Wise leaders know that the most important question they can ask is, “What don’t I know that I need to know?”
This applies to every aspect of their organization from serving their customers to surveying the competition to staying on top of new technologies. Great leaders are always proactively learning about their world and taking action to succeed in that world.
However, there is one huge, glaring exception to this. There are many senior leaders, especially CEOs, who don’t understand and don’t want to know the real culture that is thriving in their organization.
They confidently believe, without any hard data, that they magically know their organization’s real assumptions, beliefs, values, behaviors and practices. Unfortunately for them, research shows that senior executives consistently have an idealized and distorted view of their organization’s real culture.
Leaders piously state that culture is important, even critical to executing strategy and meeting business goals. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” has become a truism.
But really understanding and developing culture often seems to fall to the bottom of the priority list. I have often heard senior leaders say something like: “We’ll take care of culture after we do strategy or the marketing plan or the technology upgrades or paving the parking lot.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to complex information, there are two types of leaders: those who want to know what is really going on and those who would rather not know and hope for the best.
Leaders who want to know conduct regular assessments of their cultures, make themselves open to feedback from throughout the organization and have on-going contact with all levels of employees. Most importantly they take action to mold their organization’s culture to support the strategy and business goals. Culture change is seen as a key responsibility of senior leadership and is owned by the CEO.
What about the leaders who put off culture assessment or dismiss the need to grasp the reality of their culture?
Perhaps culture is too complex. Culture is the all-pervading but amorphous character of an organization. Culture is complicated and it involves people. This complexity can seem overwhelming and complexity is the enemy of execution.
Often when confronted with an overwhelming issue, a common human tendency is to freeze and not do anything.
This often shows up as a variation on the notion of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Fortunately, culture can be measured and quantified.
A well-designed, reliable and tested assessment that covers the entire organization can provide significant insights into the organization. These results can be quantified and matched against desired organizational outcomes. Culture is no longer something cloudy and based on impressions.
One CEO said that it is like the panel of tests in his annual physical. He and his doctor don’t have to try to guess what that weird pain in his side is since there are tests that provide insights and data that can be interpreted by an expert.
Knowing the reality of culture directly determines the successful implementation of any strategy. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” means that no strategy, no matter how brilliantly conceived, will thrive in an organization that isn’t supportive.
Rarely, do organizations include culture assessment in pre-strategy analysis. I’ve often heard comments like, “They will come around and do things the new way or else.” Unfortunately, too often, the “or else” is the ultimate abandonment of the strategy.
To fully understand an organization’s culture, a culture assessment should meet three key criteria:
- It should identify those aspects of culture that are relevant to your business and strategic goals. Off-the-shelf, generic assessments may not identify what’s needed for the strategy as they typically compare to a “one-size fits all ideal culture”
- It should measure culture, not just attitudes or levels of employee satisfaction. Culture includes not just behaviors and practices but also the underlying assumptions and beliefs living in the organization
- It should be descriptive, not prescriptive; the assessment should describe the culture that exists, not what it should be. Ultimately culture should be aligned with a specific strategic direction, not a generic ideal
Bottom line: not knowing the reality of your culture does not allow you to shape the organization you need to execute your strategy.
To discuss how to know the truth about your culture and where to begin, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary Culture Strategy Session.