There is a funny scene in the movie If You Could See What I Hear, based on the life of blind athlete, singer and actor Tom Sullivan, where he is driving a car around his college campus. Remember, Tom is blind from birth. It’s a hilarious scene and one of my favourite movies.
At one point I lived in Southern California and would bump into Tom (no pun intended) from time to time at a restaurant in Manhattan Beach and we would talk about life and running, among other things.
Tom would often say:
Most people are driving blind, going somewhere fast but not really seeing.
Are You Leading Blind?
While it may apply to many of us, the question I often ask CEOs is: “Are you leading blind”? I don’t mean that they can’t see, but there are some essential pieces of their own business that many executives, and CEO’s in particular, don’t see. Some look but aren’t able to see clearly. Others don’t even know what to look for, or where to start looking.
Everyone knows that corporate culture (the habitual behaviours executives and employees use when dealing with customers, business problems, or each other) has a significant impact on performance. In a recent study by the Cass Business School of London, researchers studied 18 corporate disasters, including the BP oil spill, AIG, Arthur Andersen, BP, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola, EADS Airbus, Enron, Firestone, Northern Rock, Shell, Societe General and others. In every case, corporate culture (either at the executive or Board level) played a significant part in the troubles.
“The most remarkable finding is that risk professionals – on the whole a highly analytical, data rational group – believe the banking crisis was caused not so much by technical failures as by failures in organisational culture and ethics.” ~ UK Institute of Risk Management
Do You See?
Here are some key questions every CEO and senior executive should be asking on a regular basis? And if they aren’t asking and seeking answers, it is up to the Board to ask these questions.
- Do we really see the culture inside your company?
- Do we see the ways in which corporate culture is hindering your organisation?
- Do we see how the behaviour and actions of the senior team play a big part in creating our corporate culture?
- Do we see the impact culture has on profitability, customer satisfaction, innovation, productivity, the well-being of your employees?
If you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to really look. Time to dig in and find out. In many cases you will be very pleased with what you see. In some cases you will be horrified!
How to SEE Culture?
A true story about Tom Sullivan has the seeds of the answer to how executives can better see their culture:
Tom’s daughter, Blythe, fell in their swimming pool when she was very young and couldn’t swim. Tom was the only one at the pool at the time. Yet he saved his daughter from drowning by listening for the bubbles to spot her location!
The clue? Listening!
Corporate culture is visible and comes alive in the stories people tell about work. The stories told around the lunch counter, over cubicle walls, in the elevator, at the bar after work. If you listen well, you will hear recurring themes in these stories and see your culture being perpetuated in these stories. Stories, told often enough inside of work, create images in employee’s minds, and especially new employees, about what the company is like, what management is like, what life is like working in the company.
The problem with so many executives is that they talk far more than they listen, so it’s hard for them to hear (see) their culture. And the fact is, most employees trust the stories told by their peers far more than they trust executives and senior managers!
My mother used to tell me:
The Good Lord gave you two ears and only one mouth, and expects you to use them in that proportion!
My turn to be quiet and listen! How about you?
Written and Posted by:
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels