Is There a Cure When Cultures Get Sick? A Cautionary Tale for Company Leaders

Customer Value

When Cultures Get Sick
Measles, a disease once thought to be completely eradicated, is making a comeback. The flu vaccine was only 23% effective this year as long-identified strains continue to mutate. Hospitals breed superbugs and must continuously adapt to stop the spread of potentially fatal infections. Just as healthy people can be felled overnight by a new disease or drug-resistant bacteria, companies can sicken and even collapse if their culture is allowed to get seriously unhealthy.

Consider the historic demise of technology giant Nortel Networks. At its peak, the century-old enterprise was the largest company in Canada with sales of $30 billion and 100,000 employees worldwide. An innovative powerhouse that invented the digital switching capability of telephone networks, the company had a long history of creating new products, and, indeed, new markets. It had developed a leadership system that valued and rewarded both risk taking and value creation.

And then it caught something, and fairly suddenly the culture began to show symptoms of serious illness.

Create A Healthy Culture with Formalized Values

Culture U Light bulb

Is your workplace inspiring, engaging, and productive or frustrating, dull, and stagnant? Or is it somewhere in between?

Effective leaders pay attention to the quality of their work culture, every day. They know that culture drives everything that happens in their team or department or company, good or bad. They invest time and energy observing interactions, engaging with players and customers, celebrating aligned behavior, and coaching misaligned behavior.

Unfortunately most leaders don’t pay much attention to the quality and health of their team, department, or company culture.

They’ve never been asked to manage their team culture. They’ve been asked to manage results.

Not surprisingly, most leaders spend a great majority of their time and energy on processes, performance, and profits. That’s all they know. That’s what their bosses did. They’re simply modeling what they’ve been exposed to over the years.

Most leaders haven’t experienced a successful culture change during their careers. Even fewer have led a successful culture change.

This wouldn’t be a problem if most organizational cultures were healthy, engaging, and inspiring. But, according to the research – and to our own experiences, they’re not.

Toward a Trust Culture

Culture U Abe Lincoln

Imagine this
Imagine walking into your leadership team meeting wondering whether the same old politics was going to play out. Would the same people work their own private agendas, again? Would the same people be silent and watch it happen? Would everyone just be nice and kind and not honest, and let the meeting pass without ever addressing the elephant in the room?

Imagine further that the distrust issues were so deep seated that you begin to wonder if this team would ever be able to be high performance.  We know fear, silo-based work, conflict avoidance, a lack of confidentiality, and a lack of accountability play havoc with an organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, quality, and bottom line. Now imagine the impact that all of this has on the workforce.

Goodbye Mission Statement. Hello Manifesto.

Manifesto

Is there a difference between mission statements and manifestos? Yes and no. Their intentions may be the same but that’s where the similarity ends. In practice, the outcomes of mission statements and manifestos are miles apart. Though manifestos and missions are crafted to bring people together behind a cause, manifesto’s have a much better track record of igniting action. The best are so emotionally charged that their catalytic influence can endure for centuries. Such was the case for the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence. As recently as fifty years ago, an emotional speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial established a clear and convincing purpose for American Civil Rights. ‘I Have a Dream’ is arguably the most inspiring manifesto of our time.

Mergers can be successful when culture is properly addressed

Culture U - Bruce Lee - MASTER File_2_25_15

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part post by Larry Senn. Part one was posted on Feb. 23rd.

Successful mergers and acquisitions must be based primarily on strategic, financial and other objective criteria, but leaders should not lose sight of understanding and heading off the potential clash of cultures that can lead to financial failure. Far too often, cultural and leadership style differences are not considered seriously enough or systematically addressed.

A great deal of evidence indicates that the ultimate success of mergers and the amount of time it takes to get them on track is determined by how well the cultural aspects of the transition are managed. Yet executives generally spend quite a bit less of their time focused on this than other aspects of the deal.