To say that this election season is unusual is beyond understatement. Nonetheless, it looks likely to end like every other U.S. presidential election in the last 200-plus years: with a new president-elect, who will be duly sworn in come January. Even another strikingly unusual (in a completely different way) election, that of George W. Bush in 2000, still ended in the same way.
We in the U.S. have a system by which leadership changes every few years and, while in the process voices can get loud, words can get nasty and occasionally violence can occur, by and large this changeover happens peacefully. Some leaders are more charismatic than others and that can affect the mood of the country and sometimes even affect events, but ultimately our country is built not on personalities, but on laws. That’s what makes it safe for the changeover to happen.
I’ve been going to the Great Place to Work Institute’s annual conference for years. I can nearly always count on it to be highly entertaining, because most of the sessions are led by leaders of companies that have made it to the “100 Best Companies” list, and these leaders are nearly always engaging and inspiring. They are so charismatic, in fact, that winning companies’ cultures often revolve around these leaders. That, of course, is a good thing. You want your company culture to start with senior leadership. Culture, almost by definition, is hard to pin down. It can’t be based solely on rules and regulations, it has to be grounded in history and feeling, on the stories people tell and the behavior they model. A strong leader can have an enormous role to play in all this.
But when culture is based primarily on charismatic leadership an obvious danger arises. Leaders come—and leaders go. An organization’s mission and values, its history and its stories, can outlast individual leaders—or they can be lost in the hands of an incompetent or uncaring leader. Think about organizations that have become famous for their unusual work cultures, only to disappear into the ranks of the commonplace after a merger or major change at the top.
So how to prevent this from happening? I can’t say I’ve done extensive, scientifically-accurate research on the subject, but based on my experience working with a range of companies I have an educated guess about what couldn’t hurt. I’d argue that the best bulwark against the erosion of a once-great culture is policies. Programs. Systems and rules of engagement: the organizational equivalent of our constitution, our bill of rights, our legal and political systems and structures. For example, it’s all well and good to talk about freedom of speech, but surely you wouldn’t want to rely on our leadership’s good intentions to ensure you have it? That’s why we have a first amendment.
In my last post, I wrote about how being “family-friendly” can mean completely different things for different companies. The basic outline of this difference comes down to companies where the family-friendliness is all about culture and traditions, versus ones in which it is defined primarily by programs and policies. I concluded that the ideal situation is one in which culture is strong, but so are the policies that back it up. You might sum this up with Teddy Roosevelt’s famous line, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
I love those companies with funny, engaging leaders, whose employees proudly share stories about their history and traditions. But I admire those companies that aren’t afraid to put it in writing.
I’ll be tweeting from the Working Mother Work-Life Congress next week. Follow me on Twitter @RobinHardmanCom to hear what’s going on! And sign up to follow my blog to hear my thoughts on the conference, soon after.
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