Building Corporate Culture: The Lessons of Lessinger

At some point or another, in meetings around the world every day, the “C” word comes up.  Culture. 

“We have to build a culture of innovation.” 
“We have a collaborative culture in our organization.” 
“Our culture needs to change in order for us to succeed.”

Okay.  That all sounds good.  But, when you really come down to it, what is culture?  More importantly, how do you create the one you want?

Sure there are consultants and trainers out there by the gazillions (a highly technical numerical estimate) who will sell you training and services on culture.  But what are they giving you?  And how will you know it’s working – in the immediate and, most important of all, for a sustainable long-term future?

Please allow me to introduce you to my friend and mentor, Dr. Leon Lessinger.  He’s got the answer.

Leon is one of those people you’re really lucky to meet during a lifetime.  At 86 and (technically) retired, he continues to learn and grow and figure out how things work – and don’t – as well as why.

Having begun his career as an engineer while in the Army, he was assigned to the Manhattan Project.  He saw, in those first nuclear tests, both the creation of the sun and the end of a world as we had known it.

From there, he went back to school, changed directions and became an educator.  Starting as a teacher, he progressed to become a Superintendent, a U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, Professor, Chair, Dean.  You name it, he did it.

And all along the way not only did he continue to learn and apply, but his thinking kept – and keeps – expanding to identify not just the what’s and why’s of the world, but how those what’s and why’s can be used to determine how to make things better.

Which brings me to three lessons – among many – that I’ve learned from Leon that directly apply to your quest to change, monitor and adjust the culture of your organization.  The lessons are Leon’s.  The application to business is mine.

As you’ll see, they are all behavioral.  They are also inextricably bound.  Most important, however, is that each is a choice – first on your part to demonstrate and model the behaviors, yourself.  Then, through strategy and policy, you build them into your enterprise.  It is the combination that creates success – for you and your organization’s future.

Lesson One – Praxis via Practice Leading to Habituation.

This one, I know, is a mouthful, but it is foundational so it needs to be the starting point.  It combines science, art and discipline.

The science part is practice.  That means best practice.

Too many organizations let opportunities slip simply because they are not striving to identify what constitutes best practice in and for their organization.  From front line services to global strategy, you can’t allow what is to remain without constantly questioning and probing to determine what else and how better.

To that end, best practice comes both from within and outside your organization.  The people who do the work – whatever work it is – know better ways it can be done.  Those need to be identified and then codified so that they can be expanded into the rest of the enterprise, as applicable.

Simultaneously, the outside world is pursuing all sorts of new ways of doing business about which you need to be aware.  The more information you and your executive team have about best practices in other industries, the more opportunities you can identify to improve your strategic, market and profit positions.

Then, once you’ve identified the practices that are required, it is the discipline of the organization – through consistent policies, procedures and training – that allow those practices to become praxis.

Praxis is the mark of consistency across the enterprise.  Your customers should never be concerned about which employee they’ll be doing business with or what product they’re buying from your organization.

Moreover, when praxis is correctly applied, it allows you and your team to have a clearer picture of what is so that you can keep moving the organization ahead toward what it needs to be.

Habituation, making praxis into habit, applies on two levels.  For the employees, it is ensuring the consistency now not just of their actions, but the thinking about their actions.  They are trained, managed and guided to consistently be looking for how things can be even better.  How their best practices can be improved upon even further.

You have now built a culture of innovation at the employee level.

But it can’t stop there.  It has to apply even more directly at the senior levels.  And that’s where you come in.

Because the final component, which is the art involved in habituation, is both specific and global.  It is also simultaneous.  It is what takes the ways you’ve embedded consistency and best practice and allows you to be so assured of performance that you can move the organization in any direction you require.  Habituation at the most senior level goes beyond not resting on your laurels.  It’s the necessity and execution of constant reinvention.

No company can afford to look backward.  Not even to yesterday.  The competitive and market landscapes simply don’t allow it.

Of course you have to build on your successes – and your failures – but those are forward directed.  Not backward.  They don’t allow you to wallow or bemoan.  They catapult you to future success.

That’s habituation at the executive level.  It is the constant and unrelenting look at where new opportunities lie – or can be created.  It’s moving your organization ever forward – with everyone understanding that that’s the direction you’re going and that they are part of getting there.

Now you’ve created a culture of innovation and collaboration both within and outside.  You are known and accepted as a market leader.

The best way to think of all of this put together is by looking at Google.  The company started as a simple search engine.  It became the market leader both in numbers of searches and revenues.  That wasn’t by accident.

From the beginning the founders and executives at Google knew that they had to build a culture of innovation.  And, technology being what it is, the advent of new products and new technologies as well as new players in the field, would create constant challenges to their position.  As a result, they had to innovate simultaneously in how they do what they already do always better – which are the search algorithms – and how to consistently grow their market – which is Google Labs.

As well, because there are always spanners that get thrown in the works – from Rupert Murdoch to the collaboration between Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo – Google has to be on top of its game to create business models that keep them the preferred provider.

A culture of innovation in all things is Google’s hallmark.

By starting with individuated processes’ best practice through building consistency in their application to praxis, you can move your organization seamlessly to habituation through strategy, policy and management oversight to being best of breed in all you do.  Always.

Lesson Two – Accountability.

When Leon was a US Commissioner of Education, he was responsible for granting millions of dollars (that’s 1960s dollars) in contracts to providers who were going to bring something new and better to the educational system.  That was fine with Leon, of course.  It was always nice to receive promises of good results from contractors – but that wasn’t enough.

Simply put, he told the contractors that they had to provide proof – quantifiable proof – that their methods were, in fact, improving educational outcomes.  If they did so and they wanted further contracts, those contracts had a chance to be granted.  If they weren’t able – or willing – to provide proof of outcome, they didn’t have a look in on any second round.  They were out.

Leon is the person who first brought accountability to the education system.

This should be a no-brainer but, unfortunately, it isn’t.  The reason is because there is too rarely either a sense of responsibility or accountability in or to organizations.

If you’re asking someone to perform any task or contract, they have a responsibility to do their absolute best to provide you the outcomes for which you’re looking.  This applies as much to your employees and contractors as to the suppliers with which you work.  To get them there, you have a responsibility to ensure that they have all the information and/or tools required to assist them in achieving your goals.

That’s where the accountability part can fairly come in.  If you’ve done your part, then they are set for success.  Whether they achieve it or not is on them.

If they do, great.  If they don’t, then you have the responsibility to ensure that they are held accountable for their performance and appropriate action is taken. 

Whether that is disciplinary action, firing or finding another contractor, you have to take action.  It won’t be pleasant.  It never is.  But, if you don’t, you’ve sent a message to your organization that it is a culture of “gaming the system,” avoidance of responsibility and no consequences.

Building the culture you want and need means incorporating accountability in as a driving and understood force of how you do business.

Lesson Three – Being an Optimist by Design.

When Leon describes those nuclear tests and the discussions that were held by the scientists who were creating the technology which could turn a desert to glass, you know that optimism for civilization was hard to find.  They knew what they were doing and what the potential outcomes were.  Yet, even as they accepted the need, they deplored – and, in future discussions, despaired over – its use.

That’s why when Leon describes being an Optimist by Design, he knows of which he speaks.

His is not a Pollyanna-ish view of the world.  It isn’t “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”  It is a realistic, objective, dispassionate view of the world that sees what is and with which you work, assiduously, to determine what can be and how to get there.

The current economic environment is the perfect case in point.  Businesses that are surviving have, finally, come to realize that it’s not a matter of thinking outside the box.  They finally get it.  There is no box.  Nor has there ever been one.

Whether yours is a start-up, a small business or a multi-national, you are creating new worlds.  You have to.  In this market and competitive environment, you don’t have a choice.

But the richness of the choices and opportunities is what makes being an Optimist by Design both easy and possible.  There are no limits to what you can create – alone and in concert with others, including former competitors.  Neither are there limits to the markets into which you can sell what you have to offer.

Boundaries exist in your mind.  The landscape and horizons are only limited by your decisions and your view of what you want to achieve.

So, in creating that culture that knows no limits, you bring that Optimism by Design to everything you do.  From your team meetings with employees to the way you set your strategy, you take that objective, dispassionate look to determine what is.  Then, building on the best (because you’ve done the practice, praxis, habituation and accountability parts at the same time) you work collaboratively with all your stakeholders – within and without – to identify and determine what will be.

Because the given is, building the culture you want, on behaviors that are consistently best of breed, you can and will achieve what you are working towards.  Then you’ll achieve more.

The only real challenge you’ll have is to keep up with Leon – because he’s always way ahead of every curve.