Finding Strength in Your Competitor’s Weakness
One reason organizational culture does not make many leaders’ priority list is that it is hard to define. It’s squishy. It’s complex. Sometimes it’s even contradictory. Different employees will experience your culture differently, and even describe it differently. With all the other challenges your business faces, I can see why culture takes a back seat.
And that is a huge, huge mistake.
Culture may be complex and a bit messy, but that is precisely what gives it tremendous power. And I don’t mean the power to be one of the “cool kids” and have a smartly designed culture slide deck that goes viral. I mean power as in performance. Results. Profits.
In today’s economy, having the best product or making the perfect strategic move doesn’t buy you much time at the top. The competition, just like everything else in today’s world, moves faster than it used to, so that competitive advantage you just secured will very quickly deteriorate. As Rita Gunther McGrath wrote in Harvard Business Review, the landscape has shifted from looking for that long-term, sustainable competitive advantage to managing more of a portfolio of ”transient advantages,” moving from one short-lived advantage to the next.
what your company values drives behavior and attention
Sounds hard, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. But this is where culture comes in. A cultural advantage over your competitors has huge power. Culture is not about company brochures, posters on the wall, foosball tables, or vacation policies. Culture is the collection of words, actions, thought, and “stuff” that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values. And what your company values drives behavior and attention, so it is a huge lever for driving the success of the enterprise.
It’s that simple. But not necessarily easy.
The key word in that definition is values. Culture is ultimately about what is valued. That can include flowery “values statements” if you like, but those statements aren’t where the power lies. Enron had nice statements in their lobby about things like integrity and honesty, but that wasn’t really valued, now was it? It turns out making numbers look good at all costs was valued, so that’s what people did. And what your company values drives behavior and attention, so it is a huge lever for driving the success of the enterprise.
So you need to get clear on what’s valued in your organization, and it must be the reality version, rather than the brochure version. As the definition above indicates, you will reinforce it through a mixture of words, actions, assumptions and “stuff” (tangible things like office layout, dress code, etc.), but it starts with clarity about what is valued and what drives success.
I can’t tell you what that is for your organization. You will have to figure it out for yourself. But I am going to point you in a specific direction.
If you want a powerful culture, make sure it taps into what makes us human.
When I work with organizations on their culture, I ask them to assess their organization along four continuums:
There is not one right answer here. Organizations are allowed to place themselves along different points on the continuums. All eight words above are good and appropriate at the right times. But based on both the research and the subsequent application of the ideas in my book, Humanize, I have learned there is power in moving towards the left side of the continuums: towards decentralized, transparent, together, and learning. These elements have been traditionally undervalued in our organizations, and they are precisely the elements that tap into the power of what it means to be human.
And you know those successful companies that get lots of attention for their strong and powerful cultures? They’ve figured this out too. Zappos gets attention for delivering “happiness,” but they do that by being decentralized and letting customer service reps make their own decisions about how much time to spend on calls and when to give customers upgrades. Netflix got some attention for its cultural emphasis on high performance (if you perform adequately, apparently, that earns you a “generous severance package”), but they connect it clearly to a cultural principle around freedom and responsibility, which also moves in the direction of decentralization.
Think about your culture and how effectively it taps into what makes us human. Don’t just copy the cool kids, and don’t just blindly adopt decentralization. But when you connect what makes us human with specific factors that drive the success of your company, you will be creating a competitive advantage that is both powerful and sustainable.
The economy is driving this. Demographic changes are driving this. But the bottom line is that human-centric culture is growing in importance as a competitive advantage factor. Ignore it at your peril.
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