You see that title and you’re some kinda sorta mid-level VP, the first thing you’re gonna screech out is “My product road map!” No, that’s not the answer. (It never was.) Instead, I want to offer up this quote to you. It’s from this article, and the person speaking (Coyle) wrote bigger-name books like The Culture Code and The Talent Code. Here we go:
“Think about the best team you’ve ever been on; the most cohesive, cooperative, deeply connected team,” Coyle asked the audience. Maybe it was a sports team, a family event, or a summer job, he said. How did it feel to be together, to be connected to something bigger, to kind of “lose yourself?”
He called this feeling the most powerful business asset on earth, likening it to a strong corporate culture. “CEOs have sleepless nights thinking about how to build that feeling you just created in your head.”
I largely agree with this quote. The end portion about CEO sleepless nights might be off; I think most CEOs have sleepless nights about branding snafus or financials, and not about culture. (That’s part of the problem.)
But the rest of it is true.
First: a quick tie to financials
(Because that’s what matters.)
From the same article:
Coyle talked about a 1992 Harvard study in which researchers tracked a large group of firms over 11 years. The businesses that had a strong culture enjoyed a staggering net income growth of 756%. Those that didn’t grew only 1%.
You always see these kind of stats. You can take them with a grain of salt. Inherently we know this should be true. If you have a strong culture, you’ll make more money, because employees will be more engaged and deal better with (a) problems and (b) customers. Not rocket science there.
Problem: how does one define “a strong culture?” I’ve tried for close to five years on this blog. It’s hard. Culture is a “suitcase word.” Carries different definitions for different people. That’s the secret of why executive-level employees use it. Because it can mean so many different things, it’s a good catch-all for a big all-hands meeting. Your Q2 margin is NOT suitcase; that’s a hard number. That’s what those guys really want to discuss but know they can’t at a big meeting, so they use suitcase words.
Second: moments of awkwardness
The general argument of this article, which is discussing a panel of authors/thinkers, is that creating real moments of transparency and awkwardness between people will make the underlying culture stronger.
In other words: lean into the dumb stuff.
This also shouldn’t be rocket science, but often is when we design work. People often design work to be about two things:
That’s where most of the problems you see around “engagement” and “culture” come from — work isn’t really supposed to be engaging or have a great culture. It’s a bunch of task work that other people control so that a third group of people (“stakeholders”) make money. That’s the system in white-collar. It’s honestly often the system in blue-collar and non-profit too.
Being awkward with people and having tougher discussions (“What do you want out of life?” as opposed to “Where is that product brief?”) is obviously going to make people closer. People being closer = stronger underlying culture. Not a big leap there.
Why’s it so hard?
Partially that control/tasks stuff above.
Another reason is vocabulary. The highest levels of a company frame success in financial terms and/or acquisitions and growth. The middle and lower levels don’t have full access to that stuff, so they frame success in project/task terms or in terms of generic statements like “I like my job.” Because the vocabulary is so different, culture suffers.
Case in point: I did a LinkedIn bio for a guy in Michigan once. He told me about 127 times in the conversation — this is not a joke — how he built a section of a big company from $5M to $170M in a few years. He could not stop discussing this. I think late in the interview, he mentioned he had three kids. Barely seemed to care about that, but $170M in a few years, DAAAAAAAAAAAMN.
A lot of guys think like this. That’s actually toxic to culture because most of us can’t touch that discussion as we update meaningless documents in our cubicles. But those guys don’t care — the $170M matters way more than “culture.”
What do we do?
We navigate to the place that’s best for us.
And when it doesn’t work for some reason — manager, commute, no forward advancement — leave, and retain those relationships. Build ’em from afar. Keep being awkward.
The relationships, the people, the humanity, and the “being in the trenches” in tough moments is what makes work. It really is the most powerful business asset y’all have. Sorry, Strategic Venn diagram!