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Simple steps to shape organizational culture

Spring is almost here, and that can spell dollars for the marine industry, especially as the economy continues to improve and employment slowly rises.

Now is the time to refresh and get ready for the new season. What would your employees have you do this year to improve the work setting, the bottom line and their own peace of mind?

As a professor of management and trainer of and consultant to practicing managers of many shapes and sizes, I have had the best job in the world for many years. Every class has presented new challenges to adapt to new thinking. Everyone has a unique perspective that may, however, be narrow and limited in scope. But it is amazing to me to hear near universal comments about "bosses."

In the January space here I asked you whether you had become the boss you always "hated." I am "pleased" to tell you that many of you responded, regretfully, that you had. And now you wonder just what you should do about that. That question whetted my appetite for new ideas - ideas from other bosses about their bosses.

As I was compiling comments from executives who have been students of mine, I read about a speech given in late January at the International Marina and Boatyard Conference in Fort Lauderdale. Bill Yeargin, president and CEO of Correct Craft (and the very insightful writer of this column for many years), said that if a company wants to do something big "it has to shape its organizational culture so it is geared to accomplish big things. " Organizational culture, he says, is the "way things are done around here."

"Culture doesn't require thought," he says. "It is so ingrained that employees simply act. Leaders must take responsibility for fostering a culture that energizes and focuses a company."

But how can you determine whether that is true of your company's culture? Here's how I learn the culture of a company I'm working with. After a couple of days of executive, supervisory and worker interactions and mixing, it can be seen somewhat clearly. A number of variables can be identified and you can check these out on your own if you will be honest with yourself. Manager-leader behaviors often foretell the nature of the culture.

Consider these 12 behaviors and determine your own contribution to the culture. The behaviors collectively describe a culture that is not unknown in the marine industry. Circle any behavior (the phrases in bold) that you can see within your organization. It's quite likely you will circle more than one.

1. Managers generally resist change. There is no change in the way business is conducted, even as conditions change. "We have been successful in the past; we will continue to be successful as soon as the economy picks up." This sounds like the bookkeeper who said she will continue to do the books the way she has done in the past and that computing machine will just be another passing fancy. Prove to me that change is needed. Does this happen?

2. Managers likely suppress/discourage innovation. Research costs money, with no guarantee of any return. It may be better to be a follower than to try to be a leader in the business. Executives show little support for new ideas, and midlevel and junior managers tow the line and don't risk criticism for proposing alternative approaches.

3. After the Industrial Revolution, the German sociologist and political economist Max Weber developed the concept of a bureaucracy as a necessity. A bureaucracy demands a rigid hierarchy. Many executives and managers today follow the counsel of Weber. A major challenge in the 21st century is the cadre of newer entrants into the work force who do not accept the hierarchy in action. (Historians might include the recent actions of the young in Egypt as resistance to hierarchy.)

4. The concept of the independent manager can be visualized in separate, closed-in (walled) offices for folks in production, in marketing, in product development, in customer service, etc. Each senior manager works almost in a vacuum. Although each may be highly skilled in the area managed, there is minimal interaction among the leaders of the organization.

5. "Information is power." This became a learned phenomenon in years past. Many senior managers have achieved success by following the strategy of withholding information in an effort to show success in a particular department. This is quite common in large and small organizations, often just automatic (the culture).

6. We all have seen the closed-door policy. "Do you have an appointment?" Or "Come back later; this is not a good time to interrupt the manager." Administrative assistants understand how to protect the manager and the practice is normally taught in seminars for them. Do you see this in your organization?

7. Do your managers delegate responsibilities but not authority? Do some practice micromanagement, closely checking every aspect of subordinates' work? Either behavior suggests a low trust level. Is this the norm?

8. Are there surprised reactions when there is a change in the environment - a new regulation, a change in customer tastes, any other changes that impact the organization? If this is generally the case, the behavior suggests a lack of vision. This was without major consequence prior to the 1970s, when most competition was local. It is among the most criticized behaviors in senior management today.

9. When you are unclear about how to handle a problem, is there a manager available to assist or does the manager stay well hidden? Some managers avoid such situations. Do yours?

10. Increasingly, managers are finding that recognition for a job done well (even rewards for outstanding efforts) pay dividends both for them as a manager and for the company. However, there are organizations that lack any emphasis on recognition and rewards. Does your company lack such behaviors in general?

11. Do you have any team projects? Is there any form of employee input? Are suggestions by employees taken seriously? Do senior managers generally interact with employees in the work setting? If you answer "no" to most of these questions, we might label your company not employee-focused.

12. Everyone has an opinion, but are your managers good listeners and do they encourage you to share your ideas? Is there any formal method of soliciting your ideas from all employees? If you answered "no" to these questions, we might label the typical management in your company selective listeners - hearing what reinforces their own opinions.

You have considered 12 variables. I trust that you have circled some of the bold phrases. Consider the phrases you circled. Do they sound like parts of the culture Yeargin described above:

Organizational culture is the "way things are done around here. ... Culture doesn't require thought. It is so ingrained that employees simply act.

Leaders must take responsibility for fostering a culture that energizes and focuses a company."

Most behavioral scientists identify the following management behaviors as conducive to the creation of the culture Yeargin has proposed. They generally are the opposite of what has been described above:

  • managers embrace change
  • managers promote innovation
  • managers promote a team concept
  • managers become interdependent managers
  • managers and employees share information
  • managers maintain and promote an open-door policy
  • managers generate a high trust level through trust in their peers and subordinates
  • managers create and share a clear vision of the future and its impact
  • managers are visible as being helpful to all
  • managers create and promote rewards and recognition
  • managers are employee-focused, seeking to create a community of effort
  • managers are active and empathetic listeners

Seek to make all 12 of these behaviors part of your organization. Warning: It is not a short-term project and will take changes at all levels, but it must begin at the top. Good luck on starting this culture-changing journey. Let me know whether I can offer assistance.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.



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