Culture is wind in your organization’s sails

Every organization has a culture. It is not always documented or even discussed, but it’s there, and it affects outcomes. Leaders can supercharge performance when they align it with strategic goals and resources like technology and people, but culture can also sabotage new initiatives that conflict with tightly held organizational norms and beliefs.

For Stuart Kaplan, Director of Culture Transformation at Google Cloud, culture is best thought of as “how things get done around here…how decisions are made; how people interact with each other; what’s accepted here and what’s not.”

In my recent interview with Kaplan, he described culture as “kind-of like the wind—you can’t see but you know it is there; and when you fight it, you know you are fighting it. When you go with it, it provides phenomenal tail wind for what you are trying to get done.”

Sailors carefully observe the wind and plot their course accordingly. Leaders need to do likewise with their organizational culture. But, unlike the wind, leaders are not simply at the mercy of culture—they can work to change it.

Leaders can promote psychological safety that allows team members to share their opinions, no matter their popularity. Such safety helps to create an inclusive environment that enables people to take risks, a critical element for fostering innovation and change.

Leaders need to understand that messaging, not just decision-making, impacts culture. They should reinforce positive elements of the culture by explaining the rationale behind decisions, illustrate through storytelling how the culture is lived in the organization, and use the language of cultural goals.

It is important to note that psychological safety and culture-building doesn’t mean shying away from difficult business decisions. But Kaplan notes that leaders need to bring heart to their daily challenges—to be tough-minded and warm-hearted. He notes that the secret to success is showing everyone respect, dignity, and high regard.

To hear more from my interview with Stuart Kaplan, watch the video. We discuss the invisible force of culture that propels or hinders strategic initiatives. We also address the role of leaders in developing culture and the importance of showing everyone dignity and respect.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

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