Smart Leadership


Smart Leadership: Is Your Company Culture Boosting or Blocking Performance

Smart Leadership: Is Your Company Culture Boosting or Blocking Performance

“Corporate culture can contribute meaningfully to financial results, and many people do not give this fact enough attention.” —John Kotter

One of the hottest comedy teams in the 1950s was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lewis was the comedian and Martin the straight man. When you watch clips of the two acting together, Lewis appears to be shorter than Martin. In a Larry King interview, Lewis revealed that he and Martin were actually the same height, but Lewis would work in a crouch for the comedic effect.

Over the years while working in American business, I have often thought about this story because there have been times when I have had to work in a crouch (figuratively speaking) in order to make the politics work with those in management. I am confident I am not alone in this experience of corporate culture and believe that these “crouch cultures” have been far too prevalent in American business, where those whom Jack Welch calls “the 70%” are expected to deliver an extraordinary performance while working from a crouch.

It is tragic that anyone would feel their company culture inhibits their ability to deliver extraordinary results. Yet many leaders do not realize that they have themselves created the culture that is keeping their employees from delivering an exceptional performance. On the other hand, smart leaders are cognizant of how their decisions will impact their organizational culture. Smart leaders strive to create a culture where their employees can excel and reach their full potential. Fortunately, there is a paradigm shift happening in American business that is impacting the way companies think about the importance of culture.

Companies like Google, Zappos and Starbucks have already made significant inroads in changing the old ways of doing business, all serving as significant examples of the changing paradigm of company culture. The up-and-coming millennial workforce is looking for companies that are choosing to take these newly paved roads.

Whatever your company is on the outside, whether it is the product you produce, the service you deliver or the level of satisfaction your customers are experiencing, it is a reflection of what you are on the inside— your culture. Exceptional and engaging cultures boost performance and productivity and are the secret behind a profitable company. Cultures are as unique as the people who work in them. We should turn our attention to evaluating our culture in the same way we evaluate our people.

All organizations have a culture; all cultures are created by values, good, bad or ugly. Whatever values are present in your organization’s culture are there either by default or by design. Companies with cultures that are well designed and well defined in terms of core values tend to be much more successful. Successful companies intentionally and continuously build the right values into their culture.

Some would falsely assume you create a culture and then let it run on its own as if on autopilot, but culture is not static. Culture is a living, breathing entity. It is not easily cloned, it usually requires discovery and growth, and it is rarely instantly mature. Like any other living thing, it requires care and attention to grow and develop to maturity. We must have an “on purpose” culture.

Many successful companies that have been in existence for a while find that their cultures tend to become stubborn and unyielding to change over time. In some cases, this is the result of hubris and this condition will many times go unchecked until some kind of crisis occurs. The General Motors crisis of 2014 is a perfect example of this kind of culture. (check out my related article on GM)

By his own admission, this is not unlike what happened to Starbucks when Howard Schultz made the decision to retake the position of CEO in 2008 as recounted in his book, Onward. In some instances, companies like Starbucks make the needed changes in a time of crisis and are able to pull up out of their nosedive before it is too late and survive. Some companies are not so fortunate and like the Titanic, they are unable to change course in time and so hit the proverbial iceberg and find themselves in a sinking ship, to their own shock and chagrin. It pays to slow down long enough to evaluate the current state of your company culture.

Leaders have the ability to unlock the talents and abilities in those they lead. By my definition, a smart leader is someone who unlocks the extraordinary potential in others. Many leaders can be naturally competitive, which is often the reason they were promoted to leadership in the first place. Unfortunately, an unbridled competitive nature can work against them in their effort to be effective leaders as they become combative when challenged by a dissenting opinion or threatened by an employee’s ability more heightened than their own. Instead of unlocking the potential in others these kind of leaders end up blocking it.

As leaders, we cannot effectively lead if we see the success of others as a challenge to our own success. We cannot be in competition with those who work for us. We must see ourselves as the cultivators of human potential. Whether business, church, school, or other organization, people are attracted to culture. People naturally want to be in a culture where they can grow, develop and succeed. They want a place where they can invest themselves both personally and professionally. When growth and development are hindered, people recognize and feel the void.

Make no mistake: thriving companies are a product of thriving cultures. Smart leaders are open to self-examination and value the process of self-discovery as necessary to success. Sometimes people know there is a problem, but just can’t pinpoint the disconnect or figure out how to verbalize what they are experiencing. The fact is, cultures reflect a set of values, whether spoken or unspoken. The prevailing values of a company are based in the precedent set by the leadership. Whatever disconnects you have in your culture are a result of those prevailing values.

Is a successful business tied to great leadership or a great culture? The answer is it is both. The values of your culture are driving your business and leadership is driving those values. The two ideas are inseparable, and smart leaders recognize and understand the connection. ■