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Organizational Culture: The Great White Whale

By Kristin Withrow posted 06-03-2022 10:42 AM


The Leadership Difference Inc. Founder David Mitchell is a keynote speaker at the upcoming CSDA General Manager Leadership Summit June 19 – 21 in

Dave MitchelCoronado. He will be speaking on “Leading a Peak Performance Culture.” Since founding the Leadership Difference in 1995, over 450,000 people have attended Dave’s “enter-TRAIN-ment” seminars on topics that include leadership, customer service, selling skills, and personal performance enhancement.

37 years.  That’s how long I have pursued my own version of Moby Dick.  It was in 1985, in my first corporate training job, that I first heard about this mysterious characteristic that an organization possesses that will determine the level of success to which it can aspire – culture.  To this day, talking with C-Suite level executives of multi-national companies, entrepreneurs, executive directors of non-profit organizations, and public sector leaders; I continue to hear how important they believe their culture is (can be) to their success.  And yet, when I ask them to define culture as they envision it, the description is as elusive at Melville’s whale.  It became obvious to me that while everyone agreed that culture was critical to success, few – if anyone – could articulate what it was.  So, on the heels of writing two award winning books, The Power of Understanding People and The Power of Understanding Yourself, I endeavored to write a book that essentially explored the power of understanding an organization – Peak Performance Culture:  The Five Metrics of Organizational Excellence.


It turns out, one of the reasons that culture is hard to define is that it is complicated.  In this rapid paced era in which we live, we long for simple and fast fixes for the challenges that confront us.  Culture is not simple, nor can it be fixed fast.  As a speaker and consultant, that’s a tough message to deliver to audiences and my clients.  It would also make for a short book – “Um, it’s complicated.”  So, despite the risk of becoming the tragic figure depicted by Captain Ahab in Melville’s novel, I endeavored to quantify this baffling beast.  I pursued Moby Dick.


First, culture has an infrastructure.  Just like the highest quality home is built on a strong foundation and a sturdy frame – so, too, is culture.  There is the need for horizontal and vertical alignment – terms that refer to an organization’s core ideology and ability to drive that secret sauce into all levels, locations, and functions within it.  The problem is many organizations experience the epiphany of the importance of culture well after much of their infrastructure has been installed – installed without intention to support a core ideology.  So, the alignment occurs retroactively and remedially – making it both hard to achieve and a pain in the butt.  When things are both hard and uncomfortable, they generally are avoided.  Imagine how hard it would be for Ahab to land Moby Dick in a rickety boat and bad sailing practices.  Well, actually…


Then there are the siblings of culture:  customer and employee experience.  Customer experience – like the favored child – often gets all the attention and resources.  But, just like in any family dynamic, if the one sibling gets favorable treatment, the other sibling often develops dysfunction.  Unhappy employees cannot satisfy customers over the long term.  Unhappy customers make employees miserable in the long term.  Great cultures require that attention be given to what it feels like to work at the organization AND patronize it.  Add the happiness of ownership and you arrive at the holy trinity of organizational effectiveness:  Customer, Employee, and Stakeholder satisfaction.  Any organization that doesn’t continually measure these components of their success is doomed to mediocrity or worse.


That leaves one last metric, and it is a big one:  leadership ideology.  Every organization faces a volatile balancing act – a performance teeter totter if you will.  Executive leadership has substantial authority but very little impact.  Oh, the C-suite thinks it is important, but the reality is they are fairly easy to replace.  They have the power to change things but often lack the knowledge of how things really are.  The line level employees have the impact – they touch the customer/end user on a constant basis.  The organization is defined by the interactions the customer has with the employee.  Yet, while employees know firsthand where practices, policies, and tactics are detracting from the expressed core ideology of the organization, they have little ability to change them.  Leaders have authority but little impact.  Team members have impact but little authority.  Ishmael in Moby Dick had a pretty good idea that Ahab’s revenge tour would end poorly but was powerless to change it.


Leadership ideology is a package of characteristics that form the expectations for how we behave in the organization.  It reconciles the authority versus impact dynamic, acting as the fulcrum.  It differs from organizational values – a concept that I do not support, by the way – in that they are observable, definable, and measurable.  Plus, there are known links between certain behaviors and sustainable peak performance.  In the end, it was leadership ideology that sunk the Pequod in Moby Dick.  It often spells the end – or at least hamstrings the success – of organizations, too.


And so, when I am asked to speak on the topic of Peak Performance Culture, I spend most of the time on the concept of leadership ideology.  Of the five metrics, it has the broadest spectrum of influence on the organization.  The best leadership can overcome less than stellar alignment.  Great leadership can elevate both the customer and employee experience and delight the stakeholders.  It is that powerful.  And just like in Moby Dick, poor leadership can sink the entire ship.



Dave’s Bio

In 2013, Dave was named Best Speaker of the Year at Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress in Las Vegas. In 2015, Meetings and Conventions Magazine named Dave one of the Best Speakers of the Year.  Dave has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, is a regular guest lecturer at Whitman College and Walla Walla University and serves as President of the Business Advisory Board of Walla Walla Community College.  He has a master’s degree (M. Ed.) in Global Human Resources Development and is designated as a Certified Advanced Wine Sommelier.  His “laugh and learn” style makes him a popular host for non-profit fundraising events.


Dave is the author of four books.  Live and Learn or Die Stupid! focuses on personal contentment and performance excellence.  His second book, The Power of Understanding People, was an Editor’s Choice for Best Business Book by Amazon.  His third book, The Power of Understanding Yourself, was named TOP READ by TRAINING Magazine.  Dave’s fourth book, Peak Performance Culture:  The 5 Metrics of Operational Excellence, provides the source material for his presentation at the CSDA General Manager Leadership Summit.