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The compelling power of positive culture

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 28, 2011  |  1 Comment

People talk about culture all the time, its importance, the need to build the right one, how you best fit in it, how important leadership is to creating it. People talk about culture constantly as if it was broken, a work in progress, something that they have but always can be better. Its like they know what it should be like, but they have never lived in it.

It is rare to be in the presence of a positive and powerful culture, but when you are you really can see the compelling power of culture on an organization, its leadership and the individuals.

Last week I had the opportunity to experience just such a culture at Wal-Mart Information Systems Division (ISD) Year Beginning Meeting. Last week there were more than 4,000 IT professionals gathered to celebrate the past year’s accomplishments and get ready for the future. It was a tour de force of the positive power of culture.

Here is what I saw, felt and came away with from that meeting, which was truly something I will remember for a long time.

The first thing I noticed was diversity. There were people of every kind in the meeting from different background and located from around the world. That tells me that an effective culture is not around making people the same but bringing different people together for a shared reason.

Next came something that is hard to describe — a kind of happy confidence — as people recognized what they could do together as well as what they can do as individuals. It was not arrogance because it did not have that “I am better than you” tone to it. It also was not quiet; this group was anything but quiet. Rather it gave you the feeling that you were with a group of people who can and have done some amazing things.

The power of coordinated action is a visceral manifestation of culture. Hearing everyone applaud at the same time, respond at the same time reminds you that you are part of something that is big. As an outsider, that coordinated action can be imposing unless you consider that bringing many people together for a good reason should lead them to work together.

There was also a kind of inverse nature to powerful culture. While the culture is important and certainly as big as the group, maybe even bigger, it celebrated the team and the individual. Recognition was given to everyone, high performing teams and high performing individuals each of whom reflected their success on the team and not themselves. The reflection was honest and real, people know that in any organization what you can do by yourself is nothing to what you can do together.

Openness was perhaps the last thing that really struck me about a positive and compelling culture. The meeting included employees, contractors and partners giving everyone the opportunity to hear from leaders and participate. There was no “us vs. them” in the crowd. Which is odd because culture is often used to separate people, here it was an open tent inviting people in and asking them to join. It was a kind of we accept you and its up to you to accept us. You do not have to, we will not make you, you do not have to work here, but if you want to you will be part of something great.

Cynics and critics will say that a powerful culture coerces people, costs them their identify and drains creativity.  They may talk about the negative aspects of culture or past examples of powerful culture. However, I am talking about characteristics of a positive culture which can be difficult to understand much less explain

Fortunately, I grew up in a compelling and powerful culture so after a while you can see the difference between

  • Dogma and dedication,
  • Indoctrination and innovation, or
  • Coercion and collaboration,

Building such a culture takes time, persistence and leadership. However, once its established a company gains the power of shared values and understanding and the best of them gain flexibility and trust as well. Something to think about the next time someone brings up the word ‘culture.”

Category: leadership  management  personal-observation  

Tags: business-leadership  change-leadership  cio-leadership  culture  it-leadership  personal-observation  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The compelling power of positive culture

  1. Ken G. says:

    Nice observations and good insight. Kudos to Wal-Mart. Always thought of them as good culture and good IT. Now I know what sets them apart. Thanks for sharing.


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