Culture Is Systemic: Three True Stories



“Open your mouth and say ‘Ah’.”

Wonderful. Your throat is already sore and now a doctor is poking a stick in there. But you know that this happens because more may be at stake than just your throat. A culture test is required to determine if the infection is systemic. Otherwise, the health professional might treat the symptoms rather than the real problem, and then worse complications develop in other areas of the body.

This is exactly the same for organizational health. If we only treat some symptoms of the problem, we may find worse complications erupt in other areas. It’s always gratifying to see tangible improvements in any individual work team. But it doesn’t always last if the whole company hasn’t bought in and embraced organizational health.

Here are some examples of what can happen (and has happened to real people!).

True Story #1

We worked with a division of a large multinational manufacturing company for many years and saw significant gains cascade throughout the division. In fact, the work began at a country level and progress was so evident that it was adopted at the global level and impacted thousands of employees! Awesome! Still, despite all our encouragement and reminders, the division leaders resisted our challenge to have them enroll the CEO in the teamwork mindset. “Oh, he gets it. He sees what we’re doing and he loves it,” or “No one wonders why we’re the most profitable part of the company,” were the kind of responses we heard. Plus, the CEO was a surly sort of guy and they presumed he wasn’t very receptive to more details.

Recently the global leader retired and a replacement was assigned from another division. Wholesale change spewed forth. “Healthy schmealthy. This business is about profit, not teamwork,” the new leader proclaimed, clearly refusing to acknowledge how the two are intertwined. People in the division were shell-shocked! Resources to support a healthy organization dried up. Teams were rejigged and all of the accumulated trust and clarity displaced. Concerns expressed to the CEO fell on deaf ears.

Clearly, this wouldn’t have happened if the culture change had been systemic and was embraced by the CEO.

True Story #2

Be aware that even when the CEO embraces a culture of health, that isn’t sufficient. We worked with another company in the tech world and the CEO was a bold spokesperson for the power of organizational health. However, when financial pressures burdened the company several years ago, the board nixed any further spending on “that touchy-feely teamwork nonsense.”

With financial pressures factoring in, a healthy culture is an anchor that can keep you steady! Unfortunately, the company has struggled to recover their position in the marketplace.

Systemic change must include the board!

True Story #3

This true story is YOUR story. We share these real-life stories to alert leaders to the reality that any headway in your own area is always in jeopardy until it is embraced company-wide. The whole organization needs to take the medicine! Here are some steps you can take to tackle that challenge:

  • Make it work in your own area and make it measurable. The people who pooh-pooh organizational health are convinced that spending to strengthen teamwork is an expense, not an investment. Build your case and talk about the benefits from an empirical perspective.

  • Deflect all the credit for success away from yourself and toward the team. In our competitive work settings, the leaders beside and above you can be intimidated by your success. Help them see that they can tap into the same power as they live out the principles of organizational health.

  • Give it away. Whatever you have learned, be unusually generous in sharing it with others in leadership. Humbly offer to apply the approach and practices with groups you report into (whether a higher management team, a lateral leadership body, or the board of directors). Offer your time and even your people to help them jumpstart the journey in their areas.

  • Cheerlead for any leader that demonstrates movement in the right direction. If your board agrees to spend some time learning about each other’s personality styles, talk to anyone who’ll listen about how understanding each other’s “wiring” has helped. When a leader in another business unit holds an offsite meeting to answer the “6 Critical Questions”, applaud her at the company leadership gathering.

  • Never take it for granted. Vision leaks. Drift happens. Turnover can cause dilution. We all have to champion organizational health daily.

  • Believe the best. It may take longer than you hope or imagine, but if you stop believing that it’s possible for other leaders in your organization to embrace organizational health, you allow the root problem to reside. And it could erupt and even overtake your area. Be bold, know what's at stake, and take a stand for health in your entire organization!

#culture #ceo #board #influence #organizationalhealth