I started to co-write a book in early 2000 that mocked the vacuous management catch phraseology of the day. In the process of talking about our own experiences, I learned about “buzzword bingo”. And I thought we were the first to market. Oh well! The bingo words go something like this: results driven, synergy, empowerment, think outside the box, team player//A player, big data and so on. We had a long list of buzzwords and a few sayings to boot. My timeless favorites, “We need to get buy in on this!” and, “You have to drive the results.” one more, “What is the ROI?” The overall winner for me remains, “I want our employees to feel like we care about them,”
When I heard this statement for the first time I was shocked. In a state of wonder, I asked, “Why not just care about them?” Over the years of asking this question to underscore the contrast between caring and the idea of caring, many leaders were puzzled. After the initial answer, I would probe more deeply and though it was as clear as day to me and most employees, it remained a useless distinction to the top leaders.
We didn’t get too far on the book before we were captured by the demands of our growing careers. And, I started to pay more attention to my language and realized I’d become one of them. The book suddenly felt disingenuous. I also started to realize I had my version of what mattered and as much as I wanted to believe my cult of ideas was better, it wasn’t necessarily objectively true.
Unlearning Leadership By Guy Pierce Bell
This started me down the path of exploring why business leaders were obsessed with culture as an expression of a few “thought leaders” (another buzzword bingo word) thoughts. I began paying close attention to my experiences in various executive roles with some research sprinkled in. Over the next seventeen years I expanded my buzz word vocabulary by sitting on boards, working with publicly traded businesses and equity backed investments. My favorite experiences were closed door conversations that ‘never left the room’. A room full of people bouncing between a more sophisticated bingo game and raw aggression.
My conclusion, culture is a reflection of the whole “tribe” (a newer bingo word). Defining culture to create an outcome isn’t culture. It’s akin to creating a policy to correct a behavior. In the short-run you may get the behavior in both cases, but you won’t get what you’re truly interested in. In these more candid conversations I found a deeper truth. This deeper truth, albeit unspoken outside this room, was the actual culture.
Culture is a reflection or outcome much like the bottom line. Yet most businesses manage them as an input and when they do, everything they do to “drive” business creates friction. This friction “drives” people away because they are being sold crap versus being engaged in the experience of running the business. They start to check out, get sick more frequently, do just enough, and play along for now, or worse, for a lifetime. They start playing buzzword bingo. All this is due to a lack of trust. A lack of being connected to something greater than a job.
I suggest considering the two ideas below as a path forward.
Idea for employees: Start with you! How do you wake up today and choose to do the hard work of “showing up”. You choose to act in alignment with your full potential by holding yourself accountable. You check your ego at the door and become an owner of the business. You invest in making the business better day in and day out regardless of whether the company is culturally a freaking mess or not. You have a choice today. You ACCEPT what is, you stay CURIOUS and seek to understand and actively engage, or you DEPART. Departing is fine when the culture or job doesn’t work for you. Choose to show up no matter what or choose to go. Don’t wait for someone else to choose for you.
Idea for executives: It starts with you! If you really want to attract and keep outstanding people, DO IT. Run the business WITH every person. Engage WITH every person by having the fewest layers keeping people from people. When the business requires people telling people telling people what to do, you have to figure out how you will avoid ass covering. Not easy to do from a list of words and abstract conversations. Achievable when you embody and extend the invitation for all others to embody this kind of investment in each other. Accept the fact that you, my friend, are not that important. And, yet you are vitally important.
The slowest path to building a transformative culture is to rely on every individual person choosing to ACT as the owner regardless of the cultural mess.
The fastest path to building a transformative culture is to BE a transformational CEO/executive. Here’s the simple part, all you have to do is be YOU. If you’re like most of the executives I’ve worked for and with, you think you are already internally aligned, stop thinking.
Culture matters! It is simply the expression of how close or far away we are from our full potential.