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Does Culture Drive Behavior?

Step back and look at any organization – what you will see is the manifestation of its culture. By culture we mean values, themes, behaviors, passions, expressions, and acti­ons that take place inside a group ~ in this case, a company. Culture gets established by a combination of 1) how the company was built, 2) its history and evolution, and 3) the leadership being provided inside that company. People inside the company operate consistent with whatever culture has been established or set.

The leader’s job is to create a culture that serves the needs of the stakeholders ~ its people inside and outside the company, meaning employees, customers, and suppliers. Whether or not these themes and values are overtly clear to the people in the organization will dictate the extent to which the people themselves operate consistent with the culture. Obviously, it’s most effective when those values and behaviors are made public and clear to the people in the organization. We have found that the best way to do this is to have those values in writing, made public, and talked about regularly. Several of our clients have done a splendid job of doing this and, in one company in particular, it’s pretty hard to walk down a hallway and not see the values of the company posted for all to see. Our experience of companies that do this well is that the employees are keenly aware of these values and are more likely to operate consistent with them when they are vividly displayed. One of our clients has their values up on the walls about every 15 feet.

There are some recent examples of companies who went off course because the values of the company were not patently clear to the management and employees. One such example is Wells Fargo Bank, which is an institution that built its reputation on integrity, trust, and financial prudence. That translates to “you can trust our company with your money.” However, recently people in the company lost the plot and the company began managing growth and new customer acquisitions “at any cost.” They began to favor and incentivize gaining new customer accounts over being trusted custodians of their customer’s finances. The compensation system began to reward people making the “numbers” vs. people providing excellent service and financial prudence. Consequently, the employees began inventing fraudulent “new accounts” using established customers’ finances without those customers knowing or giving permission to use their information to do so. This unethical behavior was completely inconsistent with what Wells Fargo has stood for over 100 years now.

How could this possibly happen? It happened because integrity got replaced inside the cutlure by greed. The culture had become corrupted. The leadership began leading for near term gains and abandoned the timeless vales that made their company successful for decades. When all of this was discovered and came to the surface, Wells Fargo lost the confidence and trust of the public and they are now hard at work trying to rebuild that trust and reformulate a culture that seemingly got destroyed in a relatively short period of time. Now they’re investing millions of dollars to market contrite apologies and begging for another chance to prove themselves.

Another example of a culture going off course is Facebook. Facebook made its mark as it was originally designed to serve people by connecting them and providing a platform where people could share their most personal details, family events, special occasions, and connect with old friends and lost relatives. It fulfilled that purpose for many years, delivering unimaginable growth for well over a decade. However, the people at Facebook saw opportunity to take this information – people’s personal information, details, behaviors, and habits – and use that information to exploit those who trusted Facebook to deal with that information ethically. It began to package and sell this data so that companies could target markets and, as we now know, even influence peoples’ thinking about social and political issues. People literally began being co-opted (brainwashed) by sinister campaigns that would post fabricated stories and information to sway peoples’ thinking or to incite consternation.

Again, how could this happen? Sadly, the answer is once again greed. The culture became corrupted. Facebook saw the opportunity to exploit its customers and took it. Why? Because the values set at Facebook were focused on growth and expansion, not on being custodians of peoples’ personal information.

In both cases what happened was a failure in managing the culture. I give both companies the benefit of the doubt that they once had noble, admirable, and ethical intentions, but those things were not translated over time into the culture by leadership. The leadership failed to do its job to: 1) set the vision, 2) have a strategic plan, and 3) get people excited about it and get them on board. As we all know, in both cases when it went off the track it did enormous damage to each company. When the values of a company are made clear, public, are talked about and validated, it is our experience that the people in the company line up around those values and behave consistently with them. When they are not clear, people are left to do whatever else they might do because there’s nothing guiding the course and, therefore, behavior. The key is to have the leaderhsip set the values of the company once they really believe it and stand for it. Make those values clear and public (displayed vividly), roll them out to the employees, and keep revisiting and reinforcing them in order to validate them. Our experience is that when this happens, companies stay the course. They live and breathe the values. And when that is not the case, it sticks out like a sore thumb. In short, culture drives behavior.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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What Stops People from Being Extraordinary?

Most people don’t think about what it takes to be extraordinary; they consider themselves normal, which translates to “ordinary.” Who doesn’t want to be normal? Interestingly, many people struggle with the notion of living up to their potential. If asked, most would likely say they have not lived up to their potential. It’s what you envision for yourself in the future to accomplish and to be. What if one’s potential is to be “extraordinary,” as in being an extraordinary human being? Can we accomplish that kind of living our lives, or are we so engrained in notions about ourselves and self-imposed restrictions that it gets in our way of success?

Perhaps “extraordinary” is limited by what we see is possible and what we think we’re actually capable of doing. If we can see that something is doable, that it is indeed possible, and that we are capable ~ it’s considered potential for most people. It might also be fair to say we can never achieve our potential, because the moment we do we’d see yet another level to strive for. Like the horse-drawn cart in an old movie with someone holding a carrot dangling out in front of a horse to keep the horse moving towards the carrot ~ there’s more to achieve. Part of what keeps people from aspiring to be extraordinary is that our culture values fitting in and going with the flow. We are drawn to being complacent, stagnant, and risk-adverse. If we see what’s possible as unreachable, then potential could be considered unreachable; it’s just beyond our reach. Most people have limiting, conditioned beliefs that restrict their reach. We’ve listened to and bought into notions and ideas about ourselves that are, in many cases, unexamined.

I know someone working in the fashion industry who I consider to be very bright, talented, and capable. With the amount of talent this person has, there is no apparent reason they shouldn’t do extremely well in their field. Yet they work in a job with a role that is probably a couple levels down from what they are capable of. On several occasions, they’ve requested my coaching and I’ve encouraged this person to break out and create their own clothing line. They are really that talented, but they won’t do that. Their responses are, “I’m simply not ready,” “I don’t want to,” and “I’m not there yet.” At the same time, this person complains about being undervalued, underutilized, underappreciated, and underpaid. They never have enough money. And this has been a long-existing conversation – clearly, they don’t see in themselves what I see in them. For this person to accomplish the extraordinary, they would have to give up their dearly held convictions about their limits and they would have to stop playing small – for most people that’s just too frightening.

Why don’t we reach for what we consider extraordinary? Why don’t we strive for and reach our potential? The simple answer to why we don’t strive for our potential or for extraordinary is because “it’s too dangerous.” It’s dangerous to step all the way up and all the way out there, only to possibly fail. And if we don’t step up, then we’re not responsible on many levels – we stay safe from exposure emotionally, psychologically, and financially. Additionally, we avoid the risk of failing. If you talk to most people, they’ll have a well-constructed illusion that allows them to blame the circumstances for their level of achievement. When we attempt to go outside of our beliefs, our constraints, we enter that dangerous territory. It becomes dangerous when we are exposed, leaving us nowhere to hide and with no one to blame. It becomes very uncomfortable. Life is not designed for our success or for our comfort.

To reach our potential, to be extraordinary, will likely mean being uncomfortable. If we don’t challenge our potential, our own being extraordinary, like Brando’s character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”, we may be left with the illusion that “I coulda been a contenduh.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Sometimes It’s Best to Just “Zip Your Lip”

At a very early point in my career as a business consultant it became clear to me that what we really do in organizations is talk, or have conversations. I discovered in practical, everyday situations that what’s really at the heart and soul of an organization is “a set of conversations.” Said another way, what is happening all the time in an organization is that conversations are taking place at every level and with everybody. For example, executives talking to the Board, managers talking to employees, employees talking to customers, suppliers talking to buyers. Both the quality of these conversations and which conversations are taking place largely determines the commitments of an organization, and therefore its results. These conversations are what drives thinking, strategy, and decision-making.

In a very real way one could say that you are paid to have conversations. Since the quality of these conversations is what determines the actions to be taken, it makes sense to conclude that the higher the level of a conversation, the more value will get added to the business. For instance, if we’re “just chatting,” we will not likely be having conversations that make any change or contribution to the organization. If we are having conversations about what our business is up to, we will have an entirely different level of conversation ~ one that potentially adds value. Conversations take place prior to the initiation of action. Whether the company moves forward on a capital investment is a function of the conversation that took place right before that decision was made; whether to staff up or staff down is proceeded by a conversation; whether or not a company competes in certain markets is the result of conversations. 

Obviously in any conversation there are two main components ~ a speaker and a listener. There’s what’s being said by one or more people and what’s being heard by one or more people. Typically, most organizational cultures favor avoiding confronting difficult conversations. Consequently, I am a big fan of people speaking up ~ getting things on the table to be addressed and not ignoring the “elephant in the room.” Throughout my career I have encouraged people to do exactly that: speak up, say exactly what’s on your mind, and get those issues addressed. Getting things on the table allows for issues and concerns to be dealt with in an open manner. When people are open and are willing to talk about the issues, including critical or difficult ones, better decisions get made and more effective actions take place. This kind of open communication breeds success in organizations. 

However, there are some conversations that are not productive and do not move things forward. Saying what’s on your mind is not always the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases you would be better off not saying what’s on your mind because it is not going to move things forward and serves to do exactly the opposite by shutting down the conversation. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. When this is the case I suggest that we “zip our lips” and instead take a deep breath, let the cosmic energy flow through you, “grasshopper”, because what you’re about to say is only going to cause problems for you and everyone else. Therefore, in those situations the best course of action is to say nothing. The adage holds true, “silence is golden”. For example, let’s say you have a negative attitude from past experiences with the IT department in your company. There’s a discussion in the room about turning something over to IT; here’s your chance to take your well-deserved dig at IT one more time so that you can be right again with “I hope we don’t run into the typical problem we always have with IT.” Nope ~ zip it. The comment will make no difference and it will only do damage in the relationship, which is not what you need right now. Instead of building trust, it will destroy it.

What I’ve observed over the years while working in many organizations is that these conversations – which I’ll call “conversations for no possibility” – are usually had by certain people who I consider the “naysayers.” These are the “glass half empty” folks who look at the situation from what’s wrong with it while focusing on the flaws. Such people and such conversations serve to slow progress down or stop progress altogether. So many times I’ve seen these naysayers raise their hands right when we’re about to make an important decision and lob in a non-sequitur. It’s usually in the form of a question that sounds something like this: “Do we know what business we’re really in?” or “We tried this before unsuccessfully. What makes us think we can do it this time?” Full stop. Once they do this you can watch what happens to the conversation right there in the room. What was just before a focused, positive conversation steadily advancing the ball is now completely thrown off track by this “psychic bong hit” that just got blurted out and throws it into a whole other gear. It creates a kind of dizziness in the room. My assessment is that, though these people consider themselves fundamentally committed to making a difference, instead of their contribution serving to forward the action, it derails it and sends it off in a different direction which is almost always non-productive. The other people in the conversation are left with questions and doubts about what the naysayer is out to produce.

Considering the opportunity to choose the conversations we have, my coaching is that perhaps it would be best to consider what you are about to put into the conversation and ask yourself, “Is this going to forward the conversation or is it going to derail the conversation?” And if it’s the latter maybe it would be best if it didn’t get added. Another way to say that is “zip your lip.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com