Corporate culture is that one essential ingredient or component that binds the people in an organization. Much time is spent by HR strategists and company leaders defining and creating their cultures. What many fail to realize is that the culture has often already defined itself. And, that process has resulted through an identity, an experience, or an event that connects the members within the organization.
When I was working on my MBA in the mid-90’s, the program I participated in was an Executive Management program through the Broad School at Michigan State University. The most powerful aspect of this program was many of my fellow classmates were executives or executives-in-waiting from the Big 3 automotive companies — GM, Ford, Chrysler. This was definitely a high performing group.
Many of the learning process involved the sharing of experiences from everyone’s businesses and careers. At the time, Chrysler was being heralded for its successes in having gone from near collapse to financial success. Their car models were starting to catch people’s attention. And, they were in the middle of a very successful supplier relationship program.
The running joke amongst our classmates was that every time a Chrysler student would offer insights or commentary they would start their with the statement, “we at Chrysler…” This was a powerful message about their culture.
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The employees at Chrysler had identified their success in turning the business around as a mantra for how business is done. The culture was built around the successes and accomplishments of the turnaround and the initiatives it fostered.
Corporate culture is not defined in the boardroom or HR department, it is defined by a common bond of behaviors, events, and identities.
This blog post was prompted by an article in Fortune about Johnson & Johnson’s current quality problems and its impact on consumer confidence. The Tylenol crisis of 1982 became the benchmark for managing a crisis of quality, safety and consumer confidence. Whatever the source of this current crisis, is not the point of this post. However, the impact of this current crisis on the corporate culture is significant.
J&J’s employees had taken pride in their successes, like the Chrysler gang, in managing the 1982 Tylenol mess. Their culture was built around this commitment that they knew how to manage a quality and confidence crisis and had built a culture around their mandate that something like that would never happen again. Unfortunately, management was so disconnected from the culture of its organization, that it did not pay attention to processes, passion, and commitment of its own team around safety and quality. Somehow the organization has sacrificed its culture for something else.
The challenge for leaders in organizations is to build better connections with its teams. There is a community — a culture — already defined in most organizations. Before disrupting, changing, improving, or destroying the one they have, they need to know what it is and how it got there.