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Linking Leadership and Corporate Culture

By Richard S. Lewine

Corporate culture is not born in a test tube. And while you may not have spent much time thinking about it, your organization has one.

Organizational cultures begin as soon as there are two people working together and they establish a method for communicating the day-to-day and long term needs of their enterprise. Most often, this culture is driven by the personality of the founder/president and bought into by other members of the organization as they come aboard. This intangible element of an organization is the cause of more firings and resignations than performance, theft, and other stated causes combined.

As entrepreneurs/managers/leaders, we either support or undermine culture. Entering a high energy shop, one will find people scurrying around constantly “busy” at some task. There is a high probability that the leader of this group is a high energy individual. Conversely, the laid back company is most likely led by a calm, highly tolerant individual who doesn’t easily get his or her feathers ruffled.

Other dimensions or elements that demonstrate the culture/climate of an organization are the levels of customer service, the timeliness of deliveries, the interpersonal relationships among coworkers, the effectiveness of lateral and vertical communications, the mutual support demonstrated by peers, and myriad other factors which impact the overall effectiveness of the organization’s efforts.

As an organization grows and develops, the culture determines in great measure the kinds of people that will be attracted to and remain with this enterprise for the long haul. As leaders, we often wonder why we do or don’t have significant turnover, why there is or isn’t a great deal of gossip or rumor spreading, and why our people do or don’t bring us the good and the bad news.

Perhaps the most destructive and confusing message we send as leaders is inconsistent behavior. If we have a Mission Statement that truly reflects the values and philosophies in which we believe, we are obligated to behave accordingly. Most often, organizations pay someone to write a Mission Statement, or a half-hearted attempt is made by the executive group to put one together. Sometimes it gets disseminated throughout the organization; other times it does not. If this statement does not truly reflect the values and philosophy of this top level group, then they are better off not disseminating it.

If the statement does reflect these values then the people in the organization will benefit, as will the organization itself if, in fact, they are given the opportunity to understand the Mission and buy into it. When they do, they also become obligated to behave in accordance with this Mission which ideally reflects and helps to solidify the culture.

Inconsistent behavior on the part of management at all levels confuses the rest of the people because they don’t know whether to believe what the manager says or what the manager does. It puts them in the untenable position of being “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”. The manager who demands performance from his people but does not, in turn, perform up to the expectation of his or her manager, is sending a mixed message. The people ask, “if it’s okay for my boss to be late with a report, why isn’t it okay for me?”.   The employee who is chronically late or absent and whose manager ignores this despite a clear policy to the contrary, is getting favored treatment if others are disciplined according to policy. 

The commitment of top management to its stated philosophies carries the most weight in this constant effort to maintain and enhance our culture. This group is the most visible and has the most impact on the rest of the organization and its effectiveness. The consequences of inconsistent behavior in this arena are far reaching with respect to the organizational integrity of the enterprise and its long term viability.

Whatever its nature, this culture/climate sets informal performance standards by which everyone in the organization measures his or her behavior. The current volatility and turbulence in the marketplace demand consistent adherence to valued norms within our organizational structures. Without consistency, we will assuredly fall victim to our own foibles and someone else will fill the void we leave.

Richard Lewine is a president of RSL Consulting.  He works with CEOs on leadership issues and is an adjunct faculty at Delaware Valley College.  He is a TRACOM Associate. Visit his LinkedIn profile here.


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