Last week, I found myself back in Grenoble to speak at an offsite meeting of Soitec, a world leader in the field of generating and manufacturing revolutionary semiconductor materials, mostly for the electronics and energy industries. The topic of my speech was how organizations, and managers at all levels, can build, transform, and maintain strong group cultures.
As I began preparing to talk to the company’s 100 top managers, I searched my blog notes to see what I had written here in the past. To my surprise, I found nothing at all. Indeed, it was hard to believe that I had not written about corporate or group culture, as it is a notion that has long been central to much of my work with companies.
So, I decided to present some of my thoughts on this topic now, in what will probably turn into a series of posts.
Just how important is group culture? Peter Drucker, one of the most important business thinkers of the 20th century, is famous for saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
I believe Drucker is correct, and I would go so far as to say that culture devours not only strategy but everything else as well. Without the right kind of culture, a group cannot pull together in any direction. As such, no strategic plan, objective, or vision can be achievable.
Quite by coincidence, this week I also happened upon an article and a video by Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club in England, on the team’s official website. In an interview, the coach was asked how important he considered team culture or spirit, when you compare it to “the more commonly accepted qualities” of winning clubs, such as technique, skill and tactics. His answer was similar to what Drucker would say. In essence, without the right culture, a football club cannot win.
In Wenger’s view, great team spirit is something that one must consciously strive for and preserve at all costs, since it can be the difference between winning and losing. As he states, it is a concept that must remain top of mind throughout the organization: “How far can you go in cultivating and developing that team spirit? That’s our target. We know that to have a chance of being successful, we want to be more of a team than any other side in the Premier League.”
This legendary coach, whose longevity at one club is unsurpassed among today’s football managers, compares the group’s culture and spirit to a flower: “You have to take care of it and look after it every day, or else it will slowly die. But as well, you can make the flower bigger, better and prettier if you care for it. We believe that part of the responsibility of the staff, part of the responsibility of the players is to take care of team spirit.”
I am struck by Wenger’s outlook, by his observation that culture and people issues can trump any strategy, and that team spirit is indeed fragile, like a flower. The coach’s declaration immediately reminded me of the words of another legendary manager toward the end of a long career: Jack Welch in 1999, in the final years of his two-decade tenure as CEO of General Electric.
When Harvard professor Christopher Bartlett sought to delineate Welch’s evolution during his time as the conglomerate’s leader, he asked this question: “As you look back on these last 20 years, personally, you as an individual and as a chief executive, what do you think are your biggest learnings? How different are you today as a manager than you were when you took over in 1981?”
Welch’s response was one similar to those I have encountered on numerous occasions when I listen to mature leaders. Where the focus of their early years is squarely on strategic and operational issues, with the passage of time they often come to realize that business is mostly a people and culture game. As he says: “In 1981, I was much more of a hands-on [manager], very operational, very much interested in what piece of the portfolio you would keep and you wouldn’t keep, the nuts and bolts.”
“I see the job as manager today so much clearer. I see it as walking around with a can of fertilizer in one hand, and a jug of water in the other hand. And, you think of the employee population as a garden, and you’re pouring the fertilizer on, and pouring the water on, and you want the flowers to grow…your job is to constantly pour the fertilizer and the water on, and give everybody a chance to flourish.”
So, how can we build and maintain the cultures that enable our gardens, our flowers, our people and strategies, to flourish? That is a rich subject to delve into in the weeks to come.
Image: Flickr user Jesse! S?