Culture is the ONLY thing that matters

It is Friday 5pm and I just watched one of my employees literally dance her way out of the office. A divorced single mother who has just had her pay delayed by 1 week due to uncertain cashflow at our startup she is dancing because she is looking forward to the weekend. But there is more to it, I know she has had a fulfilling week at work. She told me. She managed to accomplish 3 tasks that required getting buyin from across the company … and we are a bit siloed, strange for a startup, I think. I know she has done a good job and I told her so. She knows it as well. Her internal expectations of herself and the external appreciation she gets from the company and colleagues seem to align, at least this week!

30+ years of working with large enterprises in consulting, systems integration and sales roles plus the last 1 year working at a small startup has convinced me that culture and company success are very very strongly linked. I reflect on these years and I am tempted to claim CULTURE IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS.

Rewind back to 2000 when I went for a series of interviews with Nokia in Singapore and underwent HR psychometric testing. Apparently the result of that testing was that they were unsure as to whether I was a good cultural fit for Nokia. Cultural fit? What was that? What did it mean?

I asked my prospective new boss and we talked about what it meant. He was a Finn but a Finn that had spent the last few years working in France and across Asia. It became obvious talking with him that there was good and bad in the cultural assessment. The good was that Nokia took this seriously and the following 8 years working for Nokia convinced me of the importance of building teams, building culture and creating positive workplaces.

The bad related to changes in culture. Where I sensed there were issues was when you needed to deliberately initiate a change in culture. Nokia was prepared to do this but the process or should I say the cultural indoctrination was not so well defined. People like me were a risk. On one hand I could be seen as a change agent, but if it all went wrong perhaps I would increase resistance to change not improve it.

The rest, they say, is history. I joined Nokia, worked for them for 8 years and I still think these were the happiest 8 years of my working life, the most fulfilling and it was all down to company culture.

Even today, when I do my periodic career planning and reflect on what made me happy and what I need to fulfill me in my career moving forward, the locus will revolve around my time at Nokia.

As a counterpoint I had almost the exact opposite experience with Ericsson. Now let me be first to say that this was a very special and unique time at Ericsson. It was roughly 1 year before the board got rid of the current CEO, Hans Vestberg, and it related to a very special set of circumstances in the Australian region. In brief let’s say that there was a negative micro-culture (like a micro-climate you cannot imply anything negative about the company as a whole with what I experienced). It does not reflect on Ericsson as a whole but it does show how vigilance is needed. Interesting thought for a CEO of a 100,000 person company operating across 100 countries, how do you police this? Can you be everywhere, at every moment?

There is a powerful lesson to be learnt – and it is about the difficulty in creating positive culture across a global organisation. It can’t be about Swedes winning or creating uniformity across a global organisation, but it is very much about creating an adaptive culture that works well across different geographies (in the US, in France, in Poland, in Lebanon, in Thailand, in China and in Australia) and promoting inclusiveness and movement without losing identity. No easy feat.

I dont’t have specific advice but for any CEO growing a global business I would advise paying attention to culture everywhere. Never underestimate the power of good culture and the destructive nature of “bad” culture.

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