Culture Lessons


Why "building culture" is a bit of a misnomer.

Read Time: 4 minutes


Fair warning here - I do not have permission from ESPN to repost this sound here, so in all likelihood at some point in the near future I will be asked to remove it (although I am promoting ESPN media by doing this).

The sound below was edited together from a segment taken from the Dan Le Batard Show on ESPN radio. A guest host on the show-Domonique Foxworth-really caught my ear with his perspective on the concept of "creating culture." His thoughts were given in context of football teams and their respective coaches, but I think the ideas he suggests are easily applicable to corporations and other non-sports organizations.

Here's the sound, before I receive a cease-and-desist


First, let me say that Mr. Foxworth is uniquely qualified to make these comments. He played seven years in the NFL with three different teams. He knows what it's like inside the locker room. Following his playing career, Foxworth was an executive in, and then head of, the NFL Players' Association. After two years in that position, he was named COO of the NBA Player's Association. He intimately understands sports from the angles of performanceemployment, and business.  

You can't just "change the culture."

Foxworth opens his remarks with the understanding that just because you decide that you are going to "change the culture" of your organization, doesn't mean that can be accomplished simply by bringing in new blood at the top.

"...culture is not something that you can enforce, it is something that you have to develop..."

He notes that "culture is alive." Simply coming in and implementing new policies, procedures and rules and the subsequent enforcement thereof really does little to change attitudes and ideals. A culture - be it societal or corporate - by definition has to be developed. This is not to say that culture can't be guided and influenced by policy. Most certainly it can, and it is. But the culture of a company can't change overnight and to expect as much isn't reasonable. It is only setting the organization up for chaos at best and failure at worst.  The best strategy for building a sustainable and effective culture is through a combination of top-down policies and bottom-up organic attitude. When these aspects meet somewhere in the middle, a strong culture is the result. As Mr. Foxworth notes, when someone comes in and tries to force a set of values on an organization, it ends up in creating a culture of division.

A chief executive's chief job is to focus on culture.

This may seem contradictory to the paragraph above, but it's really complimentary. Just as rapid enforcement of culture-building policies won't change an organization's culture, neither will the C-suit ignoring it. Mr. Foxworth argues that the primary job of an NFL head coach should be to focus on a strategy for building a desired culture for the team, not in running practices, drawing up plays, or pushing his players in the weight room. This is what coordinators and assistant coaches are for. In the same manner, I would hope that a CEO is elevated to that position based primarily on two aspects: 1) the vision he/she can provide for their organization and 2) his/her ability to surround themselves with highly talented people who can buy into that vision and uniquely contribute toward it's realization. Folks, that's IT. A CEO doesn't have to be genius at operations, marketing, finance, etc. That's what presidents, VPs, managers, CFOs, accountants and the like are for. A chief executive is all about vision. Important to achieving the vision is helping to create an environment that is conducive to fostering the kind of culture that makes reaching vision possible.


To know your real culture, face adversity

Today we think of IBM as a locked-down faceless corporate behemoth. It ranks as one of the most "corporate" of corporations in the minds of many Americans. This is why I was shocked to learn that just a generation ago, IBM had a "no-layoff" policy and really honestly took care of its employees like no other large company in the world. This ended in 1993 with much backlash. (Read the story here via Marketplace).

IBM had built a corporate culture that was shattered by one (albeit seismic) act. It's position in the minds of employees has never really recovered. This leads me to wonder how strong that corporate culture really was in the first place.

"...your culture is formed when you're faced with difficult times..."

It's been said that "winning fixes everything." A more accurate analogy may be that winning is like slapping a fresh coat of paint over a rotting fence. It makes you happy and looks great for a little while, but the wood is still rotten underneath. The first strong storm that blows, and the fence is in pieces. So maybe even in the face of IBM's institutional HR policies all those years, the real underlying corporate culture wasn't strong enough to weather a tough business decision that had to be made. Everybody can be happy when times are good, but how many people are willing to stay on the ship and help keep it afloat when it hits a reef?

I think the difference in staying aboard or abandoning ship comes back to the notion of having shared vision that everyone can buy into. More and more we are seeing corporations push their "social responsibility" aspect. Yeah, in some instances this is a marketing gimmick to get you to feel better about buying more widgets. But it is also important for talent retention. There have been numerous recent surveys that indicate a growing number of people are willing to work for less money if they know their jobs have a "positive impact." By inference, it would stand to reason that people are much less likely to leave a position if they feel it has "positive impact." When an organization is hit by hard times, those who are working for a paycheck (which there's nothing wrong with per se) are more likely to leave in search of more stable environments. Companies that cultivate a strong shared vision have employees who are true stakeholders in that vision.

Culture is independent of observation

In closing, I'd like to leave with my favorite thought shared by Mr. Foxworth:

"...the strongest cultures are ones where guys do extra work whether someone is watching, or not."

This was in direct reference to practicing and players spending extra time in the weight room when coaches aren't around. I think, again, very applicable to the business world. Stakeholder employees who act beyond what their jobs actually require to help reach a vision are every organization's dream. Or should be, at least.

Nice job, Mr. Foxworth. Hopefully ESPN will allow me to keep this sound on my page : )



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