Introduction | I entered through the two large glass doors and it immediately felt as if something important, rich, and all together fascinating was being created here. Plaques that denoted countless achievements donned trendy chrome shelves along the sleek entry way colored in vivid red and black paint. There were pictures of company leaders with local politicians and sports stars as well as group photos of employees engaged in various community service activities.
A colleague and I were meeting with an unnamed business (herein referred to as Business Z) for two days of negotiations regarding a teaming agreement that we were attempting to establish for a large defense contract. The administrative secretary was sprightly – greeting us with an energetic smile and can-do attitude that was striking for a Monday morning at 7:45am. We were escorted to a large conference room and along the way we saw teams of engineers using walls that doubled as white boards plotting flow charts and vigorously debating the logic of one tact versus another. As we were about to enter the conference room, I caught a glimpse of a lab in which four young female engineers were in white lab coats huddled around a microscope and deeply engaged in a science experiment. The place was alive with a sort of industrious energy and I felt my own sense of purpose and determination increase as we prepared for a difficult round of negotiations.
As the meetings began, we dove deeply into each of company’s respective service offerings and yearly performance – detailing our business unit’s performance as well as our broader corporation’s public disclosure to our investors. As we went through Business Z’s performance, they detailed their unit’s growth over the previous three years which included the acquisition of a small company with significant capability in the “cyber” domain. More to the point, they described a number of investments they had made in personnel and technical capability and how they had leveraged both to drive significant growth in their target markets. Over the next two days, we dove deeply into Business Z’s business line as part of our negotiations and it became clear that they had cultivated an environment in which employees were energetically engaged, their vision for growth was shared at all levels of the organization, accountability for results was paramount, and success was not an option but rather a hard, clearly defined expectation.
In retrospect, Business Z had created a culture of excellence. A culture that had a palpable, discernible buzz in which employees were passionately bound to the mission and emphatic about the day to day work that they carried out. Expectations were high based on a clear vision for success and because success had been earned through a rigorous, disciplined process that permeated all tentacles of the organization. Business Z was thriving – and based on my observations over those two days – would continue to thrive as a result of the culture that had been established across the corporation. I left our meetings longing for the indescribable secret sauce that Business Z had so successfully cultivated.
What is Culture & Why Does it Matter? | It turns out that s0-called secret sauce is what business experts refer to as “culture”. Michael Watkins wrote in the May 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review that culture is simply defined as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations”. Within this same article, Watkins quotes another scholar Richard Perrin describing culture as “the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization”. More or less, these culture definitions get at the basic nature of culture. And while many definitions of traditional business organizational culture exist in academic textbooks, I am more interested in an application agnostic concept of culture and the potential that a strong culture has to improve outcomes in business, education and the family structure.
I have witnessed first hand the profound effects that culture can have in creating corporate growth, near perfect high school graduation rates in one-time fledgling schools and generations of professional, highly successful families within certain ethnic groups. And the tie that bound all of them was a culture of consistent excellence. Culture like few other enablers, has the potential to transform businesses and the plight of individuals and families. Too often we focus on important yet low-impact elements that involve process, methodology or strategy and ignore the values, expectations and discipline that guide sound decision making and effective execution (and comprise culture).
In what may seem like a radical thesis, I believe resourcing major “culture interventions” in schools and communities is fundamental to changing the trajectory of economic growth in struggling communities. While this would entail a politically onerous paradigm shift involving some level of public education and social service delivery reform, the payoff would outweigh the obstacles and resistance. Candidly, I have not thought through the specific policy dimensions of such an intervention scheme. I will reserve these policy prescriptions for a later post. However, the anecdotal and academic data clearly show that the establishment of high performing cultures in business and communities breed continuous, multi-generational success and result in more resilient organizations/communities especially when accounting for variables that can be a drag on success such as downward business cycles, economic recessions, and family trauma.
Core Elements of Culture | For the sake of argument, let us first take a look at the key attributes that form the foundation of a successful culture.
- Values – A given culture must have a set of defined values that are clearly articulated and shared across an organization. These values must be painstakingly thought out and constantly refined to reflect the behaviors and actions that an entity hopes to incentivize.
- Expectations – Strong cultures always set high expectations for the desired objectives that they seek to accomplish. Expectations are backed up by a willingness of leaders to aggressively enforce them as members of an organization must know there are consequences – good and bad – for meeting or failing to meet stated objectives.
- Discipline – Successful cultures demonstrate an unusually high level of discipline. They adhere to established practices and values and have the ability to ignore distractions that may lure them away from the core mission. They understand the expectations that they must meet and they order their behaviors around the established objective, even when it is inconvenient and/or defies the cultural norms within their industry or community.
- Inspired Engagement – Cultures that stand out from the rest possess participants that believe deeply in the mission. And because they believe in the mission of the company or in the high school and the associated administration that oversees it, they work with a distinct passion to achieve the objectives that are expected of them.
- That Certain “Something” – All great cultures have a unique cocktail of values, personnel, leadership, and processes that when brought together create a distinct breed of excellence. At Cristo Rey High School, a Jesuit High School for low income families in inner-city Baltimore, it is the combination of the Jesuit teachings, educational foundation support, strong administration, and investment of parents in the success of their children. These elements have come together to result in a high school that sends nearly 98% of its students to college. A truly remarkable feat considering that all of its students come from households with less than $30,000 median household income.
Creating Cultures That Transform Businesses and Communities | In my introduction, I showed the way in which a highly engaged, well established culture of success can lead to sustained profitability. Indeed, the positive effect that culture has on business growth is fairly well established within contemporary business literature. More interesting and perhaps more important is the way in which the establishment of high performing cultures can lead to economic growth in distressed communities. An endeavor of the kind that I suggested earlier (“culture interventions”) would require that we define universal attributes of “high performing cultures”. It would leverage the best practices deployed at successful K-12 public and private schools. It would seek smart avenues to deploy culture doctrine within government. Most difficultly, it would require that we bridge political, racial, and ethnic divides to agree upon the values that constitute strong culture and determine the societal channels through which these elements of culture could be most efficiently deployed. This is a difficult, if not impossible task given the stark political chasms that currently mark this country.
3 Pragmatic Steps to Creating Policy Around Culture | Historically, attempting to affect “culture” has been viewed as a political hot potato. Attempting to change the cultural habits of a community can easily be framed as usurping long held cultural norms and imposing the values of the dominant culture (historically White Protestant in the United States). Some of these concerns are well founded. Attempting to change cultural elements that celebrate heritages of suffering, perseverance, or success in culturally unique ways (ex. the Alaskan Eskimo’s heritage of successful fishing in Alaska) may actually serve to alter these communities perceived identities. This is in no way the intent of “cultural intervention”. Instead, pragmatic and effective cultural interventions would focus on universal elements that cut across all ethnic and racial groups. The high performing cultural values would have nothing to do with cultural heritage and everything to do with character traits and habits that build an enduring “ethos of success” for all Americans.
- Identifying Community Specific Factors Within Core Elements of Culture – We established that values, expectations, discipline, inspired engagement and the wild card element of “special something” form the foundation of high performing cultures. If these traits are universal, the key to prudently identifying them in disparate racial and ethnic communities is to understand how they manifest themselves and how they can be effectively disseminated to communities within each racial and ethnic group (to the extent that racial/ethnic segmentation is necessary) For example, the habits that lead to the establishment of discipline in African American Communities may involve parental education while in Eastern European immigrant communities these traits are more effectively enshrined through early childhood education. Understanding the ways in which different communities develop the core elements of culture and how they can be circulated throughout each community is crucial.
- Universal Best Practices – There is a sub-set of habits and behaviors that lead to the core elements of culture described earlier. They can be found in business, education, and within our communities and should be shared in communities across the United States. For example, these may involve the way in which expectations are established within charter schools or the way in which inspired engagement is cultivated at innovative companies like Google. These should be catalogued and implemented within all communities.
- Identifying Effective Channels – How are the core elements of culture best disseminated? What are the channels within modern American society in which these habits/traits/values can be constructively distributed? Government entities such as schools and social services immediately come to mind. Interesting examples such as job training programs and parental support classes may warrant additional funding if we want these values to proliferate. The non-profit sector and NGOs would conceivably play a major role as well. Public schools, as the lynch-pin of the American upbringing, would obviously be important institutions where these values would be taught and integration of so-called “culture building” would be married with the traditional public education curriculum
In closing, the investment in and establishment of a high performing culture clearly leads to sustained economic performance. Moreover, anecdotal evidence within certain ethnic/racial communities whereby cultures of success are created over time, also clearly lead to multi-generational success.
A recent conversation with a close friend about the culture of success that had been created within the Jewish community in a suburb of Minneapolis served to harden my view on this topic. He noted the impressive ways in which high expectations and habit forming had led to nearly 100 years of extremely successful professional success within his small ethnic community. The question is how do we scale these core elements of successful culture amid obvious political challenges that would require us to agree upon a set of universal, “successful culture” values? While I cannot answer this question and will return to it in subsequent posts, I am more convinced than ever that the power of culture to drive meaningful change in businesses and communities is one of the most promising instruments that no one is talking about.