What can you expect here?

I am passionate about making a difference to people and organisations- and I guess there are many who would like to do the same. I hope this could be a platform to share views and experiences so that we can all grow together and make a difference.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The case of the clannish countrymen

Last week, over a cup of coffee with a dear old friend, we tussled over one of the most debated issues on the culture of organisations- the impact of national cultures. As we know, every large organisation tends to engender 'sub-cultures' - sometimes based on function, product division, geography and so on. However, is the difference created by the specific culture of a nation really significant for organisations? For a large multinational, how different would the organisation culture be in India, from China, from France? Obviously, local cultures would have a big impact- but is there a way to understand the why and how of that impact? More importantly, successful organisations still manage to have one 'unifying culture' across countries- and how do they manage that?
To understand the broad cultural orientations of a nation, there is no better resource that Geert Hofstede. The Hofstede research on India is quite an interesting piece of work. He identifies 5 key variables that determine differences in the cultures of nationalities. Compared to the world average, India is higher on Power Distance- we are accepting of the inequality of the distribution of power in the society. We are also more 'Masculine', with the men's values of assertiveness and caring being different from women's- perhaps leading to more competitive people. Moreover, we are  accepting of Uncertainty, having less rules to deal with normal issues that come up. Lastly, we are more persevering and parsimonious, which Hofstede labels as Long Term Orientation. The one area, surprisingly, where India is not different from the world average is our focus on Individualism vs Collectivism (I would have thought that we are more familial with large support networks, but apparently at heart, we are still as individualistic as the average person in the world!)
So what does this tell us? Yes, on some basic orientations and values, Indians may be different from the rest of the world - and this impacts the culture. While I am loathe to generalise, but putting the Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance together, we can surmise that we would tend to be more hierarchical, and maybe less respectful of time, especially of junior people. Within a homogeneous culture group this may be fine, but may create issues if people from other cultures are part of this environment.
So how do some companies manage such seemingly different cultures? My guess is that most have realised that cultures are different, and that others have to make allowances for these differences- a sort of  'empathise and live with it' approach. To do so, a lot of awareness and cross cultural sensitivity training is needed. At the same time, organisations also work on the 'Practices' end- the framework of routine activities and practices that drive certain behaviours. By introducing non-negotiable practices, you could slowly change the behaviour, even if the cultures are different. That's why Practices are so critical in driving culture. The 6Sigma and Session C practices in GE are great examples- of driving a specific culture even in places that would not naturally take those up. These practices need time and sustained leadership focus- and soon they can change the culture! Voila! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The leader's long shadow

Am back after a longish hiatus!
Continuing our explorations of creating the right culture in organisations......

Over the last few months, I have been reading and exploring the impact of the leader, and it is fairly obvious that the leader casts a really long shadow on the culture of an organisation. There are two questions that come to my mind as we delve deeper into this phenomena:
First, lets look at the 'great bad men' syndrome. Many of the great leaders usually have a couple of traits that works for them, but taken to an extreme, the same strengths can have extreme debilitating effects on culture. How do we balance 'greatness' and 'meanness'? Most organisations with a very unique culture have a 'this is the way we do it here' kind of a leader. What drives them, and how can we get the best out of them, and yet keep their certain whims from coming in the way of the culture of the organisation.
I read about Rupert Murdoch in the Economist recently (from where I borrowed the 'great bad men' epithet). A great man, undoubtedly, for having changed the television and media industry, but could the organisation have done something to keep check on the 'scoop-at-all-cost' culture. Similarly, I wonder about Steve Jobs- sheer brilliance in building a customer and product centric culture, but is there is a faint streak of authoritarianism that runs through in Apple? This is where my dilemma is- if we meddle in the culture of such organisations, you tend to dilute the unique edge that these leaders have brought to it. On balance, I think it may be better to live with these rough edges ..... what do you think? Or is there a way to temper those edges appropriately?
Which then leads me to my second, and a much larger question. What drives leaders to focus on building a strong sustainable culture? While the intellectual part of the 'case for culture' is easier, as it is linked to the culture elements needed to drive strategy, there is a subconscious, emotional part of this need that is far more powerful and critical. In my experience, it is the personal desire that certain leaders have, part stemming from ego, and part from a strong belief in a particular way of working, that is much more potent in driving culture. I guess it is for organisations to understand this and build on it- not always easy, as we need to ensure that this personal drive is aligned to what the organisation needs at that point in time. Any experiences you would like to share that will help us understand this better? 
Your responses to the poll will help us understand the motivation of leaders in driving culture.... Cheers 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Culture and Leadership

Continuing our explorations on culture....

Well, the polls always have the last word! Irrespective of the small sample we have had, I would consider the responses as a microcosm of reality- and yes, leadership is the most important determinant of culture in the organisation. Research tells that leadership has a 2x power of influencing culture- well, they are the guys who are running the show, aren't they! Moreover, the woman/man at the very top has an even greater influence.
What then are the challenges in getting leadership to drive a distinct culture? First things first - we have to get alignment at the top on the culture we need. And quite often, this is not easy as this co-ownership has to be quite deep, and based on real alignment of values and intent. This journey of building alignment takes time, it has its ups and downs, moments of truth and catharsis, and sometimes confrontations. This then is the role of the leader of the top team- he has to believe in getting this deep alignment, and work through a series of experiences and interventions to get to a stage where the top team is in full sync.
But this is easier said than done! There are the usual obstacles to such meeting of minds and hearts. First, the leader has to believe that it is critical to get this alignment, and should work consciously and patiently on it. Second, despite the best intentions of all great leaders, how many have the luxury of time to prioritise and focus on this area- the short-term business pressures on modern day CEOs are all-encompassing, and don't leave much room for them to focus on such issues, except for the most prescient and focused of the leaders. Third, longevity of the top team is critical in this journey- they need to spend enough time together as one group. Too much of people moving in and out of the top team saps the energy. And last, given that this is a task that requires a lot of reflection and work on an emotional plane, the leader needs to have a great counsel or coach to help him through this lonely process.
Being a visionary and charismatic leader probably makes things a bit easier- the way Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson can bring their personality to bear in pulling together a culture that they passionately believe in is something not all can do. However, there is the obvious danger in being too much individual leader driven while we build the culture of an organisation.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter says, 'in the middle, every change is a failure'. So would it be when we build an aligned culture agenda with the top team!  

Friday, January 21, 2011

Little things that make a difference....feedback

Genuine, honest performance discussions can have a profound impact on people and their careers. A significant moment comes to my mind and I thought I would share that with you- again, one of those little things that can make a big diffference.

This happened when I was about 3 - 4 years into my career, after having passed out from XLRI. I was the personnel manager of a factory, which employed almost 500 contract labour on a regular basis. We all knew this was not sustainable and that a change in the business model was needed - but for a couple of years this was falling between the cracks. The factory thought that the Head Office should do something and the Head Office thought that this was a factory issue. In this context, I had a review discussion with my skip manager - who was running the business. He began by asking what I did in the last few months. I wanted to give an impression of how busy I was and told him that I did everything from recruiting, training to running volleyball and cricket tournaments for the workers there. He smiled cynically and said "You are talking like my daughter! When I ask her what she did during the day, she says that she did some history, some english, some science, some play, etc". I realized this discussion was not going where I thought it should go. My heart sank and suddenly I found myself stuttering like those misfiring old fat-fatiyas or tuk-tuks! He then slowly built up my thinking on key priorities and asked me to take ownership of that big contract labour problem, and make a proposal. That discussion changed the next 4 years of my career - we made a breakthrough proposal, implemented it over a year and at the end I moved from HR to run a part of manufacturing and supply-chain in the business.

On reflection, what did that discussion do:
·         It was honest and genuine, and gave me feedback that my priorities were wrong
·         He coached me on thinking about the biggest strategic risk/priorities and how I could do something
·         He supported me and the factory in going beyond what we thought was our role
·         Finally, this linked into my own development and movement to a cross functional role over time.

I guess a feedback discussion can be really powerful - it has the potential to change lives. It is not another chit-chat - it is core to the individual's life and career, and if we do it  with genuine and honest intent, in a safe and supportive manner, it can work wonders! It is clearly one of those small things that can make a big differrence. I guess we all have such moments to share.....

Little things that make a big difference

Very often, as executives and managers, we are looking for that big strategic decision or initiative- one that will change or 'transform' our business. That's probably a perpetual quest. We get some right, and quite a few wrong- but that 'killer app' of strategy, product launch or brand relaunch eludes most of us. And books get written about the few who have got those big breakthrough decisions, and the rest of us continue in great hope that our big strategic acts are going to be part of management folklore. That sliver of hope drives us in our quest for greatness, and at times brings interesting serendipitous results- and keeps everybody going.

However, in this larger journey to greatness, do we overlook the little things that can make a big difference. When we talk to people, there is usually that one small incident that changed the direction of their lives- be it through an interaction with someone else, a failure, a small piece of advice..... the list could go on. Meeting with many people has made me firmly believe that these small things can make a very big difference, one that most of us underestimate. Each of us has been through small experiences that would have had a big impact, and I would like to document some of those.

To start with, I want to talk about the 'penny drop moment'- through the use of simple, vivid descriptions or analogies- words that change our thinking. In our everyday lives, do we consciously think about how a few words or an analogy can make a  huge difference, and plan and use them. Let me give you a personal example. A few years back, I had some terrible back problems, and every few months would be down with a stiff back. I consulted a physio, an Australian lady who had worked on sports injuries. One day, as I was lying on the pysio's table, she said a few words which stayed with me forever. "Treat your back like a string of pearls", she said. I guess that was when the penny dropped, though I didnt realise it at that moment. I focussed on strenghtening my back, and in those stretches and exercises, I took deep care as I would do to a string of pearls. Just those words made a big difference to my life.

Giving feedback to people is one area where such thoughtful selection of words would make a difference. I am sure you would have come across examples in your life when a simple communication, made a big difference. Do share some examples.

What are the other small things that make a big difference?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Culture- how do we define it?

Continuing my explorations on culture......
Its obvious that the first step in creating the culture we need in an organisation is to articulate it. How often do we consciously do this with clarity and rigour? Even if we manage to articulate the culture we need, it could sometimes end up being quite generic and not very distinguishing. Which right thinking organisation wouldn't want a performance-oriented, agile, innovative, customer-centric, collaborative culture!

So what comes in the way of organisations defining exactly what they need? I guess the first filter is what we define as culture. Different companies may use different terminologies (see Gerry's comments on my earlier post), but what we want has to be closely linked to our business strategy, and should be the key to our recipe for success. We should try to define it in very specific terms, and make it unique for the organisation. Only one, or sometimes 2 elements of culture would be distinguishable in any organisation- we cant be distinctive on many counts. If an organisation chooses to be distinctive on more than a couple, more often than not, it ends up being a mish-mash of everything.

However, the one critical challenge in articulating the culture needed in an organisation is the ability to live with paradoxes. Rather, balance the opposites. 'Where there is light, there is always a shadow.'  I guess it is this ability of some organisations to understand this and make the right choices.

But there is one debate on culture that I am still struggling with. How much is the culture of a company dependent on its maturity and market context. While a start-up may need elements of speed etc., as the company grows and is well established, it would probably look to develop other elements, like a collaborative culture. However, the counter logic to this is that culture of a company is timeless - irrespective of the maturity or growth of the company, it needs to have its unique DNA. I guess both arguments hold water. What are your thoughts?

Any examples of how organisations have defined culture which has made it easy for them to focus and create it? Would be really interesting to hear from you..... look forward.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Culture eats strategy- so how?

Its obvious that execution is critical to making your strategy come alive- and an organisation's culture is a key determinant of how well it executes. However, the organisation's culture also determines how robust the strategy is, and how inclusive was the strategy development process. So its a double whammy- your organisation's culture is key, both for developing strategy and executing it.
This is complex- and most of us grapple with it. And successful organisations struggle with this even more, as they need to break big mental barriers to transform themselves. I would like to discuss some experiences and learnings, and understand how some do this better than others. Do share any ideas.
As I explore this further, I would present a few thoughts and hypotheses as I go along. First, how do we get this realisation of importance of culture. The common mistake we make is we equate culture with people or talent- but even if we have the right talent, we may not be able to get things done if we do not enable them. I guess enlightened leaders realsie this, but getting this sharply understood by all leaders is probably the step one.