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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker

PG_bwI’ve been thinking a lot recently about workplace culture. In fact it’s been the leitmotif recurring in all our projects since SoolNua launched 6 months ago, back in January. The entry point for these projects may have been strategic direction or product development or digital marketing but, in all cases, Patrick and I quickly found ourselves asking questions about and around the culture of the company or the association that we were working with. We found it impossible to provide meaningful advice or compelling input to any of our customers without addressing culture and all that that implies. We wondered whether this was just us until we found Peter Drucker’s powerful statement: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Health Care in Ireland

I was powerfully reminded once again of the truth of Drucker’s dictum when I accompanied my sister who had a nasty leg fracture to her hospital visit recently. I cannot think of any organization or system that has been subjected to as many strategic and procedural reviews as the hospital system in Ireland and yet it remains as broken as my sister’s tibia. And it’s not just the endless waiting – we arrived for an appointment at 11 and eventually saw the consultant just after 2pm. It’s the startling lack of a coherent, over-arching ethos and belief system to which everyone subscribes. Our hospitals try to “deliver” care as if it were a commodity so compassion and care – the raison d’etre of the nuns and religious who ran the health care system in Ireland for so long – have been replaced by “health and safety”. Culture has been usurped by process.

What is Culture?

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 08.22.40But what is culture in an organization, association, small or large business? While there’s a plethora of widely available definitions I’m inclined to quote Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the US. In his famous 1964 judgment on whether the Louis Malle movie The Lovers was pornographic he said:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Thus culture is something that is paradoxically visible yet intangible. You can “see” it but you can’t hold it in your hands. It’s a way of living and behaving that’s learned and internalized by watching how others live and behave. It’s passed on from person to person and cannot be captured in SLAs or SOPs or any other three letter acronym! It’s why Ritz Carlton – one of the more culture led organisations within our industry – sends its legacy management teams to open new properties and leaves them in situ until all new hires – Ladies and Gentlemen in Ritz Carlton-speak – are deemed to have absorbed the core values of the organization.

Wharton Study

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 08.23.57Earlier this week Melissa Van Dyke, Executive Director at the Incentive Research Foundation tweeted an article from Wharton about a recent study into workplace culture conducted by Professors Sigal Barsade and Mandy O’Neill. Entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in the Long-Term Care Setting,” the study concludes definitively that a culture of “companionate love” is not only good for morale, it’s good for business. The authors define “companionate love” with the following simple image:

 … when colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues. They are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well. And they also show affection and caring — and that can be about bringing somebody a cup of coffee when you go get your own, or just listening when a co-worker needs to talk.

There’s nothing particularly striking or unusual about this and most people would probably agree that putting people first is the right way to live. Yet workplace cultures that embrace this “people first” approach, according to the Wharton study, have lower levels of absenteeism and employee burnout and “higher levels of employee engagement via greater teamwork and employee satisfaction”. The positives radiated outwards too and impacted hugely on patient care in a healthcare facility

Chester Elton

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 08.15.28Workplace culture was also on the agenda at last week’s Finance and Insurance Conference Planners Summer Education Forum in New Orleans. Co-Author of All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results and The Carrot Principle Chester Elton treated us to a highly entertaining, engaging and choreographed presentation on how workplace culture is, ultimately, the final differentiator. Competitors can outdo you in speed, quality and price but they cannot copy your culture.

Elton quoted a nice example of culture in action from our own industry. A group of recent graduates was partying at Hard Rock Café when “Love Shack” by the B52s came on the PA. The rhythm and groove were irresistible to one party boy and soon he was inspired to showcase his moves on the bar counter. Instead of calling security the wait staff all gathered around, whooping and hollering and adding to the celebratory atmosphere.

Elton reminded us that if we don’t create and proactively foster a culture in our organisations then a culture will create itself. When this happens its much more likely to be a toxic culture of disaffection, dissatisfaction and dissidence. And this kind of culture will certainly eat your strategy and just about anything else you’ve got.

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy and digital marketing agency working in the the MICE sector.






10 thoughts on “It’s the culture, stupid!

  1. Martin Lewis says:

    Your blog is thought-provoking – the question is: are we in control of the culture that exists? And is it the one that we want? And can you change it without changing the personnel? I am generally happy with the culture at CAT Publications – we have motivated, hard-working and results-driven people who understand and buy into our focus on customer care. We have a quarterly staff review process, a peer recognition/reward programme that encourages good staff relations and mutual support and a profit share scheme in addition to commissions and bonuses (including an annual loyalty bonus for all staff who stay more than 5 years that we pay every June). The result is that this month’s 5-year bonus will be paid to 16 of our 27 employees and eight of them have been with us more than 10 years. Is that the measurement? I don’t know. I think the thing that impresses me most is the ownership they take of our activities, products and services but that’s hard to measure. But thanks for making me think about this issue again!

    1. padraicino says:

      Martin – thanks for the comments. Delighted that the post provoked some questions. I guess I’m only beginning to understand now, 20 years later, the awesome power of a workplace culture and my own regrettable underestimation of this. I think we are in control of the culture that exists in our organisations if and when there’s coherency between what we say and what we do – if we’re walking the talk then we’re living the culture and then it sticks. Culture, like values, is caught, not taught!

  2. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Oh my dear Padraic, your tweet, that I would have “strong opinions” on this, was well-placed. The tweet made me laugh; your provocation to have me read this and respond made me think and reflect. And Martin? I am so pleased you began your comments with questions: I am going to take an intensive course this fall to become a CQO or Chief Question Officer.* My goal is to take issues such as this to clients to help them question their culture as they develop education and learning delivery systems.

    But I digress ..

    Let me add to the questions which will provide insight into my “strong feelings” which result from years of experience working in-house, observation of clients’ cultures, of cultures of organizations to which I belong, etc.:
    – Is culture ‘set’ from the founding of the organization? If so, if the founders leave – individually or take many with them – will the culture that was there fall apart or continue?
    – In either case, what will ensure what those who remain want the culture to be?
    – In what ways can the _stated_ culture (norms, mores, etc.) differ from the _operational_ culture? If and when there is a disconnect, what is an employee, member, customer, etc., supposed to believe? (These particular questions are a result of working with an organization closely associated with one of those quoted in your post, Padraic.)
    – If the founding or current operational or stated culture is discovered, over time, to be inappropriate or misguided or in need of change, who has responsibility to initiate change?
    – In hiring, how does one determine who will fit the stated and the operational culture, especially if they are different?

    I could go on .. I wish we could be in a room together to do a day of
    Q-storming(tm) and then tackle these issues.

    * This is a link to an article about the program in which I am enrolled from which you can link to the program itself. I’m enrolled in the full 4 day+follow up work portion.
    And if you think that this will be good for me and you want to help fund my participation – even those well-known and regarded in our industry struggle – you may and if this is inappropriate, please do delete:

    1. padraicino says:

      Joan – great comments as always and thanks for taking the time. Socrates is the father of philosophy not for what he said but for the questions he asked!

      I’ll check out your link and revert. Unfortunately my present circumstances outside of the protective fold of a nice MCI salary are rather impecunious but if I can help I will!

  3. Jody Lentz says:

    great article – reinforces the power of culture in *every* facet of our working lives.
    I was a little surprised – and very pleased – to find this in a “meetings” blog…
    …but utterly unsurprised to find Joan Esienstodt’s wisdom here. Great questions, Joanie – some short answers; let’s work on the long-form answers soon :
    1. No: culture emerges and must evolve.
    2. Intention: make culture a “strategic” priority from the grass-roots
    3. Executive teams start it, but everyone must contribute (sometimes by being fired). *Note the recent condemnation of GM’s culture of “do not question” that cost at least 14 lives – culture has a powerful shadow side.
    4. Hiring teams and processes that stretch across functional areas, and are charged with finding fit & chemistry, not just technical aptitude.

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Jody for these great comments. Culture is obviously hard-wired into values and values are modelled at Founder level. This, I believe, is where it all starts. Others who join an organisation play an important role of “fleshing out” the culture. Organisations must have clear succession paths if the culture is to be preserved faithfully. Funny, I think some of these processes can be seen in organised religions.

  4. Jeff Volmrich says:

    One of your more compelling blogs Padraic!

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks Jeff – appreciate the comment!

  5. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Questions are the root of all good or something like that said by Socrates. Thank you for posting what you did, Padraic. I find that questions are in short supply while answers are too many.

    Which brings me to you, Jody, and why you are sure your answers are so absolutely correct or are the only answers, and are answers needed at all? Have we explored the questions and might we each have an experience that informs our responses to the initial questions. (In Q-storming, there are layers of questions until you get to answers.)

    Oh I know there is so much written on culture and I also know that things are challenged by new research and observations of different organizational values at different times in our society.

    Then too let me ask this: If one finds the culture of an organization abhorrent, should one leave (in a huff? quietly? happily?) or stay and work to revise the culture based on what a majority may want but is uncertain how to manage?

    Padraic .. my plea for funds is not directed at you and you are welcome to edit it out! I am not good as asking for things for me; far better at giving. In this, I am practicing.

    1. padraicino says:

      Keep the questions coming Joan – without questions there can never be answers!

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