A Tale of Two Cultures: Strong Leaders Own One, Influence the Other

Culture is something people talk a lot about, but I’m not sure we fully understand how to cultivate or protect it.

The syllabus for my leadership course at Villanova includes a theme about the importance ofCulture Pull Quote culture in leadership and execution. It’s so critical that my MBA candidates understand that leaders need to focus on cultivating and protecting culture, both at an organizational and team level. I refer to these as the “Big C” and “little c” cultures:

  • The “Big C” is corporate culture. It is very hard to change. It takes a significant commitment and a whole lot of time – and in the end, you still may not be able to change it.
  • The “little c” is the culture of a division, team or project. It is basically a smaller unit within a bigger organization. This is also hard to change, but definitely more manageable and, as a leader, your responsibility.

Scapegoating “Big C,” owning “little c”

I think we are quick to point the finger of blame at corporate culture. It’s easy to avoid business challenges by blaming it. This is a mistake. True leaders, should never hide behind the “Big C.” Don’t lay the blame of your lack of progress at its doorstep. Yes, it can be frustrating if your corporate culture does not seem to support your team’s goals, but think about what is within your control. Invest your time doing what you can to change the situation, not complaining about it.

Your division, team or project culture is within your ability to manage and change, if necessary. Build a culture oriented around executing, and executing well. But don’t just build it – OWN  it. Make it the social fabric of your division, team or project. If you do not like your “little c,” lead the effort to improve it. Not only can this create the necessary momentum of change within your team, but your progress and success could very well extend beyond the “little c,” providing “Big C” with an example of what could be. Don’t be surprised if the “Big C” takes steps to follow suit.

Making culture count

Do not underestimate the impact of culture – good or bad. The wrong culture kills growth, personal opportunity, morale and general fun in the workplace. You will end up losing business, key people and overall market leadership. While many things affect culture, in my experience, five things matter most:

  1. Building trust
  2. Driving accountability
  3. Recognizing and rewarding performance
  4. Communicating simply and consistently
  5. Providing transparency into the decision-making process

Your turn

Someone once told me: norms drive behaviors, behaviors drive actions, and actions drive culture. As a leader, are you working hard to establish the right norms? Are you supporting the right behaviors? Do you have a culture that facilitates success? If things do not seem to be working right, my first move would be to check the culture. Check it honestly. Then look for the opportunity to improve your “little c.” It’s the perfect place to start and I assure you, it’s not too late.