Culture can kill

Culture is surely the most nebulous of business concepts. It’s nigh on impossible to quantify accurately and just as difficult to effect. Its perception often looks very different from the reality within.

Steve Jobs’ autobiography pretty much confirms everything we already thought about the much-heralded Apple leader: he was bloody minded, rude, spoilt, obnoxious, argumentative, difficult, exacting, inspirational and perversely brilliant. I’m not sure your average head-hunter would put those attributes together for a great pitch but the semi-volatile culture he fostered (more than once) certainly worked.

Jobs got away with his emotional intelligence hang-ups because his product was first rate and sold, in the main, by the mother load. So instead of being a nasty dilettante, he’s called a visionary and master of artisan.

Greg Smith has spoken out this recently against Goldman Sach’s culture and bravo to him for taking such a whistleblower’s stand. The top execs have clearly fostered a culture of greed and a “decline in the firm’s moral fiber” at the detriment of wider business aspects.

The head of Tesco UK, Richard Brasher, arguably resigned because of Tesco’s culture. Their sales and market share have slid over recent years but their culture is that of trouncing the competition and nothing else will do. So chief exec, Philip Clarke is stepping across and Brasher had nowhere to go inside the retailer.

Sport constantly demonstrates cultural leadership too. Roman Abramovich is seeking his eighth manager in as many years as the owner of Chelsea Football Club. This isn’t the result of a broader strategy or tactics. At its core this is about Abramovich’s culture – be number 1 or go, immediately.

It’s not just the leaders who dictate the culture. That would be too easy. Everyone in the organisation contributes towards its culture. George Bush didn’t go to war on his own, his cabinet and senior teams went along for the ride too.

Given this is every bit as much about what we do as well as what we say, what are you doing for the culture of your organisation? Perhaps, more importantly: is it enough?

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