(This post is written for alumni of LEAD365, although all are welcome to read it.)

In my twenties I worked as an engineer at General Motors—Oldsmobile to be specific. Working at a car company was pretty cool on many levels. I got to drive all kinds of cool cars that would not go to market for several years. I got to play with cutting edge technology, like cell phones (those big old bag phones) and CD players that would work even in a moving vehicle. Yes, I’m old. It was the 80s and CDs were just taking over for eight tracks and cassette tapes. Can’t help but smile when I think back to what was exciting at the time.

We also got to drive prototype cars on long road trips so we could find and document product issues that would need to be fixed before the final production designs were done. One trip I remember was a drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles. It was a great time—cutting edge cars, a chance to socialize with colleagues, new sites, great food and making new friends. It was a very cool job and we were paid handsomely. I thought I was happy—I didn’t know any better.

There were signs in others cubicles suggesting that it wasn’t such a great place for them. One that I recall said, “The only difference between this place and the Titanic is that the Titanic had a band.” Another said, “Floggings will continue till moral improves.” Apparently, not everyone was happy. And now that I look back I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy being in a culture where this kind of negativity existed and was tolerated.

After being wooed to West Michigan by a head hunter I started to learn how important culture is. I know that too many of us that worked at Prince back in the day talk about it ad nauseam. Why is that?

I remember my wife asking me one day, being somewhat irritated with my excitement for my work, “What is so exciting about making visors?” My answer was, “Nothing… but I love working with the people I get to work with. I love what our company stands for and the difference we are trying to make in the world. And honestly, I love the difference it seems to make in me.”

This is the power of organizational culture!

This kind of culture doesn’t happen by accident. Great culture is intentionally shaped by leaders with a vision for something special. This is why Shaping Culture is one of the topics we chose to cover in LEAD 365. Here are some of the thoughts we shared with you— and a few that we didn’t.

Peter Drucker—one of the best thinkers about organizational leadership ever—is quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Most managers think about strategy a lot! Many are oblivious to the importance of culture and the role it plays in either supporting or undermining a great new strategy. Ducker’s line tells me that the strategy can be doomed right off the bat. It will get eaten up at breakfast if the culture won’t support it—before the day even begins.

Jim Collins, in his book, Built to Last claims there is no right set of organizational values (ie: culture). There are however many that are wrong. The key is to identify what will work for your organization and then make sure you are living into those values. As a leader you need to incorporate your values into your leadership decisions:

  • Hire based on them—make sure a good portion of your interviewing and assessing of candidates focuses on cultural fit, not just a person’s skills and experience.
  • Fire based on them—if someone can’t align with your culture, they need to be called- out and given a chance to align. If they don’t find a way to make the changes needed they need to be moved off the team—not as a bad person but just as a person who is not a good cultural fit.
  • Develop your people based on them—highlight where one of your team members does things that are a great examples of the culture AND also point out where her actions seem to run against the culture.

Culture is shaped by the decisions and actions that leaders take. It is also shaped by the actions that are tolerated. At Oldsmobile the negative expressions displayed in some cubicles were tolerated, and therefore they helped to reinforce, if not form, a negative culture.

In short, culture is HUGE! As such, if you want to do more study of this, we can recommend some options:

  • Look through our session slides again.
  • Read chapters 8, 9, and 10 from the book Switch (some of you already read this for class).
  • Read Creativity, Inc—the story of Pixar and Disney, and how the culture was shaped in their coming together.
  • Read Joy, Inc—the story of Menlo, a software development firm in Ann Arbor

What could you do this week that would help to shape the culture in your organization? We would love to hear what you’ve been doing in order to shape your culture. We would love to hear what you are going to try this week and beyond. Drop me a line if you are open to sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Thanks for being a leader worth following! I hope your week is a great one!


Image by jenschapter3. Used under CC by 2.0 license.