The (Huge) Impact Of The Culture

As part of my experience at Kellogg, I've got an opportunity to work on a few projects that involved working with industry partners, and one thing that struck me as surprising was the huge impact the culture often had on every aspect of the operations of those companies. By culture here I mean not just the internal culture, but rather the all-encompassing perception of the organization and the values associated with it by both the customers and the employees.

Spending most of my time around tech companies in the past, I grew to appreciate the importance of building the right culture for the organizations, but at the same time got to view the culture as something that was constantly evolving, and could be changed over time, if need be. Part of this impression definitely comes from the fact that a lot of tech companies haven't been around for that long, but even the ones that have existed for a while and faced the need to adjust their culture and mission at some point, often managed to do that quite successfully (take Microsoft and the transition it went through in the last few years, for example).

What I've discovered at Kellogg, however, was that this is most certainly not the case for a lot of companies in other industries. While the right company's culture often serves as an amplifier for any initiative the company might be willing to undertake, it can also become a huge barrier to being able to successfully introduce the necessary changes. What's also interesting is that probably no company starts with the wrong culture in the first place - but rather, over time, some organizations might find themselves in a situation where certain aspects of the culture require adjustments due to the changes in market environment, customer preferences or the competition. What happens when this moment comes is very hard to predict, and depends on a wide range of factors, such as both the customers' and the employees' perception of the company's mission, the employees' attitudes towards the company, which are again often rooted in their perception of the company, the governance structure (e.g. being franchised definitely makes introducing changes more complex), whether this is a product- or service-driven company (changing the culture of the product-driven companies appears to be somewhat easier, but can bring other challenges) and so on.

What are some of the steps the companies might take to make it easier for them to make the necessary adjustments in the future? For starters, it seems that it is generally a good idea to start paying special attention to the company's culture while it's still emerging, and then keep re-evaluating the different aspects of it continuously, as the incremental changes certainly come easier than the all-encompassing reforms. Second, figuring out how the internal culture impacts the employees' and customers' perceptions of the company is crucial: once the customers make their minds, it's often extremely hard to do anything about it, and that in turn can affect the types of people the company is able to attract (especially if that's a B2C company). Finally, if the company's business model involves franchising, or is service-driven, bringing in the right people who can emphasize with the vision of the founders/top management and who share the same values becomes especially important. After all, the culture is by definition shaped by people, and if you're in a people-driven business, the culture essentially becomes your product.

The Power Of Personification

The cover image for "The Best We could Do" comes from ABRAMS,

The cover image for "The Best We could Do" comes from ABRAMS,

I've recently finished reading The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui. In this book, Bui writes about the story of her family, originally from Vietnam, who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon.

When I started it, my knowledge of the history of Vietnam and Vietnamese people was, to my embarrassment, quite limited. And yet from the first pages this book felt so personal and intimate. For the most part, Thi Bui focuses about her own experiences, and those of her family. However, in doing so, she also manages to introduce the readers to the complex history of Vietnam of the 20th century, and gives us a glimpse into how much it affected its people.

What also struck me is how similar the story Thi Bui tells is to the stories I grew up hearing and learning about from my own family and others around me: the complex and often sad history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, the rocky history of the Russians under the communist rule, and so many others. Most of us probably have the stories of their own they grew up hearing and find it easy to emphasize with. One doesn't need to know anything about the history of Vietnam to see the reflection of her own stories in the one Bui tells us in The Best We Could Do. And once you recognize that, it becomes so much harder to remain blind and unmoved by the struggles of others, no matter where they come from, what cultures they belong to, or what languages they speak.

I really wish we'd focus more on telling those personal stories - there is a tremendous power in the idea of personification of history -  something that can never be achieved if we treat the history of the living people just as collections of facts and numbers.