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.

Mastering The New Mindset

It's no secret that among a lot of people, it's a fairly common sentiment to regard the managers as overly ambitious people who require to get paid a lot for no reason and at the same time are of questionable value to the organization (as opposed to, say, engineers, that are doing the actual work). I don't have any desire to argue for or against this position tonight. Rather, as someone who's currently (gradually) transitioning from being being purely an individual contributor to the more leadership oriented roles, I've found that there are a few skills that seem to be very difficult to truly master for a lot of managers. I feel that it might explain, at least to a certain extent, why the (good) managers are so much in demand, and are often worth a lot to the organizations they lead.

1. Learning to let go. Most of us start their careers as individual contributors, which often means that it falls onto us to do the work on the ground and focus on getting all the details right. It also provides us with a reasonable degree of control of the final output (at least for the specific piece we're in charge of). As we advance in our career, however, the situations when we need to rely on the results of the work done by others, be it our peers, or people who report to us, keep arising more and more frequently. Making the mental transition in order to accept and embrace that - learning how to delegate and refraining from the desire to micromanage - often turns out to be extremely hard, and the new mindset might take years to fully master.

2. Learning to control your ego. This is another core issue many people (myself included) struggle a lot with. For me personally, it's not so much about the need to force my views and ideas upon the people around me, but rather about the desire to feel that I'm contributing in a meaningful way. That, however, can be just as dangerous, and again, this is a habit that takes a long time to unlearn.

3. Dealing with the lack of immediate gratification. Finally, I feel that one of the biggest challenges for a lot of people entering management is the reduced amount of immediate gratification that comes with their new positions. I'm not saying that management can't be a rewarding career - it absolutely can and should be - rather, the emphasis here is on the word 'immediate'. This issue is, to a significant extent, tied to the previous points I've made above. When we work as individual contributors, we are often responsible for taking care of specific items on the agenda. We might not have a direct way to influence the agenda itself (and that can be at times frustrating), but at least we can feel good once we are done working on this presentation, or writing that sprint of code.

However, as we find ourselves in a setting that requires managing a team, we often discover that those achievements don't belong to us anymore, but are rather the accomplishments of our team members or subordinates. What that means is that we no longer can feel the gratification stemming from striking a specific thing off our to-do lists, as those aren't not actually our to-do lists anymore. Instead, we have to learn to give credit to the people around us (while still taking responsibility for the failure, if need be), and teach ourselves to focus on the longer-term objectives and the broader picture. This is something that can be incredibly motivating in the long run, but it definitely requires a lot of work to get into this mindset, and is by no means easy to do.