“The single most visible factor that distinguishes a successful culture from a failure… is competent leadership from the top.” —Corporate Culture and Performance
We are coming upon the 20 year anniversary of the publishing of John Kotter’s and James Heskett’s Corporate Culture and Performance. The lessons in this classic are timeless and particularly applicable for those who lead groups today. Rooted in research, Kotter and Heskett provide a blue-print of what to do to build an organization that can sustain strong performance. They also point out that it is not easy.
“Culture represents the interdependent set of values and ways of behaving that are common in a community and that tend to perpetuate themselves.” The performance engine of any company is their community of employees. Specifically, the books central message is that it is critical to build an Adaptive Culture, rather than a strong culture, to create long-term economic performance. Adaptive cultures expect and embrace change. To build the elusive adaptive culture, the authors offer the following:
Senior executives must display an uncommon combination of personal attributes and actions at the very top of a business. Internally, executives must be self-assured and willing to work for others. Externally, executives must exhibit discipline, confidence and humility. According to extensive research conducted by Kotter and Heskett, senior executives must also act to:
- Create a sense of crisis and a need for change as they set a new direction
- Communicate consistently and broadly
- Display an “outsiders” propensity to embrace change and new ideas
- Reinforce the importance of innovation
- Build and maintain an “insiders” credibility
- Institute a balanced focus on the success of customers, employees, and share owners
- Establish leadership or the ability to produce change as an important focus at ALL levels
- Decentralize decision-making where possible
- Promote carefully and demote when necessary
- Celebrate early success
At a time when so many of our private sector institutions are not performing well, we would all be well served to return to lessons contained in this leadership classic. The good news is that the paperback version of Corporate Culture and Performance was released earlier this year. Is that perfect timing? As a practitioner of the concepts included in this classic, I can assure you it is well worth the time.