Organizational Culture – Don’t Burn The Boats

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Blog

Today’s news is full of things for business owners to worry about: inflation, rising interest rates, recession fears, supply chain issues, staying current with ever-changing technology, getting and keeping customers, keeping up with the competition, the disruption caused by AI, should the team be in-office vs hybrid vs remote, and the list goes on and on.

You know who else watches the news? Your employees, and they are just as worried about those things as you are. Plus, they have one more really big thing to worry about: how are YOU handling all of those worries, Mr. or Ms. Business Owner?

If you want your team to fight as hard as you are to maintain a successful business, it’s important to create an organizational culture that your employees can rally around. They need to know your most important goal, how you plan to achieve it, and what their role in getting there might be.

You can communicate that to your teams and increase your chances of success by establishing a vibrant organizational culture.

What Is Organizational Culture?

In their book, Corporate Culture: The Ultimate Strategic Asset, Eric Flamholtz and Yvonne Randle view organizational culture as the ‘corporate personality.’ They define it as consisting of the values, beliefs, and norms that influence the behavior of people as members of an organization.

Organizational culture affects how people and teams interact with each other, with their clients and customers, and with anyone who has a stake in the success or failure of the company. Prospective employees, at least the good ones, will expect to see or hear about your company culture before they sign on to work with you. Potential customers will want to feel like you care about your team before they buy your product and your organizational culture can tell them that. Current clients will be more apt to keep buying your product or service if they know you are invested in the well-being of your employees.

Most importantly, your team wants to know you value their ideas. You can prove that to them by involving them in the formalization of your organizational culture. After all, they are going to be helping you to achieve your vision, mission, and goals. They deserve to be part of the process of creating your company’s personality at the ground level.

After you and your team have documented your collective vision, mission, and goals, continue the conversation by capturing your company norms, systems, symbols, language (including the ever-present acronyms), habits, and beliefs.

Once all of this has been gathered and documented, you and your team have created an organizational culture, a north star for the company. This guiding light provides your managers the ability to manage more effectively. Your individual contributors will know why what they do is important. Your clients will know what to expect when they engage with your team. And all of your company stakeholders can be aligned with what you are attempting to achieve.

But creation of the organizational culture is only half the battle. You need buy-in to bring your culture to life.

The Importance of Getting Commitment

The success or failure of your organizational culture relies on the commitment of your workforce to that culture. Every executive team worth their salt can whip up a vision and values statement in an afternoon, but how do you get your current and future team to fight for those lofty aspirations with you?

Let’s first look at how NOT to get your team’s commitment:

  1. Have you ever been asked for your input in the creation of your organizational culture, been involved in focus groups or brainstorming sessions to create the basic tenets, and then 2 months later with much fanfare your leader presents totally different concepts? This is a great way to demoralize your team. Ask for their thoughts and then decide their input was inferior. And why not top it all off? Don’t tell them why.
  2. How many times have you sat through a company ‘pep rally’ where you were presented with the vision of the month? While a company culture needs to remain flexible, it shouldn’t shift drastically every month or quarter. Your organizational culture should be around long enough to get and keep your team excited about its achievement. Change it too often and you’ll lose momentum.
  3. Have you been presented with your team’s culture having never been asked to weigh in on how your company operates? The easiest way to disengage your workforce is to never ask the team that’s doing the bulk of the work for their thoughts. Even those who join a company after the culture has been in place should be given some type of opportunity to share how effective that organizational culture really is.

Involve all relevant stakeholders when creating your organizational culture so there are no surprises on release day. Don’t do what Hernando Cortés did in 1519.

Resist The Urge To Burn The Organizational Boats

Cortés was a conqueror in the 1500’s. Yes, that was a “legit” occupation back then. He was reasonably successful in his endeavors, but set his sights on a really tough task in 1519. He wanted to capture a treasure that had been held by the same army for over 600 years. It was a juicy proposition loaded with an attractive payout of gold, silver, jewels, and artifacts that other armies had tried to take for years. Many armies of all sizes and skill levels had tried for that treasure, but they had all failed. Cortés knew he needed to do something differently. He believed that motivation was the key.

So, Cortés set out with 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses on 11 ships knowing that he needed to create a deeper level of motivation in his army than any other conqueror had before him. During the journey he talked to his men about what the treasure was like, and how it could benefit their lives and the lives of their children and their children’s children. He talked about how that treasure would feel when they touched it and how triumphant they would be when they could return home and present it to their families.

He was effectively laying out a vision of their success. He saved his thoughts on the actual mission for later and focused solely on the results they could all achieve together. At this stage, he only wanted to pump them up.

And it worked… for a while. But when you put that many men on ships without a lot to do while at sea, doubts are bound to creep in. Cortés expected this to happen so when they finally landed, he didn’t do what every other army had done before them and immediately storm the enemy.

He slowly disembarked the men, and took the time to gather them around and re-share that powerful vision of how the treasure would look and feel and make their families feel. He enlisted crew members who were still sold on his vision to speak up and motivate the others as well so they could hear the message from multiple sources.

Then the day came when they were to begin their conquest, but they still didn’t rush off. Cortés gathered them around once more for what the men thought would be the directions sending them on their actual mission. Their final orders and battle plans. But what Cortés said were 3 words that changed everything. He said:

‘Burn the boats.’

Talk about a surprise! But being dutiful soldiers they did as instructed and torched their boats. When challenged about the decision, Cortés continued, ‘If we’re going home, we’re going in the enemy’s boats.’

An amazing thing happened. They fought well. They fought like their lives depended on it. Because they did. And you know what? They did it. They took the treasure. First time in 600 years that someone had done it. And do you know why? They had no choice. If they wanted to go home and achieve the vision Cortés had set out for them and they all bought into, they had no other option.

Choose A Better Way – Ask Your Organization

While it worked for Cortés, you don’t have to tell your team to burn the boats to get buy-in on the culture needed to achieve your vision. All you need to do is:

  1. Involve your team in the creation of your organizational culture.
  2. Once set, stick with the overall feeling and tenets of your organizational culture while being flexible only with the goals.
  3. Keep asking your team how your organizational culture is working.

We believe #3 is the most important and have created a tool to help you do those meaningful check-ins with your team. It’s called the Organizational Health Check. It investigates 55 critical areas necessary for the continued success of any business. It asks your team questions around employee engagement, team effectiveness, and cultural alignment. All of the things Cortés was going for, but by using the Organizational Health Check you won’t surprise your team with the burning of necessary equipment.

Why burn a boat when all you need to do is give your team a voice?



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