or create an extended, synergistic community that supports everyone’s goals. Managers and leaders are catalysts for bridging these interdepartmental chasms keeping us from our desired results. The qualities that make an organization excellent are about 80% generic (cultural cornerstones) and 20% specific (nexus points). Competitive advantage lies in the 20% that slam-dunks the brand promise to the customer, the focused line-of-sight between your people and your customers.
It is incumbent upon each organization to identify those business-centric elements of their culture and touch on those topics throughout their cultural inquiry. Finally, we must create a culture where people can throw off the bonds of “organizational-itude,” that victim-like mentality that keeps us coloring within the lines, in favor of line-of-sight-induced passion and individuality that invents a new level of service excellence.
A shift in our fundamental beliefs about people and their capability can elevate our thinking and our future. To do that, we must reverse the natural order of the hierarchy and engineer a certain degree of chaos amid the organizational design, particularly around the business imperatives of our brand/strategy.
Everyone sees the perils of chaos, but great leaders know that control is a double-edged sword. To get hearts and minds in the game, we must allow our associates to take the lead in teaching us what our cultures really are and how they affect our results. The truth is that:
- Energy once expended (purposeful or not) cannot be reclaimed.
- Leadership not followed is hollow position-ship.
- Trust when broken may never be fully restored.
Lightning In A Bottle
For sure, high-performance culture is not simple – nor is it enduring. Like lightning in a bottle, it can’t be stored. Its very nature means that we must be relentlessly interested in it – or face the consequences of our inattentiveness. In the economic struggles of today, size, history, and track records offer little assurance of success. Our competitors change with the technological landscape, forcing us to adapt to an emerging marketplace we have never seen before. While virtually nothing stays the same in our marketplaces, we find ourselves pretending that it has as we continue to trust in our conventional human resource systems, our managerial checks and balances, and our quality processes.
As leaders, we strive to provide the most compelling vision to our people, a cutting-edge strategy to our marketplace, and new brand promises to our customers. We work tirelessly to get our people on board with our plans in an effort to reliably and consistently deploy them. And through the very process of doing these things we tend to disenfranchise the people we need the most. What we really need to "beat the crap out of the competition" goes well beyond the capabilities of top-down leadership. The future we can’t quite imagine will be ushered in on the energy of individuals and the passion of their connection to the customer and the team.
The Human Spark
Will these individuals thrive within your organization – or will they jump ship to your competitors? Perhaps they will join the thousands of people who in the last decade seceded from traditional organizations to create their own? Whether or not we like to accept it, the most spectacular breakthroughs have not come from organizations, but from the people within them (or on the fringes). Extraordinary results have always come from the human spark that connects passion to purpose.
The future is waiting to be achieved through the actions we take today. We all have certain critical choices to make:
- As individual employees, we can take our assigned seats as dutiful passengers and hope that our leaders can move us toward a better (or at least palatable) future. Or we can take the risk in acting as owners of the cultures we care about.
- As managers, we can keep working to stabilize the boat while we pass leadership’s expectations down and through to our people, controlling the chaos. Or we can become catalysts for inspiration, creativity, and service by encouraging each person’s talent and contribution.
- As leaders, we can perfect credible and compelling visions of the future and sell them to our people. Or we can demonstrate a genuine and relentless interest in the power of our people, their insight, and their connection to our customers and brand.
For more information on The Coffman Organization or ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch,’ go to www.coffmanorganization.com
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