Sunday, December 25, 2005

Management Theory: The Topiary of Corporate Culture

Leadership and management are two very different enterprises -- managers simply facilitate a process while leaders (ideally) build other leaders. An Accounts Payable manager makes sure that the bills get paid (within the constraints placed on them), but managers aren't typically expected to innovate. Leaders on the other hand can operate at any level of the corporate ladder -- line worker, middle manager, director, vice president -- and in addition to the role expected of them by the organization can also work to groom others at their level or below to also lead. The military erroneously speaks of this concept as "training your replacement", which is a bit like comparing fine art to an epileptic fit. To build other good leaders, you must first yourself be a good leader. Some people have a natural tendancy toward leadership, but often natural leaders don't possess the knack to build other leaders themselves, and must instead find other leaders within their organization or bring them in from the outside. "Natural leaders" are in that respect like mules, unable themselves to breed more leaders. This is way many large organizations create mentoring and leadership programs to identify this potential in lower level employees and work to bring them organically through the ranks.

It is important first to have an understanding or yourself and the people below you before you can guage their impact on your corporate culture.

The title of this entry has the work "topiary" in it because I feel that corporate cultures are a very organic thing. They are composed of living people and tangible resources that make a business tick, so they themselves are personified through their composite pieces. Companies almost always grow like a weed -- positions are added where they are needed, resources moved from a less successful project to a more successful one much like a tree or a bush grows toward the light or a more plentiful source of water. The longer one waits to realize that their shrub needs to be pruned, the more difficult is it to shape it like a seal balancing a ball on its nose. Upon further examination into the history of a company, one can plainly see where company A spread outward across the ground, while company B grew straight up and down without any side brush, while others may grow both up and out, but never in nature do we find a perfect hedge row if a gardner has not come by with his trimmer.

Morale plays a key role in the pruning of corporate culture, whether you make cars or software. If your line workers or middle managers are unsatisfied, that reflects in their behavior and ultimately in their work -- rot spreads outward from the core. I have debated the idea of good morale to MBAs and Human Resources types who have degrees from Wharton and the Smith School of Business, and often they are so engrossed in the idea of cash being king, they forget that their employees would find them ways to hang on to more cash if they weren't pissed off all the time. If there is no loyalty to your employer, if there is no incentive to save them money, even the most stringent spending controls will ultimately give way to a loophole (more so at FELD than any other place I have ever worked).

I have championed the debate for good morale at all levels of management in the past, because I have seen how people with high morale will work for their employer, and as a leader I know how important feedback is to the leadership process. I always felt that instead of bitching how bad things were at happy hour, it was better to bring this information to the people who could do something about. While I was never chastised or in any way disciplined for telling someone their actions were making people miserable, I never saw an instance where the feedback was used to correct the problem. Modern business people don't understand what place unions have in our society anymore, yet Starbucks is the only company I'm aware of that has a model relationship between management and labor.

Some executives (I have most often seen this in marketing) have a different approach to corporate culture, one I compare to replacing your entire lawn with sod. Someone whose masters degree is from University X will come in at an executive level and systematically begin to replace people under them with others who also graduated from University X. Typically they attribute this to common beliefs and values they leaned in their program, and this often leads to a heirarchy with both less conflict and little innovation. I have seen something similar done before in the royal families of Europe, it's called inbreeding (for which you can thank then for colorblindness and hemophelia). This approach is totally artificial -- if a corporate culture grows organically (and it does), more often than not a cultural transplant leads to rejection. If I can summarize by totally beating this analogy into submission, to end up with a culture that is in every way pleasing, one must constantly monitor and care for it to achive those results.

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