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A Dynamic Culture’s Three Best Friends

One of the most difficult decisions very talented people have to make during their careers is whether to practice, teach, or research. There is no wrong decision, but every industry and every society needs people to dedicate their lives to each of these.

Every person in our society today either has had a personal encounter with cancer or knows someone who has cancer. The result is that our age yearns for a cure. In order to cure cancer, we need some of the most talented doctors to stop seeing patients so they can go into laboratories and study endlessly what their peers are discovering, gradually discovering for themselves new things about cancer (sometimes tiny things), which the next researcher puts together with another tiny thing he or she has been working on, and so on, with each discovery putting us one step closer to a cure. Along the way, particular forms of cancer become much more treatable and manageable. There are types of cancer that would have killed you fifty years ago that are completely treatable today, because of this type of shared, progressive research.

The thing is, those research doctors had to stop seeing patients. You cannot see patients all day if you are going to do that type of research. A doctor who sees patients all day long focuses on the effects of cancer. It is good, noble, and necessary work. The doctor who steps away from attending to her patients every day and walks into the solitude of a research lab—which is also good, noble, and necessary work—to focus on what causes cancer is the long-term play.

The principle of causation, or cause and effect, is one of the governing principles of the universe. If I drop a raw egg on cement, it will break. The cause: I dropped the egg. The effect: It splattered everywhere.

World-class cultures are interested in causes. They understand if you deal with the cause, the effect will also be dealt with appropriately. However, many leaders and HR professionals constantly race around dealing with the effects of dysfunctional and unhealthy cultures, rather than pausing long enough to consider the actual causes of these effects. The six principles that make up the culture solution are aimed at changing that.

There are some telltale signs of world-class cultures. One of the easiest ways to identify a culture pursuing excellence is simply the number of people who bring pen and paper to a meeting, speech, or conference and actively take notes. I can typically predict the trajectory of a person’s career with this one question: Do you actively or passively participate in meetings and events? Many make the mistake of thinking active participation means saying something, but that is not so. Taking notes is active participation. Listening—really listening—and considering what is being said and how it can improve what you and your team are doing is active participation. When I stand up to speak to a room full of people and everyone has arms folded in the mental posture of, “Who is this guy and what has he got for me?” I know there is a high likelihood that I am in a culture of mediocrity.

Every week there are new articles that list the qualities of great cultures. These lists include things like: people are happy; high engagement; low turnover; minimal politics; many people applying for roles; people see their work as more than just a job; high trust and transparency, leading to minimization of fear; employees feel appreciated; people have fun at work. There is nothing wrong with these things, but too many people read these articles and think they need to find new ways to “have more fun at work.” The problem is that these things are not usually mission-centric; in fact, often they are not related to any organizational priority at all. They are based on the false assumption that the articles are based on: Inject these things into your organization and you will have a world-class culture. In reality, the things listed are just the natural effects of a mission-centric, people-centric culture. They are the effect, not the cause.

There are just as many articles outlining the symptoms of sick, twisted, and toxic corporate cultures: your boss takes credit for your work and ideas; scapegoating; you feel sick when you think about going to work; anyone with any talent leaves; politics is rampant and tolerated (or even encouraged); lack of loyalty; gossip, backbiting, and passive-aggressive communication; people are miserable and afraid to share ideas. Again, there is nothing wrong with pointing these things out. But it is critical that we realize that these are the symptoms, not the disease; the effects, not the cause.

These articles are also usually accompanied by advice on how to survive toxic cultures. My advice is simple: Don’t just survive. Do something about it. Cancer is the number one cause of death around the globe; it is the number one cause of cultural death too. Do you know who or what is the cancer in your organization’s culture? Whose role is it to identify that cancer and perform the surgery to remove it? Regardless of your place or position in the organization, become a Culture Advocate. Otherwise get the heck out of that place ASAP. Life is too short to be miserable at work.

This book is not about the effects of good and bad cultures. It is about the primary causes. It is concerned with what causes an organization’s culture to become great and how everyone involved in the organization can start practicing and encouraging these essential causes today. In this quest, you and your culture have three best friends:

Best Friend No. 1 - A Hunger for Best Practices

Best Friend No. 2 - Commitment to Continuous Learning

Best Friend No. 3 - Treat People like People


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