Who leads on culture? Four stories

Week 18.culture

Last week I posted an extract taken from Chapter 9, Culture,  from the forthcoming third edition of my book “Guide to Organisation Design,”.  The group I am working with discussed the chapter, raising the question – who leads on culture? Rani Salman, one of the group, has picked up on this in his guest blog below.  Many thanks to Rani.

The Battle of Santiago

The year was 1962, the “beautiful game’s” peak moment had arrived centre stage, as football’s highly anticipated World Cup was being hosted in one of the most southern points on earth- Chile.  

One of the favourites to win it all was Brazil, led by Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé; a maestro on the pitch, and who many argue is the greatest player to ever play the game.  The Brazilians collectively knew that having a cohesive and high performing culture, especially, in such a tense environment was paramount to the success of the team. The prevailing view was that Pelé’s brilliance and star power on the pitch underscored by the 77 goals he scored, was the driving force of leadership on the team that truly shaped Brazil’s winning culture.

However, surprisingly, Pelé was never made captain of the team nor did he ever lobby for it.  The team’s captain was little known Hilderaldo Bellini, a gritty and humble central defender who, during a nine-year stint, never scored one single goal.  While Pelé attended to the pressures of the spotlight and was the face of Brazilian football, Bellini took care of the daily, hourly grunt work of unifying the team and building their winning culture. He cleaned up their mistakes with his fearless defence, often leaving the pitch bruised and bloodied, and calmly urged them forward when their confidence sagged (Bellini).  His job wasn’t to dazzle on the field but to labour in the shadows of the stars, to carry water for the team, to lead from the back.  

Brazil eventually won the 1962 World Cup in spectacular fashion, and in an iconic moment, Bellini raised the trophy emphatically above his head, an extravagant gesture for the time (Trophy Lifting).  Maybe the unassuming defender was finally soaking in the glory of his role; the unsung hero, a backstage leader, a cultural firebrand, who many of his peers dubbed as the real foundation of the team’s winning football culture.      

The Lonely Wizard of Menlo Park

Thomas Edison is one of the greatest innovators of our time.  He was often referred to as the lonely “Wizard of Menlo Park” tinkering alone arduously in his lab into the late night, cranking out invention after invention with his tireless brilliant mind.  He produced 1,093 patents and a trove of creations that helped shape modern history, such as the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera.

He is also credited for cultivating one of the most powerful and iconic innovation cultures at the world renowned “Invention Factory” located in Menlo Park, New Jersey (Menlo Park).  A location, which many claimed fathered the birth of modern-day start-up culture and powered the rise of innovation.  His famous line of “I haven’t failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” encapsulates the mindset and behaviours that formed such a unique culture, where inventions like the talking doll, electrical pen, cement, and vote recorder took off.  

However, the essence of innovation culture at the Factory was not all down to Edison. It really stemmed from a small group of skilled technicians and craftsmen dubbed the “Muckers.”  These gifted young men travelled across the US and Europe, to join forces with Edison (The Muckers).  They were responsible for testing, experimenting, and iterating many of the ideas and are often considered the real magic, fabric and lifeblood of innovation at Menlo Park.  If “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” as Edison famously says, then the Muckers should be credited for the 99%.

Sledgehammering Your Way to Cultural Change?

Formal leaders’ role modelling of targeted behaviours and their symbolic acts are a crucial ingredient to any cultural change effort.  The sight of Zhang Rumin, CEO of Haier, brutally smashing 76 fridges with a sledgehammer, brought employees to tears.  But, the message was loud and clear, the need to have all employees driving production of high quality products in a high quality cuture.  The act of sledgehammer symbolism initiated Haier’s quality culture, elevating it to a 16-billion-dollar business (Haier Article).  The sledgehammer is now on display in the permanent collection of the Chinese National Museum in Beijing.     

A FedEx story

FedEx, the logistics company known for its on-time delivery and which had a slogan of “The World On Time,” uses powerful stories and imagery to drive behavioural change, some of which has become company folklore.     

As company legend has it, early in the 1970’s one of the company’s drivers was out late one snowy night in the hinterlands of the Midwest to check a drop-off box for any packages. Only, when he got to the box, the lock was frozen solid and the key broke off in the lock. After trying in vain to reach the packages inside, the driver finally made the decision to drive to a nearby auto garage where he borrowed a blowtorch, which he then used to cut the legs off the box. The driver then put the box into his truck and delivered it to the airport where a maintenance team was able to drill it open, remove the packages inside and get them on the plane to their final destination “On Time.” 

You can’t find many things more powerful to communicating and shaping FedEx’s culture than this timeless and engrained story.

Navigating through cultural change

Cultural change, evolves through multiple routes:  symbols, leadership role modelling, systems, processes, structure, and others (Cultural Web).  Ultimately, if you want to change an organisation’s culture use a mix of interventions, choosing those that you think will have the most impact for your organization and its current context, while focusing on a critical few behaviours at a time.

If you can make real behavioural change happen then you are on the way to cultural change.  Yes, there are many other elements that constitute/influence culture (both internal and external) and those include values, mindsets, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, etc. But at the end of the day, behaviours are observable, and typically managing and acting on something that can be seen and measured is a better way to make an impact.

Symbolic actions serve to set the stage for what is required, but they are insufficient.  People are more likely to change behaviours, in an organization, by seeing others, and by copying behaviours of their colleagues and peers, especially those they have strong relationships with or admire. 

This is where the role of influencers and informal leaders (such as the Muckers and Bellini’s of this world) come into play- informal leaders’ cross organizational boundaries and come with some form of power – social, information, personal. Identifying and working with the informal leaders enables a more scalable and viral spread of the behaviours targeted.

In fact, cultural influencers can have close to 60-70% more reach than formal leaders have in an organization with frontline staff (Influencers and Culture).  These individuals can often be the real cultural leaders of any organization, thus identifying, leveraging, and engaging informal leaders and influencers to propel change (although not always at the top of the agenda in a cultural change effort), can often prove to have the most impact. 

Image: https://counterpointsarts.org.uk/about/core-beliefs/