“Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.” ~Jacques Derrida
Whenever I think about the places where I had a great time, where our people thrived, and where we were able to do the impossible, I begin to ask myself what was so different in these workplaces compared to others? What did we do different?
As a leader, one has to ask these questions and think deeply. Some people can say that in the past, we had more of this or more of that, money to do this or to do that, but when we begin to think exactly what was so different about these places, little had to do with money or expensive venues to make our people thrive. Let me give you some examples (and think back on your own experience).
When we had to work 12-14, even 16-hour shifts, we did our best to make it a family atmosphere. Since we knew that at times it was difficult to get out of the work area, everyone cooked a little extra and brought that little extra to share it with others in the workplace. (For some who have forgotten how that was called, that’s a potluck!)
So let me tell you what happened when food was involved. Everyone formed a line, got his or her food, found a little corner and sat down…together. Then, we started telling our “war” stories. We began to tell the funny tales no one has heard about our past “feats.” And we began to talk about everything: cars, favorite shows, football, gym workouts, even our own worries. We got to know each other a little better, then we went back to work.
On other occasions, when the “old people” in the shop (that’s how we used to call SNCOs back then…no disrespect…keep on reading) challenged us with a “fair” game of volleyball or flag football, we, “fit-to-fight” young NCOs gladly accepted. The SNCOs needed to stretch—not us, of course—and then we proceeded to the court to be overwhelmed by the smell of Bengay and crushed by the “old” SNCOs, almost every time. (How could this be? Experience! That’s what I say, now that I am one of those “old people.”) We learned “respect” in the court and the football field. And when we got back to the shop, we could not stop talking about our fun time.
I’m sure you can also think about your own experience and relate, regardless if you’re military or civilian. In the best of these places we knew the names of the spouses, kids, the cars we drove, etc. Yes, we had many disagreements too; all families have disagreements. We also mourned the loss of some of our own. We were a family.
The effect of the things that we were doing allowed us to form a bond. We were able to work hard, build collective memories, and because we were one team, we dare anyone to go against us. We had collective pride. Today, we called that culture.
Leaders have the responsibility to shape the culture in an organization. As my wingman (Maj Gen Bradley Spacy) wisely states, “We will have culture one way or another. Better if we decide what that culture is going to be.” If we, as leaders, do not pay attention and spend time thinking about how to shape culture, nothing else we do will matter much.
Scholars and organizational development experts Cameron and Quinn  observed that companies in the past decade have gone to downsizing, process improvements, and business process re-engineering as the three most popular ways to achieve high efficiencies and achieve target revenue streams. Still, among Fortune 500 companies (and over 1,245 companies in Europe) , this has not met the sought-after effects. The number one reason for failure has been cited as a defective culture. There’s now a lot of research on this topic.
My point is two-fold. First, leaders (titular and non-titular) must take deliberate steps to decide what the culture should be, decide on culture goals, and begin a series of actions towards those goals to make that culture come true. Secondly, leaders must resist the initial temptation to go for expensive consulting strategies to work culture in organizations. Most of the things we can immediately do as leaders require little or no money. How about these to start: treating people with dignity and respect, thank you cards, potlucks, a challenge game, taking one hour a month to sit down with our people and discover how we can help them, and implementing small ideas (our people’s ideas).
Culture is not just going to happen from one day to the next. But if we want lasting change, innovative breakthroughs, and committed people who thrive in our organizations, we as leaders must deliberately labor daily to build the culture that will bring those things (committed people, lasting change, innovation, etc.) into reality. Otherwise, every other effort invested in myriad “management strategies” will be futile.
Always motivated, lugo
Copyright © 2016 Jose A. LugoSantiago – Craft Your Journey!
 Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 11-13.
Dr. Jose Lugo Santiago is the chief leadership and foresight strategist for LS|EG, a consulting firm dedicated to facilitating change through leadership, strategy, and foresight. He holds over 28 years of experience leading organizations in the military and civilian sectors, and crafting strategy to meet successful business process re-engineering and innovation. He is also the author of several titles to include peer-reviewed academic works. His doctoral areas of research are Leadership and Foresight, Culture, Strategic Change, and Organizational Development.