I’m about to fly to the near east to run a workshop for a group of 50 creatives. They’re coming together from 11 different companies, under the roof of a global holding company.
“The programme must match our culture,” I remember the CEO mentioning. Looking at the list of participants, I count at least nine different countries of origin from three continents. So whose ‘culture’ are we talking about?
To talk about culture is often to speak to an individual’s origin, place of birth or where he or she had spent their childhood, most of their life, married into or similar. In other words, when we speak of culture it is usually in the context of some features and attributes which are developed and manifest themselves over decades if not much longer.
I look around at my fellow passengers and I wonder how many different nationalities and different cultures are sitting on this plane right now. How many of them are travelling to a destination where the local culture is new to them and how many of them have prepared themselves for the encounter?
My clients use the word ‘culture’ in many different ways though. People talk of corporate culture, organisational culture, and even leadership culture! So is ‘culture’ becoming just another buzzword? Or is it an excuse for not being able to deal with certain complexities within the corporate world?
And, I keep wondering how at a senior level, individuals manage within a short time frame to enter a new organisation, observe and inhale the existing ‘culture of the organisation’ they arrive in, and almost instantly plan to change that culture in order to transform it into some better place. How are fundamental attributes, which are part of the deepest roots of our education and growth, to be changed so quickly?
The small but successful agency of a friend in London was purchased by a holding company, with a hopeful request: “We want you to come in and change our dusty, old-fashioned culture”. Is this actually do-able? What exactly is going to be different? Do the staff talk differently or dress differently? Do they start looking at new approaches for working with their clients? Do they work differently? Are they going home with a different understanding of the world around them due to a cultural shift?
‘I think I need another opinion’, I say to myself. On a layover in b
Frankfurt I find a quiet corner and call my colleague Dr. David Slocum. I explain to him my struggle with the word ‘culture’ and that, after having advised so many organisations on inter-cultural leadership and cross-cultural transformation, I am starting to have my worries that the term ‘culture’ has been added to the list of meaningless buzzwords in the creative industry.
David: Wrestling with culture cuts to the core of how leading people requires an appreciation of who they are as individuals and how they relate in different combinations – but leaders have no time to really do that.
It’s not that culture and people’s cultural differences are unimportant. Of course they are. For leaders who always have to choose between priorities, it’s just too much to take on and expect anything helpful to come out. The word ‘culture’ can too easily become a rabbit hole in which leaders disappear.
Jamshid: I know it’s complex but isn’t that why it’s so important? Don’t you think knowing more about culture can help people to understand themselves and others better? That’s essential to the leaders we work with. It’s hard, yes, but this is part of what allows leaders to be successful. Particularly leaders who want to foster creativity. We always say leadership is an everyday practice and this certainly seems a vital part of it.
David: I’ll grant you that many great creative leaders have a rich understanding of and empathy for others. In fact, in an ideal world, I’d even say that leaders able to navigate the thicket of models and ideas of culture are better able to understand their people and probably be more successful. But that’s an ideal world – not where we really live. Amidst all the changes in talent and leadership, in agencies and markets, culture seems a distraction from the real, concrete challenges of creative businesses.
I read an interview with Sir Martin Sorrell in which he said culture was too often used as “an excuse for not doing something” and I agree. It’s an excuse for leaders who don’t know what else to do or an excuse for employees who don’t want to change the way they’ve always done things, regardless of whether it’s worked. And, it’s especially an excuse for creatives who claim they can only perform in specific conditions or with like-minded people. The preoccupation with having the right ‘creative culture’ has become stultifying. Families aren‘t like that, why should we expect businesses to be?
Jamshid: Some families are more dysfunctional than others. I guess the same is true for businesses. Some are really messy – and their messiness, I would say, comes from having conflicts over what they’re trying to accomplish. One could claim that leaders and especially creatives would prefer to work with other people who are pursuing the same goals. If that shared vision or belief, that culture, isn’t brought to the surface where the differences are somehow addressed and resolved, people are just going to continue to act as individuals.
David: That’s true to a point. I agree that having shared goals or values or beliefs can help make a group of individuals more of a coherent team or agency. But that doesn’t get the work done or make it great. It’s not about the word ‘culture’ but about acting on those specific connections, beliefs and values. Too often, the word becomes either unavoidably ambiguous or unhelpfully distracting. In principle, if creative leaders work at it, culture may help them to begin to grasp how to build better and more effective creative businesses.
Jamshid: It’s time to board. We should have a drink next time we meet and discuss this much further!
I guess my first group activity tomorrow is having the participants debate how and whether culture can be used as a means to animate talented people, enable performance, and drive creative excellence.
An expert in high-level leadership development, Jamshid Alamuti is MD of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. Founded in 2006 by a group of executives from the creative industries, and with the help of the Art Directors Club Germany, the core mission of the school is to have a ‘Creative CEO in every creative enterprise’. Prof. David Slocum is Faculty Director Global Executive MBA in Creative Leadership at the Berlin School. See berlin-school.com