The Importance of Culture

When I picked up a Booker winning classic last year I didn’t anticipate a lesson in career (and to a larger extent character) building in it. I just wanted to wade through the pages that carried a distinctly British air.

Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day has a debate its lead character Stevens’ has with a fellow butler on notion of professionalism. What does it mean to be professional? And in those pages I found perhaps the most brilliant depiction of what drives successful men. The summary that I gathered while probably being subjective to a large extent is – reliability.

A butler for as long as he dons his uniform must bid the duty of a butler and not waver from what is expected of him. The idea was that a true professional doesn’t have different shades. That one can bank on a professional, at any time at any point.  We live in an interlinked world and going ahead our work will be a lot more collaborative (more on this later). There are others who depend on us to deliver so that they may in turn deliver on their bit. Professionalism counts, and counts a lot more in our time today.

What does this have to do with Culture?

Drag the idea of dependability to a company. Extend it to the larger gamut of reliability. A company needs to be reliable so that its stakeholders feel the larger sense of security that will enable them to focus on the aspects of work that needs their complete attention. Vendors need to know they can rely on this firm on work, credit and payments. Employees reflect and respond to the reliance they have on their firm. Clients need to know that things will be taken care of, that things are okay, that they’re in good hands. Reliability is the foundation of trust and trust in our times is brand equity.

It is in this regard that culture and professionalism find the sanctity of their relationship.

Time will come for any company who persevere  against it, when the original torch bearers hand over the blaze to the new leaders. It is an inevitable and necessary truth. And for the professional company the only way to remain as one is for it to have had the culture which would ensure that the new set of leaders who come in with visions and styles unique to them, do not fundamentally alter the circle of trust built by those before them. That the company still remains reliable to its partners.

And this is only possible through the gradual delivery of a defining culture.

For me culture isn’t the sham propagated by the spoofs of entrepreneurs, for many of whom the grand notion of being way too cool to care is culture. I don’t agree with that, in fact it sort gets me churning inside when I see pages on the sites of young firms with garnished flashy words on how they’re a young, vibrant, fun loving company under the epithet of culture. I don’t subscribe to it. And I think it’s one of the many misconceptions that has unfortunately gone mainstream.

Culture is attitude, it is not behaviour. Everyone knows this, but we all get it messed up.

It is what gets people to show up regardless of how bad or good the day is to do their bit every day. It is the rationale that the company has collectively built, that sets its trait and gives others the confidence to ally with it. It is the moral fiber and not the work condition.  Eating, drinking and creating till late night at work together and then sleeping over and then sleeping in the whole of next day to meet a deadline is an excellent story to be part of but it has nothing to do with culture (except maybe the very last bit). Culture is what gets everyone going through all the hours of their work from morning to dusk. Of course, it is important to note that a thriving culture is only possible with people who are professionals, that’s a perquisite and almost entirely non negotiable.

You become a professional when you care. Your culture defines what you care about.

It is a sense, it is a belief and it should percolate to the last bit of your team enough that they know what is priority for everyone else.  And then regardless of where the accountability ends up being, one is sure a consistent and therefore right decision will be made.  That’s reliability and it cuts across partners, team members and customers. Culture is what sets priorities are right.

  1. Attitude is simply behaviour reinforced. Culture, for better or worse, is not created –it is cultivated as a by-product of rituals. Culture is the bigger picture that takes time to form and be seen –rituals are the routine that together define a culture. If an organization pays better heed to defining its rituals –the daily grind– then it can lay claim to have attempted to cultivate its culture.

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