A Culture of Excellence

posted on 6 Mar 2021
Bonsai tree in a old park.

Be it Andrew Grove at Intel, Bob Iger at Disney or Howard Schultz at Starbucks, they all have one thing in common. They have successfully managed to run companies that create exceptional value for their customers. In doing so, they had a long-lasting impact on the lives of their employees and millions around the world. And they did this by creating a culture of excellence in their respective companies.

Culture is Important

Successful leaders across industries devote an inordinate amount of time on something as intangible as culture. That’s because culture is the biggest leverage to bootstrap a virtuous cycle of creating and compounding value. A culture of excellence can produce value for it’s customers that can far outstrip that of the competition. The gains of creating this value, such as financial resources, talent pool and market share loop back into the organization and have a compounding effect on creating even more value for customers.

Yet, by its nature, changing culture is hard. For starters, it means completely different things to different people. Two people on the same team, may describe their team’s culture in non-overlapping ways. They may not even agree on what about their team’s culture is most important. So how can one be excellent at creating something so subjective and fraught with bias?

This non-alignment speaks to a disconnect I have noticed time and again in the industry. Every team wants to have a culture of excellence, but they seldom make a deliberate attempt to shape and nurture it. As a result, when people describe their team’s culture, on close scrutiny means it means, ‘do I get along with my colleagues’ or ‘can I get my work done without worrying about my boss’.

Promote Values that promote Excellence

Firstly, creating a culture of excellence requires identifying values that promote excellence. Focus and promote on behaviors that embody those values, and the desired culture is sure to follow. The converse is true as well. By ignoring or not discouraging behaviors that are misaligned with the values, a culture of anti-excellence is quick to take hold.

Make small changes

Secondly, as engineers we bias towards large-scale refactors and assume the same applies in organizational change. Nothing could be further from the truth though. Chip Heath speaks to this in his book, ‘Switch: How to Change things when Change is Hard’, large changes are driven by small, elegant tweaks that have a snowball effect. Changing culture follows a similar pattern - start with something small that is meaningful to the team and can compound in effect.

Speak to the heart and the mind will follow

Thirdly, it is crucial to appeal to people’s emotions, not reason when proposing changes. If you are an engineer, this sentence should make you cringe. We find it our sacred duty to present all the facts dispassionately, weigh all the pros and cons with appropriate weights and come up with a decision that will make our high-school math teachers proud. Sadly, humans don’t work that way. As the psychologist Jonathan Hadith puts it in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

I think that quote sums up the kernel of wisdom needed to create a culture of excellence. Machines do not have to worry about culture, we as people do. And persuading people requires we speak to their hearts first, and then their minds. This is also a reason why new managers struggle early on. They over-index on logic and forget that they are dealing with intelligent people, not mindless automata.

To sum it up, bringing about positive cultural change is hard. It often requires us to ignore our training and re-wire our thinking. But the rewards are worth it and there are enough examples out there that indicate that it can be done.

Categories:  #management  #culture