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Culture, leadership and getting things done


LSN’s Chris Glennie shares his thoughts on understanding organisational culture…

Organisational culture is one of those ‘faddish’ topics on which everyone tends to have a view but which nonetheless defies easy definition. Numerous writers have had a go in many and various books, from popular aeroplane reading to heavier academic tomes. The truth is that cultures within organisations are deep-seated, multi-faceted, long-lasting and immensely difficult to change.

A key task then for business leaders, especially but not only if they are newly-appointed, needs to be to understand the dominant culture within their organisations if they are to have any chance of being effective.

Why is that? Is there a direct link between organisational culture and commercial effectiveness? Possibly, but that’s not quite the point. Here’s the thing: All organisations at some time or other, and underperforming organisations especially, will be subject to change processes. Whatever the reason, it happens. Invariably, new strategies, new structures and new business models will be promoted as the silver bullets of organisational renewal. But without an understanding of the cultural – and counter-cultural - norms prevalent within the business, these change process can – and invariably do – come to nothing.

Many examples exist in the corporate world of CEOs being successful in one organisation, only to fail in another, and a key reason without doubt is their inability to be effective in a new cultural context.
That’s not to say that change can’t be effected. But it is to say that this change needs either to be consistent with the prevailing cultural norms, or if it is to rub against them – as it surely will if significant strategic or operational change is being proposed – then how to overcome the obstacles needs to be considered carefully. And this is even more the case where mergers are concerned – not just the merger between companies, but with the merger of internal departments, as even small differences in internal sub-cultures can ruin the most ingenious (theoretical) strategic plans.

And the biggest lesson of all? Leadership behaviour – not words, not reports and least of all PowerPoint presentations – trumps everything. Just as the Turks say that ‘the fish rots from the head’, so the reverse can be true – eventually. Organisational cultures are shaped and set by the behaviour of the original owners/founders/leaders and can be changed by current owners and leaders. But it will take patience, perseverance and absolute commitment from the top table if it is to bear fruit.

So where does this leader start? Is it possible to ‘take the temperature’ of an organisation’s culture and come up with a magic number that reveals all? Not really, although there are diagnostic tools available to help leaders understand the cultural landscape. Above all leaders need to listen to how staff talk, and what they talk about, what they pay attention to and what they don’t, what stories from an organisations’ past get repeated and why. That way they may not be able to define the culture exactly, but they will know what they are dealing with in order to get things done.

Chris Glennie, LSN

More information

Chris Glennie is Assistant Director for Marketing at LSN and focussed his MBA thesis on organizational culture.

> Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

> Follow Chris on Twitter

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