Just got off the phone with a great client and as usual when I talk with great clients I realized something that I should always have known. The problem with a hierarchy, when it comes to culture change, is that we somehow think the people down in the lower levels of the org chart “aren’t us”. By that I mean we start unconsciously thinking about them as if they were children we can train to behave better. This thinking flaw is very subtle and the only reason I caught on to it was that as I listened to my client I found myself unintentionally thinking along those lines.
It’s been years since I’ve really devled into the subject of how to change a culture, from a analytical perspective and it’s probably time to add up all the bits and pieces I keep learning. Carol Rozwell (see Carol’s blog here) has taught me the role and value of storytelling and of working the social network. Helping organizations become more agile has taught me some harsh lessons about the role of the carrot and the stick (all carrot and no stick is simply a waste of time and energy). 30 years of working with C-level staff has taught me the important lesson that all culture change is a two sided transaction. If management wants me to change then they need to hold up their end of the bargain (which is always interesting since in my experience management rarely even acknowledges they have an end to the bargain). That “do what I say — not what I do” probably doesn’t work any better in corporations than it does in raising children. And the final single most important element I’ve learned after way, way too many years of being a manager (and my thanks to everyone who has ever agreed to work for me in teaching me this lesson) “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can not hear what you say.”
It’s not about messaging. It’s not about metrics and it absolutely is NOT ABOUT PROCESS. It’s about modeling desired behavoir. I got lucky somewhere along the line. I’ve never been smart enough to be anything except hopelessly transparent. Even if I’m smart enough to keep my mouth shut occassionally — I still think my opinions so loudly everyone hears me anyway. The disadvantage of this trait is obvious BUT the advantage is that I suffer less from having discognizant mental models than others might. In my world there is only one set of rules and I get to live by them just like everyone else. With this personality failing, people who work for me have always known where they stood and exactly what types of behavior would get them shown to the door. Occassionally, there would be some honest miscommunications (“if you ever use your knowledge of what someone else in the company makes to justify your own raise again you will be terminated on the spot”) but they were truly few and far between. This isn’t to imply I was the worlds best manager (a truly laughable proposition) but only that I instinctively stumbled on the recipe for creating a culture of high performing teams.
To quote someone who worked for me early on in my career. “I know what’s important to her, and she works so hard to make it happen, it’s not a lot of skin off my nose to help her accomplish what she’s trying to do.” I knew then that I had been handed a pearl of great price (and John, where ever you are, thank you) . I’m not sure how much sense this will make to anyone reading it. I’ve always believed that by sharing unvarnished realizations — even if they are somewhat rough and ill formed — it’s possible to trigger a similar line of thought in others interested in the same subject. Lot’s more to explore here but I’m interested in hearing from others as to whether or not they agree or what your experience has bee in building a high performance culture.