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It is a well-known quote by Peter Drucker that states that company culture will eat your business strategy for breakfast. I love the quote. In fact, I’ve used the quote many times myself in presentations, discussions, and in my writing when I want to make a point about how important the culture of the team or organization is to their success.

No one is plagiarizing anyone here–I give Drucker all the credit for this quote, so you don’t need to worry if I’m plagiarizing someone like FLOTUS or a potential future-FLOTUS. You can get back to your augmented reality GO-ing Pokemoners if that is what gets you all fired up when you read or hear something today.

Personally, I’ve observed that the culture of your organization is a hungry beast. It merely snacks on strategy, but can ravenously tear apart and consume the “talent” within your organization to make even the best-laid plans completely ineffective. You know the talented “A” players that I’m referring to here. The individuals that your human resources group touted as superstars and the hiring managers brought into your organization to make it thrive. Unfortunately, they all don’t keep their “A” status, and some turn out to be complete duds when culture is not a fit.

The “C” Word
It seems like just a few years ago the “C” word was on every CEO’s and executive leader’s stump speech to their organizations and team. They brought in consultants, read the constant stream of books, blogs, and articles on the subject, and instituted some new programs within the organization to improve the company culture. Human Resources stopped talking about hiring people and started talking in the terms of individuals as talent, human capital, or assets.

As I see it, culture is the collection of individuals, their actions, and their decisions within any organization. Culture can be a consuming fire if it takes a wrong turn with a few bad hires or ill-timed business decisions from the top–and where our good old friend strategy gives culture indigestion from eating too fast.

Not Always an “A”
Most of us have probably heard the expression to “Bring your ‘A’ game.” If not, we welcome you from under your rock. It is the cliche of cliches in business. As if every employee packs a bag each morning and says, “I don’t know. This “A” game feels too heavy to carry today. I think I’ll bring my “D” game today with my Cheeto finger dust on it today because I like to lower the bar to keep things interesting.” That is an over exaggeration, but there are some who I have worked with that assume some employees make those types of decisions daily. Personally, I think there are far fewer empty bags of Cheetos lying around than other managers do and I will cover more below on why I think that way.

I’ve seen it firsthand as organizations can take an “A” player and turn them into a “C, D, or F” if the culture suddenly shifts and no longer fits with the reason you attracted that talent in the first place. In fact, I’ve experienced it personally.

Culture Shift
I’ve seen it happen to some great companies that allowed poor hiring practices and urgency when times were good to bring on the wrong people. They make what I have heard it referred to as a “Bozo Explosion.” When this occurs in your organization, it is not the “A” players skills and abilities that leave your organization, they do.

How do you prevent this from happening at your organization? You have to be always reading the proverbial tea leaves. Listen and learn. Usually, there are signs. Not the Mel Gibson movie “Signs” from the 90’s kind by M. Knight Shyamalan, but maybe leave out some glasses of water and get your aluminum foil hats on just in case. Only kidding.

Send in the Clowns
Some individuals leave quickly at the first clown sighting, while others might hold out hope that the there must have been a temporary glitch at the mainframe and the boat will stop rocking.

Have you heard of the concept of the “new normal?” People tend to say things like, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” Unfortunately, normal is not something that stays in stasis. Like our company cultures, it is ever evolving based on what is happening around us every day. We don’t see the tectonic shifts many times until the quake has swallowed up our department with clown shoes, red noses, and curly rainbow hair is the new casual Friday. We sometimes miss it because we are wearing our “back-to-normal” blinders.

I’m not suggesting that we have to be on constant alert that the culture of our organization is making a turn for the worse every time we bring someone in that is new or has different ideas. Things like change, a fresh perspective, and new leadership can be good. Most of these clowns in my experience will absolutely consume your culture and manufacture tickets to the Town of Chaos are the inspiration for books, blogs, and articles about bad bosses. They come in all shapes, sizes, and from various backgrounds. There is too much on those topics for me to touch on in this blog today in great detail.

Some of my favorite talent-killers from experience are the:

New Power Putz – Everything is shiny and new to this clown, and it is no surprise they want to assure everyone that it was not a mistake we hired them for their role. Every idea they have ever had becomes the top priority. Since they have only managed projects or products, they don’t remember that people need time to complete something before you can spew your next great idea. An “A” usually seeks out an “A” for something we all love; A for Accomplishment. Nothing gets done in constant chaos land, and even Homey D. Clown don’t play that.

Talk-before Thinking Twit – Even when the team is firing on all cylinders, this leader is losing credibility for themselves and the rest of the team within the organization when they regularly get a bad case of foot-in-mouth. The more they talk, text, or tweet, the deeper they dig the hole. Forget about it if they get stuck on a theme of bad analogies and no one tells them to knock it off before the mass migration to warmer climates.

Napoleonic Complex – Not short on moxie, but their diminutive stature has stunted their ability to lead the team effectively in battle. They feel as if others are looking down on them when they are looking to them for leadership and guidance. Too many second-guesses or unclear orders and the elite troops will go AWOL.

Angry Nerd – Smart guy, but always mad about something. Guessing it is the lack of social interaction or a lack of emotional quotient (EQ) to understand how to inspire the best from the team and lead others. It does not take long for the human capital to turn this game-of-droning on off and find clearer skies to fly your X-wing in.

Passive, Indecisive, and Uninspiring – Probably the worst of the bunch is this would-be leader. Even the most talented “A” becomes an at-best “B-C” under the watchful eye of this terrible leader-by-title. Never knowing what is up next, when to deliver something, and why you would do anything in the first place is the domino that topples talent from this cultural bad-hire.

Having lead organizations, I know the value of being aware and investing in your people. I don’t pretend to be the best leader that ever climbed the ladder. In fact, I did not just climb the ladder; my team was willing and able to keep the ladder stable. I found over time that there were several reasons that great people wanted to join and play for my corporate teams–I invested in individuals, recognized them consistently for great work, and helped those who wanted to get promoted to new levels of responsibility, get promoted.

Clown Proof Your Organization
How to combat the all day talent eating culture is the following:

  1. Always consider the advice to hire slow and fire fast as it relates to hiring–vet individuals at pivotal roles extremely close using people and technology because authority suppresses animosity once they are inside your organization–this includes during periods of hyper growth for your organization.
  2. Ask and expect candid feedback from inside and outside your organization. Honest feedback should be a no-brainer from team members (if hiring inside) or check references (external candidate), but you would be surprised by hiring managers and HR skipping this vital step because they want the hiring process to end. It could be the first domino falling if it starts a “Bozo Explosion” and all the truly “A” players leave. If it is an executive role, try reading Glassdoor reviews to see if there is anything that jumps out. An executive ran a startup, and their former team was very critical of the leader. Use some of those reviews to formulate questions that could help in the vetting of the leader. I know there are certain protections with reference checking that limits what you can ask. It used to be that it was a good reference that got us a job interview, not a slick resume with all the right buzz words. References are worthwhile when done right.
  3. Finally, allow employees to voice their concerns safely without fear of retaliation by a clown if they are seeing something the executive team is not because they are not close enough to the work. This truly “open door” policy creates trust for the employee and even for the executive team that “A” players have a voice and care about the success of the organization. An “A” does not become an “F” because they disagree with a leader’s strategy or decision making. Iron sharpens iron. It is good for the organization to have some constructive friction to sharpen the sword. If not, the organization might only be left with the dull clowns making all of the noise.

I’m not exactly sure why I went down this path other than it was on my mind. I’ve seen some great product organizations take a wrong turn with some poor leaders. If you have a great team and leaders that communicate and work together for the greater good, then anything is possible–like breakfast all day.

Now I’m hungry.

Please leave your comments and insights below.