“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.
In a recent piece in Minnesota Business by Beth LaBreche, she outlines suggested questions for an annual customer survey. Perhaps one of the most important is “Does our external perception—if you believe one exists for us—match up with what you experience?” This is a thought worth exploring that touches upon many levels within a business. How does your customer see you? Is the image you are conveying through branding or any type of communication true to who you are? For example, look at diversity and the often-claimed status of being an Equal Opportunity Employer. On many company home pages there are the standard issue stock photo images showing various ethnicities to imply that the company actually has people just like that working there. This is a tired practice that needs to go away – unless that is a true representation of what’s inside the company. Most of the time it’s just wishful thinking. How many companies can really say they hire with an awareness of diversity – and that means generational, age, gender, culture, race or any other area of difference you can think of? Would you hire a person with a disability? A person who has a strong accent? A female engineer? A late-bloomer or career changer? If you want to be perceived as a company that supports diversity the best and simplest strategy is, well—to actually do so—authentically closing the gap between perception and experience.
Over the last few decades our workplace has drastically changed: diversity abounds, technology rules, M&A’s are the norm and change happens every few minutes! This new environment calls for superhero leaders with a more robust set of competencies. We believe that two crucial sets of competencies that are a must-have for effective leaders today are Cultural Competencies and Emotional Intelligence Competencies. Want proof? Here’s some good research to back up our claim:
- An analysis of more than 300 top-level executives from fifteen global companies showed that six competencies distinguished the stars from the average. Two of those were intercultural competencies, the remaining were emotional competencies (Spencer, L. M., Jr., 1997)
- Research by the Center for Creative Leadership has found that the primary causes of derailment in executives involve deficits in three primary emotional intelligence and diversity competencies: difficulty in handling change, not being able to work well in a diverse team, and poor interpersonal relations.
- According to a study conducted by the Southwest Institute, 37% of previously successful leaders fail within the first year of being given a role leading a global, intercultural team.
So how do you build these competencies? Start by checking out our website and the tools we use.