Key Concept ~ In our series on the three key elements for accelerating successful startups, here’s the third in a series of excerpts from my book, “The Transformational Entrepreneur ~ Engaging The Mind, Heart & Spirit For Breakthrough Business Success”. (Note: A special thanks to my readers for your patience in the the updates on this blog site. The team’s been in Missouri for the past ten days conducting a series of training exercises with psychologists from the VA and with local veterans to launch Warriors in Transition in the Southeast Missouri community).
~ Creative Culture
While leadership is paramount in orchestrating the creative visualization of an enlightened strategic planning process, it is the propagation of culture that will carry an organization forward to scalable heights (or lows; it cuts both ways) that resonate far beyond a single personality. It is much like the relationship between a gardener and their garden. The gardener may be capable of inspirational work, but it is the garden that inspires.
The traditional definition of organizational culture is the shared values, norms, artifacts, and embraced behaviors of an enterprise. This is a somewhat superficial definition that historically has proven to poorly serve leaders attempting to drive performance or organizational change. At best, it places culture at the periphery of the company, as if it is a side effect of the mission. At worst, by referring to culture as an artifact, it infers that the culture is a coincidental by-product or relic of the organization.
In reality, culture is the vibrational resonance of the collective consciousness of the organization. This immediately changes the way we think about culture. It is no longer a by-product of what a company does but a powerful force that affects everything and everybody involved in the business. The frequency of cultural energy is self-generating and perpetually regenerating. When we drop a pebble into a pool we cannot alter the ripples that move continuously outward without disrupting the entire pool. It is leadership’s role to drop the appropriate pebbles, at the appropriate time, knowing the resonance will expand beyond their immediate control.
For nearly a decade working as a strategic consultant with life science and medical device start-up enterprises I began to notice a common challenge shared by these companies. The vast majority of these companies emerge from intellectual property cultivated in academic settings. As these companies are formed they bring along members of the research staff and are often lead by a scientist, physician, or engineer that first developed the technology in their laboratory. It is an exciting time reflecting the natural progression of organizational evolution, but this progression requires substantive, adaptive change at the very heart of the enterprise.
Unwittingly, these entrepreneurs bring along the academic culture from whence they came. The culture that was ideal for the nurturing and early cultivation of their intellectual property is ironically very poorly suited for the business environment they are attempting to enter. This is exacerbated by the nature of their technology and the critical demands of customers, regulators, and investors in the health care and pharmaceutical research markets. The mission has changed (moving from creating technology to commercializing technology) yet the emerging organization clings to their historical culture, usually quite unaware of the risk this is about to introduce to the nascent company.
I’ve observed that these start-up companies are often unaware of the imperative need to quickly migrate from an academic culture to that of a business oriented culture. This naiveté is a leading contributor of failure in early stage companies. It is not the technology that fails; it is leadership’s inability to recognize the significance of culture and the fundamental importance of creating and cultivating the culture necessary to meet the high expectations of their target marketplace.
But why is this? These are quite often remarkably gifted intellectuals capable of remarkable discoveries, insights, and performance. It is a facet of business dogma that culture is a by-product of artifacts, shared values, and attitudes rather than the actual energy of the collective consciousness of the organization. It is not peripheral; it is concentric to the very essence of the organization.
The academic culture to which they cling isn’t bad; it is just as it should be in the early, creative stages of intellectual property. It simply no longer resonates with the frequency the evolving organization needs to successfully connect with customers in a commercial environment. The very nature of the enterprise has evolved and it is leadership’s responsibility to anticipate and ignite the new energy and intention necessary to fulfill this new mission.
One of the reasons culture may be perceived as an allusive, almost amorphous issue may be due to the fact that it is rarely discussed during the early stages of company creation. There are so many urgent and demanding issues organizations face as they struggle to establish traction and stability in the marketplace. Culture always seems to take a back seat in development. From my experience, it is only when culture becomes a problem that there is a conscious effort to address the situation. By that time it is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier traversing the Suez Canal. The constraints of the business make it a formidable task that no one wants to get in front of in order to resolve.
Another reason business culture tends to take on a seemingly uncontrolled life of its own is the lack of focus on culture in the development and execution of the strategic plan. It simply isn’t a traditional core focus of senior management and it can be a difficult area to measure in an objective manner. Perhaps industrial companies operating in the twentieth century could get away with ignoring this strategic imperative, but contemporary enterprises leveraging intellectual property for value creation can no longer afford to avoid the importance of culture.
The propagation of a creative, healthy culture begins with the expressed intention of authentic leadership. Associates take their cue from the words and behaviors of their executives. If leadership expresses a predatory, win at all cost philosophy, the behaviors of the organization will follow suit. Nowhere is the old adage of reaping what one sows more accurately reflected than in the creation of organizational culture. When associates buy-in to the vision, intention, and strategy, a corresponding, positive energy begins to resonate throughout a business. As a business grows in size, the outer bands of this energy are subject to the laws of inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. This is why culture demands attention early in the developmental stages of a business. Once the initial, framing forces are unleashed they are very difficult to modulate.
The traditional definition of culture references shared values; this warrants a bit more discussion. Culture is affected by the shared, living values of an organization. There are two types of living values in a company; explicit shared values and implicit shared values.
Explicit values are best reflected through thoughtfully crafted Vision Statements and Mission Statements. These formal articulations define who we are and where we’re going. Unfortunately, these formal statements are often another area of peripheral focus, especially in emerging organizations (we’ll discuss creating powerful Vision and Mission Statements in detail in Chapter Six). Explicit values are also reinforced through the language and focus expressed in standard operating procedures. This emphasizes how we will act in the daily conduct of our business; how we will treat our customers and stakeholders and resonate with the sense of responsibility we have to those working around us.
Explicit values are almost always highly positive in their intention but they can be dramatically tempered by the implicit values of an organization. These are the unwritten rules of a company and these unspoken values are capable of derailing the finest intentions.
Implicit values often emerge from ego and therefore are frequently based in fear, insecurity, and the desire to perpetuate positions of power. Unwritten rules can cover a wide spectrum of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors in a company. Expectations of dress, informal lines of communication throughout the hierarchy, subtle power influencers, and the evaluation criteria of performance are prime examples. I’ve even experienced environments where the exercising of vested stock options was perceived to be a career killer by senior management! This certainly wasn’t written anywhere, but it was clearly understood by everyone.
The example we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another is the existence of a good ole’ boy network in a company. The existence of such cliques are, by definition, exclusive, rather than inclusive. They disenfranchise talented associates and propagate office politics. Such cliques often display passive-aggressive behaviors that exist only to serve the ego and selfish desires of individuals in an organization.
The consistent display of authentic leadership helps ensure the alignment of implicit values with organizational intention. This makes sense as authentic leadership is not rooted in the ego. Authentic leadership also cultivates empathy throughout the culture, a powerful and binding force of positive intention. We’ll explore this in more detail in Chapter Eight.
It is impossible to parse out any one of the three key attributes of transformational performance. They are all intertwined in the tapestry of the organization and require continuous attention over time. With these concepts as our backdrop we can now begin to discuss the step-by-step process to transform your organization or lay the right foundation for your startup endeavor!
© Terry Murray, 2012.