November 19, 2015
Talent Talk is a regular column on employment trends written by Glen Esnard, the executive vice president and principal of 20-20 Foresight Executive Search. This is his second article in a four-part series on culture.
Enter an organization and ask random individuals at varying hierarchical levels for a description of the organization‘s culture. It is likely you will hear as many versions as individuals with whom you speak. It is even more likely you will hear a deep distinction between senior leadership’s view and that held by rank-and-file personnel and first-tier managers.
We know culture is important for organizational performance, and for “Talent Talk” purposes it is important for talent attraction and retention. How then can this misalignment be so common?
Edgar Schein, a former MIT professor and an architect of much early research on organizational culture, described culture as a pattern of shared basic assumptions an organization adopts as it develops a functioning alignment between the external environment and internal practices, teaching members a correct way to perceive, think and feel.
The operative issue is the alignment between external environment and internal practices. The frequency and depth of misalignment frequently emerges from two distinct dynamics.
In reality, the external environment, the competitive landscape, is changing every minute of every day. If internal practices and culture are well aligned with the external environment today, tomorrow they are slightly less aligned. Over time, the emerging misalignment is felt most in the field as competitive struggles and client demands become more challenging. By necessity, changes occur in field practices. Meanwhile senior leadership is occupied with operational efficiencies, mergers, acquisitions and shareholders, all while assuming field practices and culture remain appropriate.
Early in my career, I sold small computers for IBM. At that time, IBM brought new products out on its own schedule, not in response to the market. Our division’s primary system was already obsolete, and our competitors were happy to explain that to customers. In order to “move iron” and meet quotas, salespeople resorted to violating many of the firm’s well established sales guidelines. Our pitch of last resort was, “Do you really think IBM would try to sell you an obsolete system?” There was a gross cultural disconnect.
The second is a misperception of the difficulty of changing internal practices and associated culture. Louis L’Amour noted “Every man has the power to say ‘This I am today. That I will be tomorrow.’” But saying it is infinitely easier than doing it, particularly in the case of an organization. It is not uncommon for senior leaders to declare a change in practice that will influence culture only to become aware some time later nothing has changed. “I thought we were already doing that!” has been uttered by more than one company or division president.
As a young manager in commercial real estate services, I wrote a paper suggesting we aggregate a series of isolated best practices and integrate them into a new sales management and organization approach. A draft found its way to the firm’s chief executive officer and its president. When I was called to the CEO’s office to meet with them, the president asked, “Aren’t we already doing this everywhere?” True story.
The upshot is, to attract and retain talent in any organization and in any industry leaders must maintain clear understanding and maintenance of the organizational culture. The statement inscribed in Delphi in ancient Greece “Know thyself” can be paraphrased as “Know thy culture.”
Next: What do you really want your culture to be?