Culture Is Key

It seems everywhere I look or listen, whether it be scholarly articles, organizational self-help books, television interviews, or internet podcasts, I keep hearing some permutation of the phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch.” An entire block of my EdD coursework was on organizational culture, and my bookshelf is lined with books designed to help me discern it, measure it, change it, or run from it!

Organizational culture guru Edgar Schein said, “Either you manage the culture, or it manages you.” I am confident that every one of you who leads a school has a story of how your best laid plans of implementing the greatest change to your organization got steamrolled by your school culture.

One excellent book on the topic is Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations: Aligning Culture and Strategy by Denison, Hooijberg, Lane, and Lief. Shaping and managing organizational culture is a leader’s most important challenge. It’s the people that make the place. Said one CEO, “It’s about the culture. I could leave our strategy on an airplane seat and have a competitor read it and it would not make any difference.”

The most powerful thing a leader can do, according to the authors, is “to create a unique character and personality for their organization that fits their business environment and distinguishes them from the competition.” So how do you go about doing that? The authors state that the journey must begin with an understanding of how culture impacts the organization. Research has shown that an organization’s culture impacts performance in four ways.

  • Culture creates an organization’s sense of mission and direction.
  • Culture builds a high level of adaptability and flexibility.
  • Culture nurtures the involvement and engagement of the people.
  • Culture provides the consistency strongly rooted in core values.

That sounds like culture has an amazingly positive impact on your organization, but it is important to realize that the opposite can be said if your prevalent culture is negative. I heard John Couch, Apple’s VP of education, talk about creating a culture of innovation. In every organization that is attempting innovation and change (which should be every organization all of the time, in my opinion), he said there are three types of individuals: swimmers, shark watchers, and tent pole holders. The swimmers are the early adopters who grab hold of your vision or innovation and dive right in the water and start swimming around. The shark watchers are those that stay on shore, waiting to act while quietly watching what happens to those swimmers, and the tent pole holders desperately hang onto the pole and won’t be dragged off the island at any cost.

One way to create more swimmers is to reward that behavior and celebrate failures—the kind of failures that propel you onto success as an organization. We must create more swimmers, motivate the watchers to action sooner, and remove the pole holders from our organizations. As I talk with many school leaders, I encourage them to beware being a job creating or job guaranteeing organization. That is not our mission, nor do we operate in a fiscal environment that allows for that kind of mindset. As one former colleague used to say to his folks, “Join the team for the big win, or find another team.” That type of mindset will definitely shake up the culture in your organization if you’ve been retaining poor performers out of some misguided sense of loyalty. Harsh, perhaps, but too often I have been in schools where poor performance is overlooked because the conversation is simply too hard to have, the staff member has been there so long, or an individual has strong ties with a large portion of the community.

At CSI’s Principal Development Institute, we teach a couple of sessions on Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny, and Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move On, by Henry Cloud. Both books highlight the importance of making tough choices in order to change the culture of your organization, especially because your people drive your culture.

I’d encourage you to take heart and make the tough changes necessary to turn your culture into a healthy one, if it isn’t already. Remember, either you manage your culture, or it manages you!

– Joel Westa


Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

4 Responses to Culture Is Key

  1. Thought-provoking words! I have spent many nights seemingly “beating my head against the wall” and getting little to nothing done in this area. It is clear that I may have been fighting the wrong fight. The last several years of administrative work have proven your words true in that a well-managed culture does possess those four characteristics. My first few years in leadership were defined by others and I was the pawn of the culture around me. I’m a much more joyous administrator after realizing the need for some changes and acting upon them.

  2. Joel,
    I really appreciated your thoughts about culture, it is so true that culture can steam roll the an institution’s plan create great change. Perhaps one of the biggest changes you could make is to start over with a blank piece of paper. What would your advice be for a Christian college starting from scratch?

    • Joel Westa

      I guess the biggest imperative must center on answering the “Why” question. So many organizations and schools for that matter stand up to meet a need that is already being met and do so for the wrong reasons in many cases.
      The old adage about Japanese culture, specifically Toyota, was that they would ask the question “Why” 5 times to get to the real reason for the change they were proposing….it’s a useful exercise, and helps you get to the critical reasoning behind what you are proposing.
      In addition to that, I would certainly visit colleges that have reinvented themselves and are thriving in a market space that is in decline lately….The King’s College (yes it’s my alma mater) has seen some impressive growth and has set themselves apart from other Christian colleges in the nature of their culture and curriculum…after closing down…and persevering through trial.

  3. Joel Westa

    Changing culture is the hardest task out there and success doesn’t happen overnight! Sometimes you begin to see small signs of change and you need to capitalize on them immediately to gain momentum. This work is hard stuff, to say the least, but well worth it IF you can survive it!

    I need to come see you at Celeryville! Let’s make that happen soon!

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