The first rule of Fight Club: “You do not talk about Fight Club.” So says Chuck Palahniuk’s iconic character, Tyler Durden, in the eponymous novel made famous by the Brad Pitt film of 1999. Leaders wrestling to reshape their company’s culture should maintain a similar omertà – at least, that’s according to renowned experts Edgar and Peter Schein, in one of the many insights to leap out from a fascinating interview.
Rather, the Scheins counsel, leaders need to focus their energy on changing the underpinning processes that give form to an organization. This is what Duke CE’s Michael Chavez likens to the software of a smartphone: just as today’s phones are incredibly adaptable, thanks to the ability of users to install apps which add or change functionality, similarly, leaders can add to or change organizational culture. Yet there is a reminder in this metaphor of the limits of change: a phone’s hardware remains static. Likewise, when it comes to organizational culture, leaders can tilt towards the revolutionary, with a millenarian belief that after some fundamental cultural transformation, everything will be somehow different. That is hardly the reality. Even where the most radical changes of direction are needed, there are likely to be elements of culture that need to be unearthed, renovated and reinforced. A more effective approach begins with identifying those foundations which can be made fit for the future, and building upon them.
How great cultures can be created and sustained is brought to life in several articles. John Davis tells the story of Clix Capital, the Indian financial services firm where leaders have gone out of their way to collectively unlearn unhelpful lessons from long careers in traditional, transactional financial firms – learning instead to put customers first. Bill Moran shares insights about winning hearts and minds in the US Navy, while Jim Brady explains how the culture at United Airlines is central to passenger safety.
Indeed, safety is a prominent sub-theme of our focus on culture – along with its corollary, fear. How do leaders improve safety – in real terms, and in how safe people feel at work? Andrew Sharman shares five ideas that could save thousands of workers’ lives globally. Amy C Edmondson, meanwhile, challenges leaders to confront irrational fears at work. However, as she points out, that is not the same as erasing fear – an aim which is not just unrealistic but most likely counterproductive, because rational fear serves a vital purpose: properly directed, it helps us solve problems and innovate.
How to create more innovative companies is tackled by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur and Tendayi Viki in their look at ‘invincible companies’. They propose that firms appoint a chief innovation officer, equal in power to the chief executive. How many businesses dare take that leap and shake up their C-suite structures? The role of senior leaders is also explored by Joe Perfetti and Scott Walker who underline the increasing influence of chief financial officers.
Elsewhere, Pamay Bassey shares tips for transformational learning and development, drawn from her two extraordinary year-long projects. Suzanne de Janasz and Victoria Mattingly explain why everyone stands to benefit if traditionally ‘feminine’ behavioural traits are put centre stage in negotiations. And we welcome back Blair H Sheppard, Duke CE founder, with his analysis of the overlapping crises that are shaping today’s strategic landscape – and the paradoxical implications for leaders’ skills.
The secret is out: organizational culture is critical for success. Enjoy the issue.