A View from Blue Grotto

Monday, October 30, 2006

Managing your culture

Corporate culture has taken center stage in the last few years. With the well-publicized collapse of some companies, the hostile resignations of CEOs and board chairs, and the merging of companies far and wide, there is no doubt that the environment of corporate culture will never be the same.

Your organization’s culture is a reflection of its values. And values are organic to any organization – you can’t simply make them up, or transplant them from one company to another, or worse yet – dictate them from the corner office.

Most companies’ values are not brightly illuminated until there is a crisis. But the company’s values, good or bad, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, are determined long before the crisis arises. And in many cases, the company’s values are what pulls them {everyone – from the CEO and executive team, all the way down to the janitorial staff} through to the other side of the dark tunnel {see the 9/29/03 HBS Working Knowledge article Do the Right Thing by Michael Sisk http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3689.html }.

How do you manage your organization’s culture when you’re not tacking into the wind?

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, has written extensively on the role of organizational culture in success and adversity. In his April 12, 2004 HBS Working Knowledge Executive Summary Waking Up a Sleeping Company, {http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4054.html} George discusses his company’s challenge in managing, and ultimately trying to change, a successful culture. He addresses the question most leaders face: how do you manage values in a performance-driven environment? Or in Medtronic’s case, how do you infuse a performance-driven environment into your company’s half-a-century-old culture?

Working with a company as they prepare to celebrate an anniversary or milestone, or assisting a company with a knowledge management program, we inevitably end up documenting organizational culture. I had the great pleasure of working with Medtronic as they celebrated 50 years. Many of the learnings that bubble up are expected and are an affirmation of a culture, like the tenet that 3M is patient with its internal investment, allowing initiatives to root and take hold, rather than killing an initiative after the first quarter reports. Other clients have extracted from Blue Grotto’s research and oral history components a management analysis, or benchmarking and evaluation tools. One client, knowing their top leadership would turn over soon, asked interviewees what leadership attributes they felt would be congruent with the organization’s culture.

In the past, corporate culture tended to conjure up a ‘soft stuff’ image for executives. But as Roger Enrico, former CEO of PepsiCo, once said: “The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff.”

Email me with an example of how you are working in your own organization to understand and manage your company’s culture.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.