A New Game
What is the cultural Aspiration for your organization? This is the question Alan Mulally had to wrestle with at Ford . . . and so do you. The first rule when building a High Performance Culture: Aspire: Share your hopes and dreams for the culture.
Every great culture begins with an Aspiration. Leaders call forth the best from themselves and those they lead. If you already have an Aspiration, is it clear, compelling, and pervasive?
amazed by the number of leaders who have not given enough thought to the question of their Aspiration. Ambiguity on this single issue guarantees unwanted stress, strain, and unrealized expectations in the future. Where is your organization going? Not just in terms of sales and profits—what type of organization are you trying to build? What do you want to be true about your culture?
The best organizations across the globe have a growing sense of the power resident in their people. There is also an increasing awareness of the value for the enterprise when people bring their whole selves to work. Alignment is about harnessing the individual brilliance, passion, and talents of everyone and channeling them toward a common cause. What is the cause? The shared cultural Aspiration.
Leaders who ignore or violate this first rule do so at high risk to their influence, their longevity, and the performance of the organization.
Lead with Values
Simple and clear language. Clarity is your friend and a gift that you, as the leader, can give to the organization. The values are intended to inform, not impress. You probably want to express your values using language that requires little explanation. As an example, “innovation” as a value is fairly clear. However, “do good” leaves a lot of room for interpretation and questions,
Distinctive (typically) trumps generic. Are there unique attributes of your organization you want to leverage or enhance (e.g., scrappy, courageous, audacious)? If so, these could be candidate values. The author’s not suggesting that excellence or innovation be removed from your list of values. Perhaps if you are manufacturing critical medical implants or if you are a design firm, these could make perfect sense. However, virtually every organization in the world could include excellence and innovation on their list of desired values.
Stay the course. If you get the values right, they should stand the test of time. Again, the author’s not suggesting that they will never change. Some of the reasons for changing them have already been mentioned—new leadership with a new Aspiration, new strategy, new behaviors needed to meet the demands of a changing world, and so on. However, if your values change too often, you will confuse your people and slow your progress toward your Aspiration. There is also a good chance you’ll hurt your credibility and undermine your leadership.
Aspiration alone will never create a High Performance Culture. The second rule provides the energy to transform what was previously only a dream into reality. Amplify: Ensure the cultural Aspiration is reinforced continuously.
In organizations around the world, many people are inundated by the demands of their lives and jobs. The contributing factors vary from person to person, but some of the typical ingredients are a grim blend of busyness, complexity, distractions, success, failures, fatigue, fear, and uncertainty. In his book Smart Leadership, the author called this toxic mix “quicksand.”
Regardless of the elemental components or relative toxicity, there is a high probability that many of the people in your organization are battling their own quicksand. If we don’t extricate ourselves and help others do the same, we’ll find no joy in our work, our productivity and our influence will be diminished, and our chances of building a High Performance Culture will be slim.
Win with People
its most simple terms, culture is about aligning people around your Aspiration. You are not attempting to align machines. Human beings bring the cultural Aspiration to life . . . or not.
Think about your past experiences with people. The author’s willing to bet almost everyone reading this has encountered a situation when an individual was not a good fit for an organization. In some cases, it was a fit-for-role issue. However, if the data is to be believed, the vast majority of the time, the issues that lead to termination are fit-for-culture issues. There is only one smart way to attack this problem: make better selections. Not only will your culture be stronger, but you will also save untold amounts of time, energy, and cash.
If you select the right person—a new hire who is a fit for both role and culture—you win before they ever take the field.
Champions Change, Too
If you follow the first two rules successfully, you will be ahead of the pack . . . for a while. Perhaps you can have a hundred-year run of success. But organizations cannot rest culturally for a century without the need for change. The third rule of culture building sets you up for long-term success. Adapt: Always work to enhance the culture.
Admittedly, this third rule to constantly Adapt is a tricky proposition. Let’s go back through the first two rules and see why the third rule is so challenging.
You fixed your heart and mind on a challenging Aspiration. You Amplified the Aspiration, and much to your delight, you began to see it become a reality. People went from talking about something to doing and being something. If we allow our finite brains to reach the conclusion that we are done at this point, then we are done.
We can never stop enhancing the culture. Employees come and go, technology changes, the needs of the organization change, our customers change . . . the world changes! All of this and more creates the need for leaders to lead the charge. Our organizational culture must Adapt.
We must honor the third rule—we must diligently monitor and enhance the culture forever. Translated, this means we must always listen, learn, and change. The author has seen leaders dig in their heels at this point. “Change?” they ask. “We just got the culture where we wanted it to be!” The danger in this mindset is real. General Eric Shinseki summed it up well: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
Here’s another way to think about it. Few leaders would assume their product or service offerings could remain fixed for an indefinite period of time. Market forces, competitive pressures, changing customer needs and expectations, and more create the need for change. The assumption that hard goods and services must morph, change, and improve over time is universally accepted. The same should be true for your culture.
The world is a dynamic place. For our organizations to thrive, we must be open to ideas and practices that are different from those of the past.