Being a leader in a post-complicit business world.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” — Peter Drucker
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. We in the business world love to quote that concept. If you haven’t heard it before, consider yourself warned. You won’t stop hearing it because it’s true.
What does it mean?
It means that if there are two companies with a similar product, similar price, in a similar market, the one that wins is the one with the better culture.
You see it playing out in more mature markets. Grocery chains, for example. Trader Joe’s has managed to create a corporate culture that keeps is employees in the game and its customers continually smiling. Southwest Airlines, too. As much as I hate them, it can’t be argued that culture isn’t a crucial part of their success.
In business, you learn over time that culture IS strategic, and those of my friends whose businesses have thrived over the years it’s clear that they are driven by a need to create “asshole-free” environments and are “values-driven” in everything they do.
Outside of the econometric world of MBA-talk, I like to think of culture this way:
Culture is what you take with you when you leave work at night and what you bring back with you in the morning.
If you are taking on unreasonable deadlines and midnight emails to prove you are still working, congratulations, you have taken home a Bad Business Culture. Why? Culture’s that are neither healthy nor sustainable will kill your morale in the long term. Companies suffer when their employees do.
If on the other hand your Company Culture encourages you to volunteer in the community and to introduce your colleagues to causes you love — what you take with you and what you bring back — congratulations, you are a part of a Good Business Culture. It says, you may be working a J.O.B. but your purpose in life is yours, and this company, the people in it are your allies in your awesomeness. We’re happy if you’re happy.
Happy people are productive people. So this isn’t all total new-age bullshit either. Study after study after study have proven the tangible real-world benefits of happy employees and strong work cultures.
However, I’m not here to quote the science. I’m here to confess.
I have remained silent on the #MeToo campaign. I felt like it was not my place to interject. On the one hand, I am a white male of privilege. This is my time to STFU and sit down. True. There’s so much to be learned by just shutting up and listening. And so I have.
I have learned a lot and I will say this, now, in light of my comments above about Culture in business:
A healthy Culture is one where its employees feel empowered to voice their concerns.
If Culture is what you take home with you at night, then I don’t think a viable work Culture allows you to feel unheard, disrespected and violated. If what you bring back in the morning should be your most ambitious self, nobody agrees that you — the you who has been debased — hydrates the best you.
Years ago, I was in a company that had a fantastic Culture. We in our well-funded dot-coms live up to the cliches readily. We have our catered lunch-and-learns, our drinks on the patio, our weekend bike trips and raucous holiday parties at the swankiest of hipster dives in the city.
To my surprise, at a company like this, it was the first time in my career I had a female colleague complain to me about sexism in the workplace. It was a simple complaint, told in private. She told me she was being treated unfairly in spite of her performance because she was a woman.
She felt comfortable confiding in me because we shared interested in books and art and I guess she thought I was equally woke when it came to social issues. Of course, I trusted her but at the time I thought she might be exaggerating.
I was not her equal. Not that day, and perhaps not even still. And for that, I regret not taking her claim more seriously.
I asked her, “What can I do?” She asked me to talk to the older men at the company. I rebuffed. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t really know what to say.” I could tell she was let down.
Months later she cycled out. She found a new job at a different company and though we have remained friends to this day I haven’t been able to apologize to her for not having her back. I regret that.
That company ended up a middling success. It had a fine Culture, but its shortcomings were significant enough that over time it had to relax on the throttle. The money ran out, and people weren’t there to save it when it did. We employees did as we tend to: we remained friends even though the company’s implosion resulted in our diaspora. And when we left the company we took a part of its Culture with us, each in our own way.
For me, I supposed, the lesson learned is that I was approachable, and that was a good thing. But I didn’t react the way I should have particularly in my role as an older white man. I should make it a point to trust my colleagues implicitly when they come to me for help. I may not have all the facts, and I may not know what to say, but I can at the very least and say, “I believe you and I will help .”
I have since apologized.