Corporate Culture: All the rage, as it should be.

Recently, as I came across a short article called “Culture Vultures” in The World in 2020 edition of The Economist*, The article highlights the resurgence of the idea, in the corporate world, that an organization’s culture is a vital ingredient for success. Is this a surprise? Not to us, and not to most successful mission-driven organizations. Corporate America must have forgotten.

Of course, this idea is not new and, in fact, dates back to the 1980’s business classic, In Search of Excellence, still one of the few actually researched popular business books around. Successful mission-driven organizations haven’t because they generally don’t have the luxury of chasing the latest management fads. Culture is too close to mission to be forgotten.

The non-profit world has learned that regardless of your tax filing status, a business needs to run like a business. As I heard on CEO of a non-profit put it, “Regardless of what word you write-profit or surplus-the ink is still either red or black”. Even though the ‘currency’ of the organization is in the mission and not the money, the finances still have to be managed correctly and shrewdly. Likewise, for-profit providers of human and social services realize the importance of a sense of mission and of supporting their employees. At the center of each of these values is culture—a culture of integrity and responsibility, both financially and ethically.

The great news is that it’s a management flavor-of-the-month again, and there will be plenty of how-to books to choose from. In the meantime, here are a couple of basics to keep in mind.

An organization’s culture connects the group values (emerging from their unique social and psychological environment) to its behavior, operations, decision-making and outlook. These impact how the organization sees itself as well as how it acts.  Now, it’s easy to see where a positive, vibrant culture comes from. A positive culture arises from committed people with great leadership on a mission. All three of these components are necessary--committed people with a shared mission can miss the mark without solid leadership, while dynamic, well-meaning leadership, that without a clear mission, can look good going nowhere.

Culture is not easily ‘manufactured’. It emerges, and as it does, it is influenced by and then influences both mission and leadership. It’s all interconnected and so an organization’s culture magnifies virtue or functions as a lie-detector—if you don’t really mean it, your culture will eventually reflect that fact, both inside and out.

Finally, culture has to be nurtured over the long-term. It can’t be faked for very long. An organization’s culture, whether or not it is fully understood will eventually show itself, operationally and in decision-making, with great payoff or possibly dire consequences—any boss who denies or ignore this does so to their own detriment.

* The Economist. The World in 2020, November 21, 2019.