Transplanting a Culture

The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid -Thomas Kempis

Culture is a significant part of everything we do, and it can also be a bit of an illusive subject. As I have discussed before on the Thrive blog, culture isn’t about a job description or a list of items to execute upon. Culture is how we make the little decisions, what we value, and how we go about doing our work. In a recent book “Leading at a Higher Level”, authors Ken Blanchard and Jesse Lyn Stoner write, “culture consists of the values, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and practices of the organizational members”. That’s a great working definition of culture. Culture is our foundation – our beliefs and values. In his book, “The New Gold Standard”, Dr. Joseph Michelli instructed that few leaders understand the importance that culture plays in organizations performing at a high level. As we look to expand or extend an organization, we must be sure that the cultural foundation is laid deep so that we can effectively build something great. You won’t be effective at building any type of expansion without the right cultural foundation.

I have written a few times about developing a culture in a core organization, but what happens when it comes time to transplant a culture to a new launch or branch office? I have had a few meetings now with organizations who have struggling offices or branches. They have tried a few different items and nothing seems to resolve the issues. In each of these situations I have found that no one spent any time thinking about transplanting the culture. Consequently, there are huge disconnects between these offices and performance suffers significantly.

Many of these situations have seen changes in managers, changes in sales people, changes in venues, and even changes in technology. These situations are usually a bit desperate and can be characterized by these types of statements:

1. “They just don’t understand me”
2. “That would never work here”
3. “They don’t do it the right way”
4. “They don’t understand our situation/market/customer”
5. “They don’t listen”

When these types of statements are being thrown around between a core office and an expansion, they are very telling for me. They scream “WE HAVE A CULTURE ISSUE”! So many times I find that the real issue here is a culture gap that needs to be mended. Many times these organizations have tried other solutions with little improvement beyond short term gains. Replacing management, replacing sales people, increasing budget, changing venue, and all sorts of other efforts have been put forth.

To resolve these situations, we first need to understand that culture is not quick work. If culture was easy and quick, everyone would get it right and change it fast. Some research shows that upwards of seventy percent of culture changes fail. Culture takes discipline and patience. Secondly, we need to understand that effective culture work takes strong leadership. Wherever there is quality in the culture, you will surely find quality in the leadership. In fact I would say that the quality of the culture in any given organization will be equal to the quality of the leadership in that same organization. Here are a few tips when it comes to launching a new branch or expanding your locations:

1. Be sure that the majority of the leadership in the new launch are steeped in the culture of the core organization. I would encourage internal promotion for new launches and branches as opposed to external highers.

2. If you must launch with external highers, bring them in months in advance to get them indoctrinated into your core culture. This is expensive, but much less expensive than a failed expansion.

3. Develop strong leaders. Strong leadership, especially internally developed leadership, is synonymous with strong culture.

4. Understand that culture is important, and communicate this to your team. In the early days of a launch be rigorous about doing things “the right way”. Don’t let bad habits form.

5. Consider assigning someone on your team the official job of Chief Culture Officer. If you have a founder as CEO or Board Chair, it should be this person. If you don’t, choose someone who eats and sleeps your organization. It doesn’t have to be a full time gig, but it can really pay off to have someone thinking about protecting and developing your core culture.

IBM attained its greatest success – and displayed its greatest ability to adapt to a changing world – during the same era that it displayed its strongest cult-like culture -Jim Collins, Built to Last


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