If You’re Not Managing Your Culture, Someone Else Is

Posted on January 30, 2017 by John O. Burdett
If you're not managing your culture someone else it

“The expression ‘change the culture’ is a misnomer. If elements of what you need tomorrow don’t exist today it is virtually impossible to create them.”

Nature offers lessons to us all.  When the wind blows strongest it is the tree with the capability to bend that survives.  Growth based on yesterday’s success, rigidity, strength without agility, may well be acceptable when the sun is shining, but in the midst of a gale they are features that will bring down the sturdiest oak.

We are living in turbulent times. Faced with uncertainty, leaders have a choice:

  1. to complain;
  2. to capitulate;
  3. to contemplate;
  4. to compromise; or
  5. to bring about change.

Change, of course, means taking people with you.  Not so easy when many of those who fill front-line roles carry scar-tissue from the last initiative. Not so easy when the majority of the workforce see change as simply another way to say “more work”. Not so easy when the organisation’s culture is viewed as a mysterious and impenetrable cloud.

When the tempest rages, those who survive and grow are not the most aggressive, the toughest, or even the smartest.  Evolution teaches us that survival lies largely in the capacity to adapt.  Put a different way, your ability to ride out the current storm rests, in no small measure, on the extent to which your organisation has made culture an integral part of the leadership conversation.

Consider the following questions.

  1. When was the last time your team had a truly robust conversation about organisational culture?
  2. To what extent was the most recent hire decision flexed against the culture you need to create?(1)
  3. What are you doing to regularly measure the strength/agility(2) of your organisation’s culture?(3)

If your answers amount to “not recently,” or “very little” then your culture is managing you.  Does it matter? In the worst of times (now) it matters a great deal.

What follows are thoughts and questions that frame the culture conversation.(4) An initial response might well be that we don’t have time to get into this right now. Napoleon offers a different point of view.

When told by one of his Marshals that the French had lost the day, he looked up and said, “That may be so, but there is still enough time to make sure we win tomorrow’s battle.” And there will be a new battle in the morning!

The culture conversation

Culture isn’t an abstract, will-o’-the-wisp sort of thing. It’s real, it lives, and how organisations shape their culture has a profound impact on an organisation’s ability to thrive and survive. Viewed all-too-often as an HR project, when uncertainty becomes the new norm(5) the need for the organisation’s culture to be a top team imperative emerges with full force. The conversation around culture, regardless of where or at what level in the business it takes place, benefits from the following insights:

  • Rule number one: if  you’re not managing your culture someone else is – the competition, the unions, a key supplier, leaders seeking to carry out their own agenda, influential members of the informal organisation. Cultural drift – doing little but at the same time assuming that somehow, magically, the culture will end up where you need it to be – is little more than a mandate for mediocrity. Sadly, it’s where 90% of today’s businesses dwell.(6)  Rule number two: don’t forget rule number one.(7)
  • Leaders live in a goldfish bowl – the higher in the organisation the role, the greater the magnification. No less important – how those at the top behave is far more important than anything that is said or written. By way of example, when top leaders don’t live the organisation’s values, the organisation, essentially, has no values. Misalignment between the espoused values and how the top fifteen people in the organisation behave is to pass by default a critical piece of the cultural puzzle to those with a personal agenda to pursue.
  • No business is an island; culture will change whether you want it to or not. To that end, the culture we need around here must reflect the changing face of society; it must recognise the unfolding global business reality; and it must ring to the sound of the (current and emerging) customer’s voice. The challenge: it’s not enough to build a strong culture, as the recent business and economic turbulence has amplified; sustained performance means also being agile.(8)
  • Although leaders often describe culture as a critical piece of the competitive puzzle, when compared to the investment in strategy those same leaders spend only a small percentage of time on culture. The dilemma: knowing how to have the conversation.
  • In  an unstable world, culture trumps strategy. It’s culture that has primacy. It’s culture that sustains. It’s culture that will be around long after the agreed strategy has been through the shredder. Where the only thing we can say about strategy with confidence is that it will change, thinking based on the presumption that strategy drives culture is, of pragmatic necessity, being replaced by the reality that the culture enables strategy.
  • The expression “change the culture” is a misnomer. If elements of what you need tomorrow don’t exist today it is virtually impossible to create them.
  • When a leader says “we are going to change the culture around here” he/she has stumbled at the first hurdle. The sub-text – “you are the problem” – is a message that everyone in the audience will reject and thus resist. “Shaping” the culture is a far more accurate and respectful form of language.
  • Culture  isn’t about everyone being the same. Culture is a container for diversity. Too much diversity equals chaos. Too little and nothing changes.
  • Few, if any, organisations have only one culture. The challenge becomes to encourage diversity at a local level while, at the same time, build a strong overarching corporate culture. This tight-loose approach to culture – knowing what is truly sacrosanct – is where judgement, wisdom, intuition and a feel for connectivity enter the leadership equation.
  • Even the most determined and aggressive leader cannot reconfigure the culture through fear, threat, edict or censure. How does it happen? An ability to articulate, influence and bring total commitment to “where to from here” is the start of it. Being the change the leader wants to bring about(9) is part of it. But engaging people emotionally is the heart of it. Those who work in and for the organisation are the culture. It’s a constituency that chooses who it wants to follow. In doing so it determines what is possible. Employees don’t so much resist change as they do withdraw support from a leader they don’t believe in.
  • The most important (two) groups in any organisation are (a) those often referred to as “middle- managers” and (b) anyone who interfaces on a day-to-day basis with the customer/client. The first are, literally, the only people in the organisation who can bring about change. The second are the only ones in the organisation who can build sustainable success. Impacting the culture means top leaders must look those who populate these powerful influence groups squarely in the eye and explain with total integrity, why!
  • In any organisation there are two dominant, often conflicting, forces. A way to operate as described by the organisation chart – and the way things really happen.(10) The only day of the week when the formal structure dominates the informal one is when the day in question does not have a “y” in it.(11) Managing the informal organisation is rooted in openness, truth, authenticity and servant leadership. When the way forward rings of self-interest; when leaders decide both the what and the how; when freedom to act is stripped away and/or when those who are impacted by the change aren’t afforded the opportunity to play a role in orchestrating that change, then the status quo is the best outcome possible.
  • Trust is all about delivering on promises made. It’s about the way the change is presented. When people hear about it in the press first, trust is an early casualty. When what is being said isn’t complemented by nuance, rapport, intonation and/or facial expression, people believe what they see, not what they are being told. A smile conveys a message of hope. A frown says you would rather be someplace else. Without trust, little is possible.
  • Inviting those who are impacted to be a full partner in the journey shouldn’t lead to the tyranny of consensus. There are a number of key decisions impacting culture (e.g., mission, values, leadership competencies, structure, and technology) that can, and should, only be taken at the top of the house. Involvement by all means, but don’t let the herd decide.
  • Although a focus on both is essential, climate should not be confused with culture. The former is how people feel about the organisation (employee satisfaction) on any one day. The latter, is what causes them to feel that way. One is software. The other is the operating system. Climate is the flower of the lily floating on the surface on the pond. Culture is symbolised by the roots anchored firmly in the mud at the bottom of the pond. Invaluable as, for example, the ubiquitous engagement survey is, and although elements of culture are almost certainly captured, it should not be assumed that engagement = culture. If issues such as symbolism, speed, structure, systems, storytelling, shared values, candour, brand, history, teamwork, language, metaphor, measurement and mindset are not embraced by the engagement instrument, then a good deal of  what is being described here as “culture” has been overlooked. That people are happy about the ship they are on doesn’t mean it isn’t about to hit an iceberg. Anyone remember the Titanic?
  • Culture isn’t a series of standalone actions. Culture is a system and, as with any system, when we change one element we impact the whole.
  • Culture is story and story is culture. The organisation’s culture comes together and is manifest in the organisation’s story. If you have a great story to tell you had better tell it because no one else is going to. When all is said and done, it’s not organisations that compete – it’s stories. A great story answers four fundamental questions:
  1. What do we believe in?
  2. Where are we headed?
  3. What make us special
  4. What is it we do that makes a difference in people’s lives? (12)
  • Without inspirational leadership little is possible. “Inspire” comes from the Latin spiritus which means to breathe life into.  To lead is to breathe life into the culture every single day. Inspiration shouldn’t be confused with charisma. Inspiration drives us on, charisma draws us in.

∼ ∼ ∼

Three colliding forces fashion today’s (unique) economic and business turmoil. Both the financial meltdown and the business slowdown have been covered extensively by the media.  A third factor has, however, gone largely without comment: cultural complacency.(14) As competitive intensity increases with low wage areas of the world and recognising, for example, that India will soon have more English speakers than the US, facing a Twenty-First Century economy with a 1980s mindset is the business equivalent of trying to hold off a hungry tiger armed only with a broken stick.

Our economic future lies in having a better strategy, a far greater ability to innovate and a culture that is adaptable enough to dance around the razor-sharp claws of our Asian opponents. Simply put: continued cultural drift sounds out the death knell of our economic prosperity.

When it comes to moulding tomorrow’s business possibility we all want “I” to figure in there somewhere. The problem being, if we ignore culture, if we remain complacent, if we continue to assume strategy provides all the answers, there will be an “I”, but it will be pronounced “Mumbai” and “Shanghai.” John Legend’s song “If You Are Out There”(15) has a line that could well be an anthem for all of us. The future started yesterday and we are already late.

Remember rule number one: if you’re not managing your culture, someone else is. And rule number two…


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  1. This implies that your search provider brings, as needed, culture measurement tools to the table.
  2. See a means to measure both strength and agility in Myth, Magic, Mindset (2008), by the author.
  3. Look for Without Breaking Stride: successfully moving into a new role (2009), by the author.
  4. Taken from Myth, Magic, Mindset (2008).
  5. For “uncertainty” read “new entrants to the market, aggressive growth, acquisition, turnaround, and/or economic disorder generally.”
  6. As reflected by our own research.
  7. Rule number one/rule number two is usually attributed to Warren Buffet.
  8. See StrAgility questionnaire in Myth, Magic, Mindset (2008).
  9. Gandhi.
  10. Culture is found in the conversation that takes place when the boss leaves the room.
  11. Taken from a comment Warren Buffet made about shares he didn’t want to buy.
  12. To what extent does your organisation’s employment brand answer these four questions?
  13. Diversity here is intended to embrace a much wider definition than is traditionally applied.
  14. The evidence is that less than 30% of employees bring their ‘A’ game to work.
  15. From the Evolver album. GOOD Music and Columbia records.


About John O. Burdett

John O. BurdettBoth as an international HR executive and as a consultant, John Burdett has worked on culture initiatives with some of the world’s largest organisations.
He holds a Doctorate in Management Development and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. John has authored ten books on leadership and organisation culture. His latest offering is the Talent Trilogy: TALENT (2014), TEAM (2015), and The Empty Suit (2016). John’s new book, the A–Z of Organization Culture comes out in early 2017. His books, articles and assessment tools are embraced by executives on five continents. His company, Orxestra Inc., enjoys a strategic partnership with TRANSEARCH International, a global, executive search firm.


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