Collaboration is the Culture of Success

No matter how far reaching a leader’s vision or how brilliant the company’s strategy may be, little will be realized if not supported by the organization’s culture.

Analyzing the team’s lack of success a few years ago, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers took management to task saying, “I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team.

“What type of culture do you want to have? What type of system do you want to have? How do you want to play? It starts there.”

The LA Lakers, just like any other organization, took a top-down approach to team culture in which the leaders set the tone for the entire team.

Everyone is watching

There was a submission to Quora, an online Q&A forum, about how many hours Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg actually spends working at headquarters. A graphic designer at Facebook responded beautifully:

I sit near Mark at FBHQ so I’ll speak from my experience. He’s often in every morning before me and is around after dinner working as well. I would say he’s in the office roughly 9-10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Sometimes we have particularly exciting projects going on that have people volunteering their weekends and Mark might come by and see how things are going. Mark occasionally travels and isn’t in the office, but it seems like it’s more likely that his appointments come to our headquarters than vice versa.

This employee went on the praise Zuckerberg’s attendance saying it set an example for the company’s culture: “His workspace is the same as everyone else. He takes his job very seriously not just as a businessman but as a leader; he has helped keep our company culture what it is.”

With employees giving such glowing reviews of their company’s leadership, who needs a PR statement?

What struck me about both of these statements was that they came from two different types of organizations: A sports team and an internet startup. Significantly though, they both zeroed in on the importance for leaders to set the tone of the organization’s culture.

Culture-focused leadership

The old days of the command and control culture of leadership has gone the way of the cassette tape. That leadership style had its day and that day is long gone. The problem is that some leaders are still stuck in the outdated mindset of straddling the bow, full force ahead, my way or the highway, herding his or her charges into oblivion.

The graveyard of companies who were driven by leaders who didn’t abandon this outdated mindset is growing. A company without a winning culture will be doomed to mediocrity or, even worse, extinction. If you look at successful organizations today like startups and tech companies, many of them seem to understand that culture is the co-pilot. I have wondered whether this is a result of the demographic of the CEO suite. Younger CEOs likely have a better understanding of the collaborative aspect of a winning culture as part of the new leader competency.

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Culture is the values, mindsets and behaviors that constitute an environment conducive to success. This incubator atmosphere creates a culture that attracts and retains talent. New, talented hires will feel like they belong in the organization and will flourish in a collaborative type of atmosphere.

Culture is as important as strategy for success

If you as a leader were asked to describe your company’s culture, would it match up with your employee’s version? During my days as VP HR for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia during its heyday, we were all in sync. You could ask any employee to describe our company’s culture and they would all give a variation of a highly creative and a collaborative company. Ask the leaders at that time the same question and you received the same types of responses.

Culture is distinctive to a company and doesn’t necessarily transfer over to other companies. This is not a best practice exercise; you can’t adopt another company’s culture and make it your own. Organizational culture is a unique personality based on the shared values and heritage of your organization.

Companies with winning cultures are easily identifiable since they are better able to execute on strategy. Employees of such companies feel more accountable for their individual responsibilities and for the company as a whole.
The ever-evolving business landscape helps catalyze changes to a company’s culture. Constant change allows a company to clean the slate and develop the framework for a high-performance work culture. Use change as an anchor to redirect if needed.

Make a “culture call”

Instilling a winning culture requires changing how people think about the company and altering habitual behaviors. Publicly traded companies put a lot of preparation into the quarterly earnings call. Non-public companies, in anticipation of going public, create a road show presentation to potential investors. All the numbers, vision and strategy are discussed from that vantage point.

That same model could be used for a “culture call” soon after the call. Prep should be done with the same intensity, rigor and information built around the narrative: How did we do, how we plan to do it and how we need all of you to help us do it. Use a SWOT analysis approach to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a business decision and do it in plain English.
Executive leaders should take every opportunity and encounter to deliver their message and draw their employees into a culture-focused organization. Build a strong culture and talent will come. Otherwise, proceed at your own peril.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.