The culture tree
A whip-thin man walked purposefully amongst gigantic machines in a milk pasteurization plant. He tapped a uniformed technician on the shoulder, murmured something in another’s ear and continued his stride forward. In-between he climbed up a ladder to examine one of the innumerable pipes that traversed the plant.
This is how I remember my first boss. It was the year 1999 and I had joined as the quality control officer of a milk pasteurisation plant. Fresh out of college with the ink barely dry on my Microbiology degree certificate, the plant’s manager, Eldho Sir (as I called him) became my guide and mentor. He quickly took me under his wing and instilled the basic principles by which he managed the plant.
Give respect to earn respect. Go by the premise that everyone in the plant, including drivers and operators would have valuable input. They might not have a degree, but they have experience.
Never assign a task without having a fair idea of what is involved. To this effect he made me learn how to operate the machinery in the plant and even had me help in the washing of the milk tankers. I was soon well versed in rolling cans to the humongous freezer, operating the packaging machine and even cleaning the odd tanker. I never got the hang of repairing the machinery, tinkering was never my strong suit. My reward came in a few months when he trusted me with the role of acting plant manager (for the days he was away). Though I never practiced Microbiology after this stint, I carried the lessons learned to my next career.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2018. I was invited to the launch of Anviti insurance brokers in Mumbai. The highlight for me was Mr Narayan Murthy’s fireside chat. Mr Murthy’s talk about organisational culture being integral to an organisation’s success and it being driven top down caught my attention. Organisational culture was not something I had thought about much, but this got me thinking. Eldho Sir came to mind and I started examining his actions as well as more recent observations from the perspective of culture.
What is Organizational culture?
I’ve heard many perspectives of what culture means in an organisation. Some say it’s the product of compensation while others call it the immune system of the organisation. For me, Richard Perrin’s take on organisational culture makes the most sense.
“Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”
The culture of the organisation is most often developed organically. Nowadays the increasing focus on organisational culture and the many benefits it brings in terms of retention and productivity has made many a large corporate at least try to drive the culture story. Some leaders like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella have been able to lead cultural change. This process of change is however not as easy and straightforward as it may seem. A recent article I read said that 85% of organisations fail in cultural transformations. This is not really surprising considering the nebulous nature of the beast.
Can leadership drive cultural change?
The short answer is yes.
However, culture has many facets and dimensions. Its very nature means that it cannot be enforced. In a small to medium organisation, the founders or leadership can ensure that those unsaid nuances that we call culture are in line with their vision of what it should be. However as the organisation grows, they will need to ensure that they hire people who are more likely to have the same value systems and ethos. Not an easy task, as most founders and leaders are not involved in the actual hiring process!
I encountered this in my previous role. When I took over as Director of an Insurance consulting firm in 2008, we were just a bunch of closely knit people. We had a certain style of working and collaborating which I now realise is a “caring” kind of culture. It was something we had inherited from our founder who liked to consider the entire company a single family. I always felt that this close knit and collaborative behaviour was our USP as we actually extended this to our client interactions too. It was easy to keep this environment of caring and collaboration alive when we were a handful of people. It became a more complex task when we started to evolve and grow to hundreds of employees. What I tried to do and succeeded to a large extent was hire future leaders or those I call cultural gardeners who could nurture and grow the company culture in each vertical or department as the company grew.
When I joined Clearly Blue, I noticed that Padmaja and her core team also put a lot of emphasis on attitude and work ethics while hiring. A few weeks into working with the team, I realised that Clearly Blue offers a safe space for creative talents to spread their wings and explore their capabilities. The non-hierarchical work environment where every voice was heard was very refreshing. I felt it was the perfect soil for creativity to grow and flourish. I soon realised that the hiring team looks for qualities like sincerity, independent thought, curiosity, passion and punctuality while hiring. We also try to gauge if the candidate is a team player and honest. I strongly believe that if we continue to give emphasis to these characteristics while hiring, we can keep the current culture and work environment alive.
If you are looking to bring about a cultural change in large organizations like Mr Nadella, you will face an uphill battle. The task however is not impossible. It’s just a matter of strategy and perseverance. Once you have the strategy in place, find charismatic people to seed across the organisation. They will nurture and grow your culture tree.
Like any other tree, you need to water and watch the tree of culture grow. Weed out employees who pose a threat to your culture, promote the ones that enhance your culture. In a couple of years you will realise that your cultural tree is no longer a sapling but a huge tree that shelters your organisation. You might even decide to sleep under the tree!