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Culture is a system of behaviours that you hope most people will follow, most of the time. No large organization ever gets anywhere near 100 percent compliance on every value, but some do much better than others. It’s actually a minor miracle if a culture isn’t dysfunctional. Our aim here is to be better, not perfect.
Culture is not like a mission statement; you can’t just set it up and have it last forever.
There’s a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard. This is also true of culture. If you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture. Meanwhile, as business conditions shift and your strategy evolves, you have to keep changing your culture accordingly. The target is always moving. Culture isn’t a magical set of rules that makes everyone behave the way you’d like.
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. Remember that your employees are far from uniform. They come from different countries, races, genders, backgrounds, even eras. Each one brings to your organization a different cultural point of departure. To get all of them to conform to and be reasonably happy with a common set of norms is a challenging puzzle.
Culture clearly has a powerful effect. So how do you shape it, how do you set it deep in people’s minds, and how do you fix it when it goes wrong?
The right answer for your company depends on what your company is, what it does, and what it wants to be. Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.
Culture is a consequence of actions rather than beliefs, so it almost never ends up exactly the way you intend it. This is why it’s not a “set and forget it” endeavour. You must constantly examine and reshape your culture or it won’t be your culture at all.
Here are the rules for writing a rule so powerful it sets the culture for many years:
The Bushido code enabled the Samurai to rule Japan from 1186 until 1868—nearly seven hundred years—and their beliefs endured long after their reign.
Bushido looks like a set of principles, but it’s really a set of practices. It is a code of action, a system not of values but of virtues. A value is merely a belief, but virtue is a belief that you actively pursue or embody.
The reason so many efforts to establish “corporate values” are basically worthless is that they emphasize beliefs instead of actions. What you believe means nearly nothing. What you do is who you are.
The Samurai code rested on these eight virtues: rectitude (or justice), courage, honour, loyalty, benevolence, politeness, self-control, and veracity (or sincerity).
Each virtue was carefully defined and then reinforced through a set of principles, practices, and stories. They all worked together as a system, balancing one another in a way that made it very difficult for any individual virtue to be misunderstood or misused. The Samurai required everyone to study the code, commit it to memory and live it every day.
Your view or your executive team’s view of your culture is rarely what your employees experience. The relevant question is, what must employees do to survive and succeed in your organization?
If you’re a leader, how do you know what your culture is? The best way to understand your culture is not through what your managers tell you, but through how new employees behave. What behaviours do they perceive will help them fit in and get ahead? That’s your company’s culture.
Genghis created a remarkably stable culture by founding it on three principles:
Meritocracy: Genghis abolished inherited aristocratic titles and eliminated the steppe tribes caste hierarchy. All men were equal.
Loyalty: Genghis viewed loyalty as a bilateral relationship that gave him significant responsibilities.
Inclusion: Rather than treating conquered aristocratic leaders with special care and enslaving the rank and file, he executed the aristocrats and incorporated the soldiers into his army.
The first step in getting the culture you want is knowing what you want.
With seemingly infinite possibilities to choose from, how do you design a culture that gives your organization the advantages it needs, creates an environment you are proud of, and most importantly, one that can actually be implemented.
All cultures are aspirational. No company ever achieved total cultural compliance or harmony.
While you can draw inspiration from other cultures, don’t try to adopt another organization’s ways. For your culture to be vibrant and sustainable, it must come from the blood, from the soul. You cannot just copy and paste a culture you like.
Culture begins with deciding what you value most. Then you must help everyone in your organization practice behaviours that reflect those virtues.
If the virtues prove ambitious or just plain counterproductive, you have to change them.
When your culture turns out to lack crucial elements, you have to add them.
Finally, you have to pay close attention to your people’s behaviour, but even closer attention to your own. How is it affecting your culture? Are you being the person you want to be? That is what it means to create a great culture.
That is also what it means to be a leader.
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