Article (April-2020)


Purpose, Passion, Culture : What you do is what you are

K.S. Ahluwalia

Designation : -   Executive Coach and Mentor

Organization : -  Excalibre, Noida


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Culture is the most important thing. Yet when asking the apex management - what exactly is culture and how can it affect mine, the response is vague, confused, un-substantiated and they are groping for words in the woods.

  • Is culture dogs at work and yoga in the break room? No, those are perks.
  • Is it your corporate values? No, those are aspirations.
  • Is it the personality and priorities of the CEO that helps shape the culture, yet it is far from the thing itself?

Most CEO's desire that their company's culture would be just be a reflection of their values - leading by example. Yet, astonishingly, this method did not scale as the company grew and diversified. Their culture became a hodge podge of different cultures fostered under different mangers, and interestingly, most of these cultures were unintentional.

Let's pause and ask ourselves - How many of the following questions can be resolved by tuning your corporate goals/mission statement :

  • Is that phone call so important that I need to return it today or can it wait till tomorrow morning?
  • Can I ask a raise before the annual appraisal?
  • Is the quality of this document good enough or should I keep working on it?
  • Do I have to be on time for that meeting?
  • Should I stay at a five star or can I check in a business hotel?
  • When I negotiate this contract, what's more important - price or relationship?
  • Should I point out what my peers do wrong, or what they do right?
  • Should I go home at 5 pm or 11 pm?
  • How hard do I need to study the competition?
  • Should we discuss the colour of this new product for 5 minutes or 30 minutes?
  • If I know something is badly broken in the company, should I say something? Whom should I tell?
  • Is winning more important than ethics?

The answer is zero because there are no right answers. The right answer for your company depends upon what your company is, what it does, and what it wants to be. In fact how your employees answers the above, is your culture- since your culture is how your company's makes decisions when you are not there. It's how they behave when no one is looking. If you dint methodically set your culture, then 2/3rd of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.

Identifying the culture you want is hard : you have to figure out not only where your company is trying to go, but the road it should take to get there. As a CEO, if you actually work hard when you are at work, you can efficiently get a lot done. He punches out early and encourages his employees to do the same. For example - at Apple generating the most brilliant designs in the world is paramount, to reinforce this message, Apple invested $ 5 billion on it sleek new head quarters.

On the other hand Jeff Becoz- Amazon is clear in his expression' your fat margins are my opportunity'. To affect it, he made the company be frugal in everything, down to his employees' $10 desks.

Both cultures work, while Apple designs dramatically more beautiful products than Amazon and Amazon's products are dramatically cheaper than Apple's.

Culture is not like a mission statement; you can't just set it up and have it forever. Military saying states this aptly - if you have seen something below standard, yet do nothing, and then you have set a new standard. Likewise if you see something off culture and ignore it, you have created a new culture. As business conditions shift and your strategy evolve, you have to keep changing your culture accordingly. The target is being always in motion.

Culture is a string force - in business, if you have a strong culture but a product nobody wants, you fail. So culture might appear to be weaker than the product. But if you observe intensely, deeply, over time, culture can overcome the seemingly invincible structural barriers of an era and transform the behaviours of entire industries and social systems.

Hip hop - started - a new art form, created  by a bunch of poor kids in 1970's , who overcame poverty, racism, and massive opposition from the music industry, and went on to build world's most popular music genre. They were instrumental in changing the global culture by inventing a culture premised on candour and a hustler's mentality. The freshest break beats, the ones people hadn't heard before were often found on obscure records, thus the record companies wouldn't stock them, if they suddenly sold out, creating a supply chain problem. Hip hop's entrepreneurial culture worked right around it.

Robert Noyce- Fairchild semi conductors CEO- created a tsunami by turning the business of semiconductors on its axis. Corporations in east coast - USA- adopted a feudal approach to organization, and were totally unaware about it. They were kings, lords, vassals, soldiers, yeomen and serfs. Bob Noyce with a clear sight identified that his individual engineers - the yeomen - were inventing products and driving his business. So he inserted a new, distinct, different thinking-, who so ever came first got the best parking slot, and the company's building was a warehouse filled with cubicles, and none wore a suit.

He emphasised that coaching, not direction, is the first quality of leadership, hence got away with the barriers and provided space to people to do things, they did well. This created a new culture, of empowerment; everyone thus was in charge, while Noyce was there to help. If a researcher had an idea, he could pursue it for a year, before anyone would start inquiring about results. He and his partner - Moore, oversaw business segments run by middle managers who had enormous decision making powers. In meetings, the leader set the agenda, yet everyone was equal. His belief - that in a business driven by research and products, the engineers would behave more like owners, if they actually owned the company.

At Intel - you don't wait for someone else to do it, you take the ball and run with it, isn't the preferred answer. Instead you take the ball yourself, deflate it, put it in your pocket, then take another ball and run with it, and when you have crossed the goal, you take the second ball out of your pocket, re-inflate it, and scored 12 points instead of 6.

Pause : Let's examine a culture of strict accountability that punishes failure- an extremely common culture back east, where executive strove to maintain their status, and failure needed to be avoided at all costs. Now consider an idea that has 90% chance of failing, yet would pay off 1000: 1.

Despite being an extraordinary good bet, the company that punishes failure will never fund it. Good ideas aren't truly innovative, while truly innovative ideas look like very bad ideas when introduced. Wikipedia was considered a joke, when it started. How could something written by a crowd replace the work of world's apex scholars? Yet today, it so much more comprehensive than anything that came before it, that now it's an encyclopaedia.

Intel culture, by elevating the individual and giving break through ideas a chance, inaugurated a better way to do business. Remember great engineers will only invest time; effort to do all those things, to build a product that will grow with the company only, if she has ownership in the company- literally as well as figuratively.

What makes culture work - A challenge cause finding answers to the following is an Everest of challenge :

  • How do you shape the culture?
  • How do you set it deep in peoples mind?
  • How do you fix it when it goes wrong?

Digging deep in the past to uncover the mystery of how people behaved differently from the expected lines, given the circumstances they were born into, I couldn't have expected that a man who exalted his father to effect a supreme sacrifice - by laying down his life - for upholding the dignity and freedom to practice ones faith fearlessly - faith that he didn't ascribed to. That was the very first case in the world of championing the cause of upholding, of human rights; that too, when he was mere nine years old.

Further, then he set free those who believed they were helpless, useless, were born to serve as slaves to the then establishment, into an army of dedicated, focussed, brave, courageous, humane soldiers, adorning a distinct identify, thought, deeds and actions, where he sewed the man of wisdom with the man of action. I pondered over what vision, action steps, direction and process he followed, that brought a quantum change in their individuality and their culture.

Let's examine one case study :

  • Why has there been only one successful slave revolt in human history. And how did Guru Gobind Singh- 10th Sikh master, re-program the existing culture to orchestrate it.
  • What was the code of conduct that enabled his Sikhs - to root out the mighty, invincible Mogul establishment of 400 + years in simply 43 years?
  • What set of cultural virtues empowered them. Sikh called their principles 'virtues' rather than values' because they believed that virtues are what you do while values are merely your beliefs. While success lies in doing rather than talking about it. Truth is high, yet higher is truthful living. How exactly did they focus their culture on actions?

How did he smash the helpless thinking, giving up attitude of despondent masses, who  believed, lived, that are destined to simply exist - meaningless life, sans dignity, freedom and  self worth.

  • How exactly was he able to create an innovative and inclusive meritocracy - one that enabled him to constantly grow, improve, while his foes were standing still?
  • How did he take a group of outcasts and commoners, and turn them into a cohesive team?
  • How did he recognize what he disliked about the present prevailing eco system and by changing himself, he transformed the entire culture?

Companies are just like armies, nations - are large organizations that rise or fall cause of the daily micro-behaviours of human beings that compose them. Most business books don't look at culture from a wider, more sociological perspective. And most attempts to dissect successful corporation' cultures after the companies have succeeded. This approach confuses cause and effect. There are plenty of massive successful companies with weak, inconsistent, or even toxic cultures; a desirable product can overcome a miserable environment, at least for a while- Enron, PWC, Ferguson and many more adorn this list.

Exemplary leaders like Guru Gobind Singh, saw culture and the tools, they devised, to shift it even under extremely difficult circumstances, when everything seemed to be conspiring against them. How did they design a culture whose elements all fit neatly together? Remember creating a culture is more complex than just trying to get your people to behave the way you want them to when no one is looking. Also your employees are far from uniform, since they belong to diverse ethnicities, cultures, genders, income, social/educational brackets, and even eras. To get them all of them to conform to and be reasonably happy with a common set of norms, is a challenging puzzle.

To get then to be who you want, you first need to view them for who they are. To kick start that you need to be aware of your own personality and your company's strategy and how to use that understanding to build the culture you need to succeed. Culture only works if the leader visibly participates in and vocally champions it. How do you want to become that kind of leader that you yourself want to follow?

Culture isn't a magical set of rules that makes everyone behave the way you'd like. It's a system of behaviours that you hope most people will follow, most of the time. No large organization ever gets anywhere near 100% compliance on every value, but some do much better than others, Our aim here is to be better, not perfect. A great culture does not get you a great company. If your product isn't superior or the market doesn't want it, your company will fail no matter how great your culture is.

People who work for you won't remember the press release of awards. They will lose track of the quarterly ups and downs. They might even grow hazy about the products. But they will never forget how it felt to work there, or the kind of people they became as a result. The company's character and ethos will be the one thing they carry with them. It is a  glue that holds them together when things go wrong, it will be their guide to the tiny, daily decisions, they make that add up to a sense of genuine purpose.

Culture's strengths may also be its weakness. And sometimes you have to break a core principle of your culture, for survival. Culture is crucial, but if the company fails because you insist on cultural purity, you are doing it wrong.

Fundamental question to any organization is - who are we? Seemingly easy it's difficult, cause when viewed in following situations :

  • What you are is how people talk about you when you are not around?
  • How do you treat your customers?
  • Are you there for people in a pinch?
  • Can you be trusted?

Who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It's not what you say at an all hands. It's not your marketing campaign. It's not even what you believe. It's not what you do. What you do is who you are. Hence we all need to do those things you need to do so that you are what you want to be.