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Organizational Culture

The Importance of Organizational Culture

Why feeding our cultural “soil” can soothe souls and improve sales

The Importance of Organizational Culture blog post - hand holding soil

Over the past 20 or 30 years, organizational culture has become one of the most common topics of leadership discussion. Everyone seems to agree that it’s important. But, as Buffalo Springfield sang back in the late ’60s, “What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Progressive business writer Frederic Laloux says, “Culture is how things get done without people having to think about it.” Craig Clark, the founder and CEO of Momentum Consulting, says, “Culture is what people do when nobody is looking.” Here at Zingerman’s, when we teach our Business Perspective Chart, we say “culture is the way life really is.” Dr. Edgar Schein, probably the first person to really write in depth about the importance of organizational culture, gives a much more detailed summation:

Culture… is a powerful, latent, and often unconscious set of forces that determine both our individual and collective behavior, ways of perceiving, thought patterns, and values. Organizational culture in particular matters because cultural elements determine strategy, goals, and modes of operating. The values and thought patterns of leaders and senior managers are partially determined by their own cultural backgrounds and shared experience. …Culture can be thought of as manifesting itself on many levels—it is represented by all of its artifacts, by which I mean buildings, art works, products, language, and everything that we see and feel when we enter another culture.

There is so much more to say on this subject than will fit into this short piece. Which, I suppose, seems fitting—no matter how many metrics we monitor, we will probably never be able to fully pay proper due to the depth, richness, and complexity that is culture. Cultural improvement will never be finished. It is the life work of any leader who is focused, as we are here, on long-term organizational development. We fail daily in small ways, and there’s always work to be done to improve. (With that in mind, next week I’m intending to share more about some of the specific areas in which I believe we can—both systemically and informally—focus our efforts to enrich our cultures.)

Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While I smile and nod my head in agreement every time I see that quote, I don’t want to give the illusion that culture alone is enough. We need a good mission, an inspiring vision, meaningful ethics or values, well-designed systems, and solid results to help an organization be healthy. Each, as per Natural Law #18—everything is interconnected—will inform the others.

While cultures only rarely make the headlines, they inform everything you experience when you come into contact with a company—as Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana makes clear, it’s impossible to accurately assess anything in isolation from its ecosystem. Without our culture at Zingerman’s, the corned beef at the Deli wouldn’t be as good, your experience as a customer would be diminished, sportscasters would not talk about us on ESPN, travelers wouldn’t drive two hours out of their way to shop and eat, and Micki Maynard wouldn’t be writing a business book about us. We certainly would not have been able to contribute positively to so many lives over all these years—the cultural memories that staff take with them when they leave, and that customers carry with them, last lifetimes. Two weeks ago, I heard from a French woman who had worked at the Deli back in the ’80s when she was studying at Eastern Michigan. She’s now an expert in Lean management, living in Paris: “I keep telling people that I learned all about great business and respectful management at Zingerman’s,” she shared. “I was so impressed with everything. I only understood years later how great and special a place Zingerman’s is, and how a business is just what the founder(s) deeply believe in.” Two nights ago, a customer I didn’t recognize introduced himself to me. He’d loved this meal, but what he really wanted to tell me was that 32 years ago we drove to Fenton to cater his wedding. “It was in 1989,” he said with a big smile. “And people are still talking about it!” Now, if we hadn’t done our content work well, the stories these two folks told would be totally different. But I believe strongly that it’s the energy and emotion that emanates from the culture that is, more than anything else, what folks take away from an interaction with us. I try never to take it for granted, because, as architect Christopher Alexander says, “This quality without a name is the most precious thing we ever have.”

In the organizational ecosystem model that I’ve been working on for the last few years, I’ve looked at organizational culture as soil. In Part 4 I wrote:

[Permaculturist Toby] Hemenway says, “An exuberantly healthy soil is the cornerstone of a sustainable garden.” It’s also, I believe, the basis for a sustainable business. Everything—people, ideas, products, even other beliefs—grows in, and is influenced by, it. When the soil is poor, only the most resilient of seeds—or those that do well in poisoned or damaged settings—will survive. The healthier the soil, the more nutrients it contains, the better everything growing in it will do. It’s much the same in our workplaces as it is in the woods.

It’s clear from even a casual understanding of agriculture that the healthier the soil, the better the plants you put in it will do. Organic gardening guru Eliot Coleman charges growers to, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” The quality of the soil—and of our organizational culture—has a direct correlation to the quality of what comes out of it! People, produce, profits, principles, energy, beliefs… all of these and then some are impacted enormously by the culture in which they are happening. Agronomist and professor of soils at the University of Missouri, Dr. Ted Albrecht, studied the connection between human health and soil quality. Early in the 20th century, he said that “rebuilding and conserving our soils is the surest guarantee of the future health and strength of the nation.” He viewed the soil as “the ‘creative material’ of most of the basic needs of life.” A rich, positive organizational culture does the same for people. A healthy culture can do wonders for the quality of life of anyone working within it. Without one, it’s hard to make great things happen. As the founder of the Land Institute Wes Jackson writes, “Soil is more important than oil.”

Unfortunately, many organizations approach culture mostly as an afterthought, trying to fix it after it’s fallen into disrepair. I would suggest the opposite approach. I’m in alignment with the views of U of M Professor of Environmental Justice Ivette Perfecto: “Our philosophy is mostly one of prevention, keeping the farm strong and healthy with a lot of natural enemies that can combat the pests, rather than trying to solve a problem once it has emerged.” Dr. Perfecto’s point fits perfectly for our organizations as well. Mindfully managing soil health and company culture is a critical piece of our work. Working thoughtfully to enrich it today helps prevent problems tomorrow. The more quickly we can repair it when it has suffered—which will happen—the better our long term prospects. The healthier the soil, the healthier the plant that grows in it is likely to be; the healthier the culture, the better the people who work in it are likely to do too. When people are thriving, they’re more able to improve systems, give meaningfully great service, increase sales, enhance creativity, or write inspiring and strategically sound visions. And when they go home, they bring that well-being from work with them, which in turn, enhances the quality of their personal lives and their communities.

All organizational cultures—like soils on farms—are constantly evolving. There will always be better days and worse days. The key is that we’re sensitive to those shifts and adjust accordingly. Depleting the culture, uncaringly, in the interest of short term profits, almost always leads to large, long term problems. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” When the organizational culture consistently comes apart over a period of years, the signs will soon show up in customer service, product quality, emotional energy, and financial statements. We all have our work cut out for us. Erin Yi-Juin McMorrow, author of the great book Grounded, writes, “Our broken relationship with the soil is the problem, the story and the call to action of our generation.” McMorrow makes clear that healing soil solves a whole lot of problems. “If you are familiar with healthy soil, if you think about holding what seems like healthy soil, it’s going to be dark and rich… It’s going to have life in it.” That same vibrancy, I would suggest, is what we will see in a healthy organizational culture. You can feel it in the energy. Healthier, more vibrant culture creates resilience—people recover quicker from difficult days, months, or years. There’s more care, more generosity, more dignity, more inclusion, more diversity, more positive beliefs, more hope. Healthy cultures work wonders. Hemenway writes, “Feeding the soil engages us in a partnership that benefits all. …Life builds on life.”

All that said, there’s no question in my mind that the last 15 months have been a big challenge for every organization. Even in the best of times we fall short, and the last year has put all of us to the test. Despite good intentions, we will at times fail to treat each other with dignity, make poor decisions, forget to follow through, drop the ball, or worse still, let the ball drop on others. I have unintentionally done them all. I have also been part of any number of difficult conversations—both in the last 15 months and throughout our 39 years—where we work to acknowledge our shortfalls, apologize, and then strategize together about how to get better. Hard as it is, and bad as it feels, to fall short, it’s the willingness to own these issues and to engage in the work to get better that is one of the hallmarks of a healthy culture.

How do you know if a culture is healthy? There are certainly things we can measure. But, as with soil health in nature, it’s not an exact science. Dr. Dwayne Beck, Research Manager at Dakota Lakes Research Farm, says:

It’s frustrating that we don’t really have measures in science that can show exactly what healthy soil is… but you can see it with your eyes. …[T]hese three guys came here to our farm and they were trying to come up with a definition of what soil health was. …and, of course, they couldn’t do it… and then I picked up a spade and dug just a little bit of the soil and I said, “There you go. That’s what it looks like!”

It’s essentially the same in organizations. There are surveys to study, bottom-line results to track, and metrics to monitor, but in the end, it still comes down to how the culture looks and feels in action when you’re a part of it. There are 49 “Secrets” in Parts 1–4 of the Guide to Good Leading books, and five more in free-standing pamphlets. Everything I’ve written about—and probably just as much that hasn’t yet come clear—contributes to our culture.

Erin McMorrow suggests standing, our bare feet in the soil, to reground ourselves emotionally every day. I would suggest that we as leaders can learn a lot by making sure to connect with our culture daily as well. To take a deep breath and be fully present, as best we can, in and around the daily life of the organization. As poet and writer Lex Weinstein says, “Every day is an opportunity to live as our highest selves.” The culture, after all, is where it all begins. I’m always working to do better, to listen more meaningfully, to do more. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that our own health and effectiveness is informed by the culture as well. The more we give to nutrients and nurturing in the culture, the better everyone in the culture—including us—is likely to do.

My experience has taught me that we learn about ourselves, our organizations, and each other, when we encounter extremely difficult circumstances. Social psychologist Kurt Lewin once famously said, “If you want to understand a culture try to change it.” I agree. And, I’ll suggest, the inverse is equally important: If you want to understand a culture, a good way would be to study how it responds when a change happens to it. And if you really want to get a deep sense of what a culture is about, pay very close attention when the change with which it’s confronted is close to catastrophic. The thought behind this statement is intellectually intriguing to me. But the reality is rather challenging. In order to test the theory, we have to work through very difficult times.

The bad news, as you know, is that 2020 provided us with plenty of opportunity to face catastrophic, or near catastrophic events, most or all of which we had little or no influence in initiating, nor much of any say in how they went down. The good news is that for those who are willing to do some reflective self-study, we’ve all been handed a terribly-good opportunity to get to know our cultures in deeper and more meaningful ways than we ever have.

The proposition I’ll put forward here is this:

The healthier the culture, the more resilient it will be under extreme duress.

In the same way that bad things can happen to good people, so too can bad things happen to good company cultures. But still, healthier cultures, and the organizations of which they’re a part, simply stand a better chance of getting through hard times. (For more on my/our learnings from 2020, see “Working Through Hard Times.”)

I grew up in Chicago, a city kid who knew nothing about farming. In my childhood we talked a lot about dirt. Dirt was generally undesirable. In the context of my ecosystem metaphor, I’ve come to see that “dirt” in that way would be the equivalent of an unhealthy culture. To the untrained eye, looking from a distance, it doesn’t look all that different from healthy soil. You can certainly plant in it and for a short period of time, what you plant might well seem ok. But dirt—i.e., a dispirited and disengaged culture—simply doesn’t have the health and resilience of healthy soil. Unhealthy “cultural soil” will, more often than not, lead to failure by folks on the front line. I remind myself regularly of Thich Nhat Hanh’s well taken point that, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce.”

Think about what happens if you pick up a handful of dirt of the type I’ve described. Close your fingers around it. Much of it will fall out of your hand even as you try to hold onto it. Open your palm. If there’s any breeze at all, it will quickly blow away. It certainly won’t hold together. Now imagine picking up a handful of healthy soil. Close your palm around it. Then open it. The soil will pretty surely stay put. It’s moist from generosity. It has a wonderful feel and an enticing aroma. It’s got resilience, vitality. It holds together. Dignity can prevail, even in the difficult times.

In one of those beautiful things about regenerative work, the creation of culture is iterative. The soil impacts what grows in it and is, at the same time, being impacted by that which is growing. I’ve long believed that hearing what CEOs have to say about a culture has far less value than what one will learn from other folks in the organization. Which is why this last story meant so much to me. Sam Major started working at the Roadhouse as a busser three years ago when she was all of 15. A year or so later, she started to work the front door as a host. She’s awesome, an inspiration to me and many others. After a challenging evening a few weeks ago—yes, we have them too, and I apologize to everyone we fail to serve properly when we do—Sam set the tone for the rest of us. Leadership, in the kind of culture we want, can and should come from every level. Although it’s very hard to really describe the metrics of healthy soil, or in our case, healthy culture, as Dwayne Beck said, we know it when we see it. After writing about the challenges of the shift in her nightly notes, she closed with this message, which I believe says a lot about the culture that is Zingerman’s: “I appreciate you all so much!!” she said. “Today was a wild ride, but I’m so happy to be on it with you all.”

For more on an organizational recipe for working more in depth with this subject, see Secret #12 in Part 1, “5 Steps to Building an Organizational Culture.”

For additional info on the organizational ecosystem, see Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!