Opera is when the hero gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings! ~Robert Burns
My daughter loves opera and even though she is just 17 has seen nearly 100 operas in places like the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Opera House and the English National Opera in London, the Met in New York, the Wagner operas in Bayreuth, the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Coliseum in Verona, the Mikhailovsky in St. Petersburg, and Glyndebourne in the English countryside. It is the combination of singing, orchestration, set design and the classical story all coming together that provides the magic transformative experience of opera. She is even considering putting on a production of the Rape of Lucretia, an opera by Benjamin Britten, at Cambridge University next year.
There are many elements that make up a great opera production, but key among them are three important roles: the singers and musicians, the directors, and the producers. Basically, the singers and musicians are what the audience hears and sees, the directors mold the performance to their interpretation of the story, and the producers provide the funding for location, logistics, costumes, sets, marketing, salaries, etc. The same key roles are responsible for a movie and a live theatre performance. Very important roles and they need to work together to produce a great production.
Opera is for a lifetime, not just a minute. ~Kiri Te Kanawa
Imagine what a mess the production would be if the directors (music director, choral director, stage directors, etc.) each did their own thing without talking or coordinating with each other. Circus Maximus! And imagine if the singers came without knowing the story and how the plot unfolds, they just sang the notes? And if the producers were only focused on making a profit and keeping costs as low as possible?
A perfect recipe for disaster and a design to fail!
Corporate Culture as Opera
So, here’s my analogy between corporate culture and opera (bet you wondered where this was going!). First an understanding about corporate culture. Corporate culture is an outcome that can only be seen in behaviours. How employees at all levels (senior management, directors, managers, supervisors, professional staff and employees) habitually and routinely behave towards each other, their jobs, other departments, management, customers and suppliers.
Corporate culture is how employees behave when no one is looking.
These visible behaviours and actions (like blaming others, criticising other departments, blaming management, high or low engagement) are the outcome and product of the common beliefs people have about the business. which are in turn a product of company work rules and practices, policies, hiring and onboarding practices, HR and compensation policies, interactions with upper management, what upper management focuses on, how meetings are run, and a host of other organizational policies and processes.
In most organizations, new employees are hired based on skills and experience, but with very little indoctrination into expected behaviours and overall understanding of the company strategy. And in order to fit in and be accepted within their function and department, they are keen to discover “how to succeed”. Being accepted as part of the group or team is vitally important to most new employees. After all, their income and the future of their family depends on being accepted and getting rewarded.
So, the most influential individuals in determining how a company performs are not the employees and not senior management, but the immediate supervisors and those in charge of functions and departments. They set the informal ground rules on the accepted behaviours. It’s very much like a hospital, where everyone knows it’s the head nurses who really determine the culture, not the doctors or senior administration. Get cross ways with the Head Nurse and your tenure will be difficult and short!
Corporate culture works on human logic, not business logic!
That’s just how organizations work. It has very little to do with strategy analytics, published values, or senior management speeches. Human beings are wired in their evolutionary DNA to fit in and become a part of the group (team, tribe, etc.) and they quickly adopt the accepted behaviours to fit in.
So, the major key to a high performing corporate culture is alignment and a common script on behaviours among the key informal leaders (supervisors, department heads, team leaders, etc.). Unfortunately, this group is often overlooked as critical to corporate success. And in fact, most senior managers don’t even know who these informal leaders are. But just ask the employees doing the work and they will tell you instantly.
And just like in an opera production, senior management (the producers of the opera) plays an important background role. Notice I said background role. The real job of senior management is to provide the organization with the vision, budgets and decisions required for superior performance. If senior management is more concerned with quarterly profit than investing in infrastructure (a systemic problem with big banks) or training, or customer satisfaction, then even with highly skilled employees and managers, superior performance is difficult.
You can’t build s sustainable future by trying to please Wall Street every quarter!
So next time you go to the opera, or the theatre or a movie, remember that the experience your walk away with is the result of a myriad of inputs behind the scenes. And next time you start to think about your company performance, remember the role of corporate culture and the key drivers. Therein lies your real levers for dramatic performance improvement.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
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John also writes thriller novels!