Chris Roebuck, Leadership Speaker

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Are culture issues now the easy excuse for poor management and leadership?

Are culture issues now the easy excuse for poor management and leadership?

As I travel around the world working with organisations and speaking to groups of leaders, the word ‘culture’ comes up more and more. Not in relation to assessing the perspectives or approaches of different groups across the organisation in order to enhance collaboration and execution, but more as a reason why things didn’t succeed.

“It didn’t work because of the culture” seems to be used increasingly as a catch all justification. And if failure has occurred due do the mystical world of culture rather a clear and measurable factor such as lack of resources or management error, it needs no further investigation or explanation. Culture is just “one of those things” that we can’t do anything about. What worries me is that seemingly intelligent professionals seem to be accepting this patently inaccurate analysis.    

Consider all perspectives

If I consider both personal experience and accounts of successful or unsuccessful organisational initiatives, it is clear that getting culture management wrong can cause failure, but that’s no reason to just shrug your shoulders and accept it.

Generally the reason initiatives fail to work due to ‘culture’ is that there has been insufficient effort put into understanding the perspectives of the parties involved and insufficient time or process given to enable them to build rapport and understanding. So the failure is not in culture itself, but in simple execution. I have never met any two groups in the organisational world who have failed to try to work together where there was a sensible reason for them to do so.

But one reason that ‘culture’ causes problems is that it’s perceived too often as effectively “passport holding nationality”, eg. British, American, Indian and so on. This takes no account of the significant variation in the sub cultures of those passport holding groups. 

Its not about nationality

Not only that, but from my experience the major factor impacting how people behave relates not to ‘nationality’ but whether the business model they have historically operated in is either transactional or relationship based. This determines the balance of their short or long term perspective linked to the delivery of cost benefit.

Relationship based people are prepared to wait for success longer than the transactional and will move forward more based on trust than evidence. The greatest cultural change for high potentials I have moved within financial services was not from London to New York or Hong Kong, but just across the road in London from the private bank to the investment Bank; from a long term highly relationship based world into a short term price driven one.     

In addition, function and professional training play a role in culture as well. We all know, and no determination here of which is best, but artistic and creative people do not tend to be as logical and structured as accountants or engineers. These are just as much cultures as other factors and impact on how you think and behave, as anyone who has tried to get creative people and those more structured to work together can testify. 

Working together for a common cause

So we need to accept that culture does not equal nationality, it equals diversity in thinking, and that can occur in a spectrum of areas. All of these interact in a dynamic way, eg. cultural upbringing plus experience plus professional training plus time spent in current environment plus personal values all interplay in the mix. As we know everyone is different, that’s what managing culture is really about, a leaders ability to get different people to work together in common cause and put aside any differences because they believe in what they are doing together.      

In my view, any failure put down to culture is in effect a failure of leadership or management disguised as such as an easy way out that now sounds acceptable. It shouldn’t be. Managing differences between both individuals and groups and getting them to work together is what being a leader is all about. It has to be, human beings are not homogenous, diversity of thought is key to innovation in the 21st century organisation and collaboration key to success. What is managing culture really all about? Leadership – bringing different people together in a common purpose and enabling them to succeed. 

Chris Roebuck ⁠— Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation

Chris Roebuck ⁠— Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation

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