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The business imperative of great cultures

Most leaders want to nurture their organisation’s culture; progressive leaders respect the powerful business imperative of truly great cultures.

The business imperative of great cultures

Leaders happily talk the culture talk, but I just don’t see enough of them walking it.

I see organisations spending hundreds of thousands of dollars measuring every element of the state of their culture, but too few put the energy into truly understanding its potential. The business imperative of great cultures has never been more apparent, or more of an opportunity.

It shouldn’t come as news to any leader that the world has moved on from cultures based on command and control. That goes for employees, customers and managers, too. All those distinct cultures are interconnected, and each of them is more empowered than ever, on the surface by advances in technology, but also from a broader and deeper shift in belief systems.

Leaders who get culture right make their jobs so much easier and simultaneously and exponentially propel their organisations. For some clues, take a look at the relationship the likes of Starbucks, Netflix and Google have with employees and customers.

Leading for constructive cultures requires confidence as well as heart. Maximus has been studying the methodology that American culture expert Stan Slap has developed over decades. Stan is the founder and CEO of SLAP, a business-culture specialist consultancy that’s worked with companies around the world, including Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Hallmark, GE and Caterpillar. He’s a dynamic and inspiring character who’s written two bestselling books on culture – Bury My Heart at Conference Room B and Under the Hood – and is working on a third.

Stan Slap divides cultures into manager, employee and customer, and sees them as “independent living organisms”. Regardless of whether you buy into that particular vision, Stan’s assertion that culture remains “the most overused and least understood concept in business” rings true, even if it makes us uncomfortable to admit.

Stan recently described some of the key company cultures for Maximus. Here’s a taste, in his words.

Employee and customer cultures

“The connection between a company’s employee and customer cultures is that most or all of your customers are employees somewhere themselves, and so they’re part of the overall employee culture. They will decide to protect or reject your company based in large part on how they perceive you treat people just like them.”

Manager culture

“The rules of survival and emotional prosperity are distinct enough for managers vs. the general employee population that they are their own culture. A culture isn’t a bunch of managers or employees: it is the belief system created when those groups form a relationship with their company.

Managers don’t often think of themselves as a culture, though. A manager in one country, and in one company, in one position doesn’t realise that another manager, in another country, in another company, in another position may also believe they are trapped in some vague conspiracy between idiots above them and idiots below!”

CEO culture

“The CEO culture is a culture of one, which can be pretty tough at times. The maximum commitment a culture can give won’t be shown until it has to be: protecting the company when the company is in real trouble. You can’t bank that when you need it; you have to put it away ahead of time. Gaining your culture’s commitment is not just about achieving performance. It is about achieving performance insurance, which is your ultimate legacy impact as a CEO.”

Like Stan Slap, Maximus is stepping back to gain an anthropological understanding of cultures, and how leaders can take a systems approach to culture to build adaptiveness, empathy and integrity through an entire organisation, from customer to CEO. Leaders must realise that they can’t control cultures, but skilled leaders can influence cultures, as long as they’re taught to understand them from the inside out.

Great organisational cultures do right by the world and support the creation of happier, engaged and more well-rounded people. And those same great cultures do right by companies, too, which is why there’s such a powerful business imperative to nurture them. Armed with understanding and empathy, intelligent leaders will create the right conditions for cultures to flourish and support their company to thrive.

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