Practical Approaches to Managing Culture: Defining the Organization’s Mission (Part I of IV)

The culture bandwagon is picking up steam.  Everyone is citing its organization’s “culture” as the foundation for its activities in the hope of meeting a rapidly evolving standard for organizations.  In its latest corporate compliance guidance, the Justice Department, along with numerous regulatory agencies, continue to cite the importance of a company’s  “culture of compliance.”

But when it comes to defining the terms, how to manage a company’s culture and how to measure, monitor and measure a company’s culture – everyone responds with a blank stare.  That is when we hear the Justice Potter Stewart famous definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

To provide my own perspective on some of these issues, I am dedicating four blog postings this week to corporate culture.  My answers may not be “correct” or even “persuasive,” but the dialogue has to begin.  I have long advocated definition and practical approaches to defining, managing and maintaining a company’s culture.  As I often write, culture is a company’s most important “internal control.”  So, today, let’s start with defining an organization’s culture.

We often hear flippant attempts to define a company’s culture – “we are committed to doing the right thing.”  This is an easy and oft-used phrase by CEOs and senior executives to define a company’s culture.  From my vantage point, when you hear this type of definition, I would quickly reference the classic refrain from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, “Run Away!!!” (See clip here).

Business leaders who repeat the “do the right thing” definition are lazy and do not understand the importance of a company’s culture.  It is a cop out – pure and simple.

There are numerous approaches to define an organization’s culture. In the face of this complexity, I often search for straight-forward approaches that can be easily communicated and translated into an action plan.

Let’s break it down from the beginning – a company consists of individuals who are committed to a mission and organized along specific functions and levels of management/leadership.   A company’s culture reflects not only its business mission but much more – every organization has its own DNA, and its own operating style governing internal interactions – among board members, senior executives, management and employees – and external stakeholders – the community, shareholders/owners, government, consumers and the public.

To focus the definition purpose, I often start with basic questions: What is the mission of the organization?  If a business, what is its guiding purpose in providing goods and/or services?  [Just to make sure we are on the same page – making money is not a mission] 

A company’s mission is the critical point.  The mission is what animates the company, its leadership, its managers, its employees and its owner.  It is the value proposition for its customers.

Internally, a company’s mission is its rallying cry.  Leaders know the organization’s purpose, the reasons for its existence and communicate the company’s mission to inspire others.  Humans want to join together in a common mission, a higher purpose, and often define themselves as an important part of an overall mission.  It provides each person with the opportunity to self-realize. 

An organization often adds to this definition of its mission by adopting a short values statement.  In some cases these values reinforce the organization’s mission, and in other cases, the values promote the means by which the organization acts to achieve its mission.  A short value statement can be a force multiplier as a means to organize and inspire members.

The objective is to define a culture that translates into beliefs and values that guide an organization’s members.  This is not meant in the “control” sense – not by dictates, orders or authoritarian rule.  But is meant to bring about a result from leadership, inspirations, and shared purpose that results in a common understanding of expectations and behaviors.  In other words, an organization’s DNA translates into an internal set of rules and guides governing business activities, interactions and tasks.

An organization’s culture is not a fixed monolith.  It adapts to internal and external influences.  Like the evolution of a compliance program, an organization’s culture changes in response to change and adaptation.  It is part of the human condition, and equally so for organizations.

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