What is your “it?”

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I was recently talking with some colleagues about climate and culture, and how to build or maintain it when so many people are working remotely.  

Climate refers to how people feel about their job or their work, their sense of purpose in an organization, and their happiness or satisfaction. Between climate and culture, climate is less challenging to maintain when distanced.  After all, a lot of people enjoy working remotely, and enjoy the additional freedom and independence that comes with it. Culture, on the other hand, is more tricky, whether distanced or not. 

Culture is about shared beliefs, values, commitments and norms.  It is possible to have a great climate and a crappy culture.  But it doesn’t go the other way.  If the culture is strong, that is, if there’s a strong sense of “team” and shared commitments, it is highly unlikely that members of the organization would be unhappy, unfulfilled or purposeless. 

This is where I have had it wrong for a long time. 

Yes, you heard that right.

I always assumed that happiness and purpose alone would lead to improved work quality, efficiency and attentiveness to customers and the mission. Those are important things and not easily accomplished.  They are especially important things to focus on at a personal level. However, from an organizational perspective they are the latter part of the “if, then” scenario.

What that really means is that by focusing first on culture, a positive climate is an added and low-effort benefit.

But back to the original question. How is culture built or maintained? I think the answer is to figure out what “it” is. What is the “it” that compels people to rally around?  What is the “it” that can be woven into the mission and vision of the organization, as well as the work?

The “it” could be a compelling mission, such as the one Steve Jobs declared in 1977:

“Apple is dedicated to the empowerment of man—to making personal computing accessible to each and every individual so as to help change the way we think, work, learn, and communicate.”

“It” could also be like St. Jude’s mission:

“To advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment” and “no child is denied treatment based on race, religion or a family’s ability to pay.”

Or, in the case of the organization I am privileged to lead, the “it” could be a unified effort to ensure that equity and anti-racism are embedded in the policies, practices and services we provide.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, that one fell on our lap just as the lock-down was in full swing and everyone was remote. Taking a serious stab at confronting the issues of social injustice and rallying around ways we can make a difference because of our mission, vision and voice has had a galvanizing effect as we cohese around common beliefs and values.

The moral here is not that it takes a crisis to build culture, but that there needs to be an “it.” And when there is one, a lot of other stuff will fall into place. 

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