One’s ability to lead an organization is defined by how well he/she honors the organization’s cultural strengths and leverages them to the fullest. Culture can often serve as an organizations greatest advantage. When leadership uses the positive aspects of their team’s culture to drive the mission, it can truly accelerate improvement and promote positive change.
The medical provider Aetna was about to go under until John Rowe stepped in as the CEO (the fourth for the company in five years). Rowe was not only able to prevent the company from going out of business, but enabled it to achieve its highest level of employee and customer satisfaction and output production. Rowe began by first identifying Aetna’s weaknesses, “A strategy that focused narrowly on managing medical expenses to reduce the cost of claims while alienating the patients and physicians that were key to Aetna’s long term success” (Katzenbach) and then its greatest strengths, “Concerns for patient’s well-being, pride in the history and purpose of the company, widespread respect for peers; and a large group of dedicated professionals” (Katzenbach).
These two insights allowed Rowe to carefully consider his leadership approach to the company’s future. He proposed a plan called “the New Aetna.” Upper management began to intervene slowly, making incremental changes that leveraged what the company was already doing well. The change resulted in profits of up to $5 million dollars per day, ultimately becoming a multi-billion dollar company.
As demonstrated, when given the responsibility of saving an organization’s future, the best course of action doesn’t always involve making immediate change. In fact, the best leaders have achieved peak performance by applying five principles: matching a company’s strategy and culture, focusing on a few critical shifts in behavior, honoring the strengths of your existing culture, integrating formal and informal interventions, and measuring and monitoring cultural evolution (Katzenbach).
The principle that I think is the most necessary to an organization’s success is matching the company’s strategy and culture. The basis of this principle is alignment; having employees match the intensity of their leadership and motivation their team demands. Many times, teams will set goals and output objectives without identifying the appropriate cultural changes (if any are needed).
Some of the best organizations in the world are the ones who are able to consistently replicate their winning formula/recipe for success. An analysis of top sports teams, competitors, and business people in the world reveals their ability to consistently apply effective solutions to their tasks. Kelly Slater holds the record for most World Surf League titles, with 11. Each year, he attributes his success to taking care of his body with a consistent fitness routine, diet, and sleep schedule, nourishing his mind with various techniques to keep his spiritual energy aligned with his passion for surfing, and develops his relationships by spending quality time with those he loves. His love for surfing, paired with a balanced, high intensity regiment of high performance allows him to consistently finish as the #1 surfer in the world. There were moments in his career when his coach suggested he do things differently in order to keep improving. Sometimes these tips worked, at other times they didn’t. He continually adjusted his mind and his approach to surfing, taking what worked and disregarding what didn’t in order to express his love for the sport.
So what exactly does a cultural change look like, and when is it needed? A cultural change is noticed best by those who are embedded deeply within the unit, have diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and are experienced enough to understand the norms and details of the unit.
On the men’s tennis team at the Air Force Academy, it has taken a few years, but I think we’ve truly got a culture on the team that matches our goals (beating Army, winning the Mountain West Conference, exuding unrivaled attitude and effort during every practice and competition). From freshman to senior year, I have seen the culture attempt to change, but it was not until this season that we finally were able to synergize and mesh with one another on and off the court. In previous years, for one reason or another we haven’t been able to align our work ethic as a team, treat each other as brothers on and off the court, and our ability to put the team first was compromised. This was not fixed until we removed people from the team who were cancerous to our success, did not work hard, or needed additional character development (making poor decisions). This season, we are off to a great start (10 wins, 3 losses) and the team dynamic has never been better. We’re in a great position to achieve our goals only because the culture of the team is properly aligned and committed to being the best we can be. Our mindset is always to put the team first, to always be prepared, and to have unmatched attitude and effort in competition.
Leaders who assume command of a team have a general tendency to make rapid change. Whether change is needed or not, the majority of people given the privilege of leading large teams have the desire to introduce their own values, opinions, or style of leadership on their people. These changes can positively or negatively influence the organization’s culture, and the direction the culture goes is undoubtedly the direction everything else will take. By nature, people in these positions feel like they have something to prove, and usually that expresses itself in various organizational changes. These changes, if carried out rapidly and without much explanation can drive resentment and a strong counter-culture at all levels in the unit. As a future leader it is very important to recognize this inherent tendency. Recognizing that all organizations are different, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, is an essential component to decision making and keeping the best interest of the team in mind.