Culture is a difficult word to define but an easy phenomenon to feel. You can walk into any organization and feel its culture almost immediately. Culture is, in a nutshell, the sum total of the ideas, the customs as well as the social behaviour of any group of people. More specifically, social scientists have described three levels to culture:
1. What we see (Behaviors, systems, policies and processes surrounding the way things are done)
2. What we say (Ideals, goals, values, and aspirations set by leadership)
3. What we believe (Underlying assumptions that guide behaviour)
When our CEO Angeline Wee came onboard to join us in 2015, I recalled teasing her by calling her our Chief Culture Officer. My theory to her was that if she could influence the culture appropriately, she could bring about any change she desired. The pivotal role of organizational culture in strategic transformation has always been underestimated and neglected. There is an urban legend that is attributed to the great Peter Drucker when he was quoted to say: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Even if the source is unverifiable, I believe the logic holds true.
In general, I am against anything that is top-down. The only exception is culture; creation of the right culture is a leadership responsibility and therefore it is by necessity driven from top down. My army boss years ago used to put it in a crude but easy to understand manner: shit flows downwards. He was an old school commander who believed that if leaders behave poorly, that misconduct would spread like wildfire through the rank and file.
There is a ton of literature on the subject that really befuddles. However if you accept it as your leadership function, it will begin with defining what we stand for. Our people need to hear us articulate what is the bedrock of values, ideals and principles. They need to understand why. They need to feel our conviction not merely through our words but mostly through our lifestyle and daily behaviour.
I learned early in my journey that no matter how loudly I speak, nobody will hear what I say if my actions contradict my words. The leadership of any organization must walk its talk if cultural elements are to take root.
A critical mass of people led by exemplary leaders forming habits aligned to shared values and ideals is culture in motion. Given enough time and iterations, this community develops a distinctive culture that defines who they are and their reason of being. Such a community will change the world.