Tracer Rounds – Cultivating Cultural Culturism

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How does one “create” culture? ~

I was reading an ESPN column about the demise of Grantland, when this exchange caught my eye.

There’s an old saying — attributed alternatively to management guru Peter Drucker and auto executive Mark Fields — that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’ve always felt that statement was off the mark because culture also eats strategy for lunch, dinner and snacks.

Now, part of what made Grantland the awesome destination for smart writing was the culture that the editorial team inculcated in the staff.  Grantland was a perfect example of how a great set of editors can mold already-talented and -established writers into a coherent voice that gives the reader a sense of the culture of the organization.

TR-puzzleThere are more ways to communicate the culture of an organization than just in the formal presence of that group.  There are the rituals they hold on to, the titles used among themselves, the recursive self-references that permeate long-standing organizations, and the attitudes they exhibit toward outsiders.  How is dissension tolerated?  How are new participants welcomed into the fold?  Are there demands for overt displays of allegiance?  How about voluntary self-identification?

While many of you are probably still chuckling over the idea that I actually teach a class about interpersonal communication, the idea that I also teach one on Media & Culture probably doesn’t seem too far-fetched.  We spend an entire hour on the first night of class just talking about the attributes that can define a culture, from language to food & music to geography to shared interests.  But how does it develop, and how does it manifest itself when it does?

This isn’t easy stuff, is it?

On one hand, there’s the deconstruction of what makes up a “culture” in an organization.  Far tougher, though, to figure out how to create a successful one and maintain it.  It’s one thing to catch lightning in a bottle; it’s a far different thing to manufacture lighting in a bottle.  You stand a good chance of getting zapped.

You see this with sports teams all the time, where perennial losers (paging Cleveland!) try over and over to “change the culture” of the organization in an attempt to capture someone else’s magic and build on it.  At some point, you have to realize that culture cannot be imported wholesale and must be created from within.  The problem is, it’s hard to do.

And while it’s not like I’ve got a bunch of brilliant insights into how to do this, I have seen several organizations with very successful cultures, and others that tanked (or are still tanking!), and I can describe some of the ways in which those developed.

One company where I worked placed a big emphasis on cultural fit with all of their hires.  Their attitude was sharpened by the idea that you can always hire a smart person and teach them to do whatever you need them to do, but you can’t teach them to behave the same way the rest of the group does, if they’re not already wired that way.  F-bombs in meetings were the norm, as was military jargon and lingo.  It was nothing to direct snarky insults at each other, occasionally in front of the clients.  But that locker-room style bonding is what made the place work.  It has been described by more than one person as “the perfect triangulation of Animal House, Stripes, and Revenge of the Nerds,” which also leaves out the heavy dose of John Hughes-quality witticisms that frequently floated around the office.  How well did it work?  5 years after leaving the company, I still count 3 of the guys I worked with there among my closest friends.  When one of them was in the hospital, freshly-diagnosed with leukemia, about a dozen of us from all over the country immediately went and got blood tests to check for donor matches.  The kids still go to each others’ birthday parties, and the wives go to the movies together.  By focusing on cultural fit, this company rounded up an incredibly effective building full of misfits who became fast friends that would work their asses off to make sure they all succeeded together.  That was a cultural home run.

I had a unit in the Army that focused on internal camaraderie with a combination of internal competitions (for bragging rights), insistence on nicknames for everything, and pushing subordinates to the forefront for opportunities to lead (and shine) at every turn.  Everything we used was branded with our unit nicknames – from the tools on our vehicles to the notebooks the guys carried around.  We put our own flags on our antennas at the range and during road marches.  Everyone knew who we were and where we were.  It wasn’t quite the same cultural home run as the families weren’t as engaged as they were at the company described above (ironic, given the family focus of the military back then), but it was at least a double off the wall.

I’ve also seen abject failures of culture in the corporate world, and most of them stemmed from ineffective leadership at the top.

GHLogoTextOne company suffered from absentee leadership at the highest C-levels.  Only one of the C-level executives even lived in town, while the others would fly in Monday morning, and by the time they checked into their hotels, unpacked, checked email, grabbed lunch, etc, it was into Monday afternoon, effectively costing them the first day of work that week, especially as a tone-setter for the organization.  By Thursday afternoon, their brains were already out the door; most of them had early Friday flights.  They had abdicated the day-to-day leadership of the organization to lower-level flunkies who were frequently operating at cross-purposes to each other, as they had no overarching guiding hand to focus their attention on longer-term goals.  “Planning” (as it was) focused on week-to-week crisis management rather than setting and shooting for longer-term goals.  The combination of diverse personalities that were haphazardly thrown together, competing priorities, and absentee leadership formed a toxic stew of resentment throughout a company that tried too hard to be too many things to too many people, and failed to even adequately remember that for the leadership, their primary customer is the employee.

The last organization where I saw a cultural failure was one that had many of the outward trappings of a solid culture in their building – nicknames on everyone’s nametags (and some were quite amusing), frequent company social events, extensive interviews to try to and ensure a personality fit in the company, and a decent on-boarding program.  But once you were in the door, people were not fit to their performance strengths (building new systems vs maintaining older ones, direct customer interaction vs indirect correspondence).  Moreover, the evaluation criteria that were used for the entire company were really built around the technical team, and then bolted on to everyone else’s positions.  Measurable criteria that focused on bugs found by the QA team or lines of code deployed during a week were haphazardly recrafted into poor performance criteria for analysts and call center folks.  It doesn’t matter how cool the nickname on your cubicle is when your performance criteria is measured against a job you don’t even do, and “360 evaluations” – asking everyone you work with to weigh in on your performance – results in a coffee-klatsch bitchfest on the evaluee’s faults, regardless of their value to the organization.  The first time I was asked to sit in on a 360 evaluation, I couldn’t believe what was being said about the person in question (universally negative and mean), given what I had seen said to that person’s face when she wasn’t in the room (all positive and pleasant).

So culture comes and goes.  The most effective organizations have a solid one.  The least effective ones have squat.  In between?  The ones drifting toward the lower end of the spectrum are generally lacking in a solid corporate culture.  It won’t fix an organization that’s falling apart, but it can elevate an effective one to even higher levels.

More importantly, culture cannot be artificially manufactured; it can be enhanced.  When an organization is in semi-open revolt against leadership, bolting on tacky ‘awards’ or attempts at recognition of organization members that are already disinclined to follow the leader are unlikely to bring them back into the fold.  When leadership is being told, loudly, openly, and repeatedly, that their actions are not helping the organization, and they ignore the messages and charge headlong into the Russian artillery, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the members of the organization are going to bail for greener pastures.  The fastest way to kill any culture in any organization is for the leadership to ignore what they’re being told by the membership.

ESPN didn’t learn that about Grantland.  One of my previous companies couldn’t figure that out at the leadership level (and didn’t care as they were shining up the balance sheets for the imminent sale of the company).  And we all know what happened back at…


This week’s soundtrack:

I don’t care if you think the plots are hokey (because they are), the dance sequences in most of the “Step Up” movies are pretty phenomenal, even the really tacky one with the ‘cops’ at the end of Step Up Revolution.  This one is from the very end of Step Up All In, and it’s a good groove that fits the movie well, and stands on its own as a good ‘crank it up with the kids in the car’ tune, also


Game that caught my eye:

The 7th Sea reboot that’s on Kickstarter right now brings back a nice RPG with an awesome underlying world.  And they’ve raised so much right now that their stretch goals are getting downright ridiculous: oversized maps, city-specific guidebooks, decks of cards, novels, and a freakin’ audio soundtrack.  At $60, you get the 300-page primary book, plus a metric monkey-ton of PDFs – all the first-edition PDFs, plus all the new PDFs that are unlocked for the campaign.  I’m a sucker for a great setting, and this one just might make the cut.


What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:

We’re iced in right now, so I’ll be catching up on grading make-up assignments for my students, since we’re required to post make-up assignments for any missed class days.  And dealing with an insurance claim on my car when some dude backed into me at the grocery store the other day.  And probably some of this.


Wouldn’t it be cool if…

Politicians were embarrassed about their own lack of internal consistency?  In 2007, Chuck Schumer bitched about President Bush making a Supreme Court nomination 17 months before he was due to leave office, and now he’s telling people that President Obama has every right to make his choice with 9 months to go.  If it was OK then, it’s OK now, and vice versa.  In 1998, Tom Delay was telling his constituents that “You can support the troops but not the president” when talking about Kosovo.  In 2002, he accused those of not supporting the imminent action in Iraq of failing to support the troops.  Be partisan, fine.  But be consistent.  And try – just please try – not to be so damned hypocritical.  It’s embarrassing for us to have to listen to it.


This week’s quote:

“Well you see, sir, it started out as a goat-fuck.  Then we kept adding more goats.” – Captain-not-be-named at a staff call in 2002.


Got an idea for a future column?  Drop me a line at the link below.   Bayonet 06 – out!

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