“Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you've got.” – Peter Drucker Spot on: Drucker is spot on when he compares company cultures to those of countries. Leaders don’t often think of their organization as even having a culture, much less comparing it to country cultures, but that is exactly the case. I think about culture as the unwritten rules of a group and whether that group is a country, a company, a family or geographical region, its members don’t think too much about those unwritten rules and don’t even realize when they are operating by them. Those rules could be related to everything from communication norms, decision making, expectations of leadership or even seemingly mundane things like when and how they take breaks. Missed the mark: Drucker missed the mark by recommending leaders should not even try to change their company culture. Many times that is exactly what is needed and it is the leader’s responsibility to create those changes. Cultures are fluid—created and maintained by the individuals within it—and can certainly be changed. An effective leader will recognize the aspects of her company culture that need to be changed and follow up with the difficult work of changing them. Cultures of apathy, low productivity, ineffective communication….change them!
In a recent article, Luke Visconti (aka “The White Guy") argues that “CEO commitment is essential to diversity-management programs.” As my kids would say, “No duh,” that’s pretty obvious. But I would add another reason that Visconti didn’t mention. That is that CEOs must be committed because successful diversity initiatives are actually successful change initiatives. The organizational culture must shift to be more inclusive and adaptive to difference. Without this shift, you don’t have a successful diversity initiative; you just have a bunch of diversity programs stacked up in an organization with no results.
Visconti also argues that if you don’t have this CEO commitment, don’t bother. Here’s where I disagree. I’ve seen effective diversity councils and capable, savvy directors of diversity make a difference. They can initiate programs and create change in pockets throughout the organization even without full commitment from the CEO. Is it whole-scale change? No. But it does make a difference. Another factor to keep in mind is that good leaders listen to feedback, suggestions and certainly, groundswell movements. With skillful maneuvering, diversity councils and directors can influence CEOs and create buy-in. Remember too, that CEOs, particularly in some industries, turn over quite frequently. Worst case scenario, is that successful individual programs can plant the seed today for tomorrow’s CEO to grow.
“Minnesota's lowest-performing schools are plagued by uneven teaching quality, fuzzy academic goals and minimal parent support, the Minnesota Department of Education says it has found.”
This opening paragraph from a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article jumps right into what has almost become a national sport: trying desperately to figure out what’s wrong with the nation’s schools. All too often, however, we spend way too much time looking at the symptoms instead of the cause of the academic malaise.
I mean, don’t get me wrong—I think the school system is messed up, and I should know—I was a high school English teacher for five years, both in the inner city and the suburbs. I know what challenges both teachers and students face each day. But the beginnings of a solution are shown in what’s behind the problems mentioned above: lack of cultural proficiency.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t mean your grandma’s cultural proficiency—taco days and passing mention of Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and Hannukah; I mean serious, look-yourself-in-the-cultural-mirror proficiency. We can’t begin to really understand someone else’s point of view until we understand our own, and many of us, especially those of us who’ve grown up in the comforting arms of the dominant culture, aren’t really used to thinking about our own cultural norms, cultural comforts and discomforts, cultural assumptions. And until we do, we can’t really understand the potential impact of those assumptions on those who don’t share them.
Now, again, please don’t misunderstand—I’m not talking about taking white folks to task for being white folks. Frankly, I find that approach next to useless and potentially damaging to all involved. Everyone needs to understand their cultural starting point if they’re going to build proficiency in communicating comfortably and effectively across cultural differences.
Last week I attended the first annual Intercultural Development Inventory Educational Summit, sponsored by Dr. Mitch Hammer. It was attended by a wide variety of intercultural practitioners, teachers, and administrators from around the state. There was a lot of exciting discussion and planning, and the end result was to begin working out real, useful cultural proficiency standards for anyone involved in education.
Not a moment too soon.