As if Charles Darwin himself were personally involved, the significant economic dips and downturns we face seem designed to weed out the weak. It's a good thing. By doing so, the economy, as a whole, can enter the next decade stronger, free of dead weight and old thinking so our society can more easily progress forwards.
But recessions and other major dips only happen about every decade. So what about the other nine years? How can organizations ensure that their foundations are strong enough to adapt to any economic climate, weather any change and adapt to seize the opportunities brought with the introduction of new technologies? How can organizations make sure that they are the fittest who survive?
There are two types of weak companies - the ones who will suffer the most in a downturn.
1. The structurally weak.
2. The culturally weak.
The structurally weak are those with poor systems and processes. They survived in the good times not because they were good, but because it was hard to fail...think dot com. There were a LOT of bad companies run by 21 year olds with big ideas and barely a whiff of a sound business model who were securing millions of dollars of funding. The culture at many was strong; the whole sector was intoxicated by the possibilities...and most failed. But they didn't all fail, there were a few who not only survived, but continue to thrive to this day. They had structure where the others didn't.
But it is the culturally weak that I find more fascinating. The structurally weak can hire a consultant or read a book to gain the knowledge they need to implement good systems (and they have to follow through, of course). But the culturally weak can't outsource a solution. Having a strong culture inside an organization takes clarity, discipline and consistency from those who lead.
Take Lehman-Brothers, for example. A very successful company that collapsed not in months or weeks...but in days. At the slightest shudder, the house of cards came tumbling down. They were good at what they did and they knew how to do it. Their systems and processes were sound (they were the same as all the other banks). But because their leadership was weak their culture suffered. There was no sense of shared a purpose or cause beyond the accumulation of personal wealth, there was no glue to hold the company together.
If you look at companies with strong cultures - Patagonia, Container Store, Google, to name a few - the people who work there come to work with a feeling that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Their jobs are more than making a living. It's more than a need to pay the bills. The company they work for is a part of their personal identity. To those who work in companies with a strong culture, the accumulation of personal wealth is the byproduct of being a part of something that inspires them and not, as was the case at Lehman the primary driver. It is this culture - shared values and beliefs - that bonds the employees together and inspires them to batten down the hatches when the going gets tough. Not for themselves, but for the good of the company and their colleagues.
In this recent economic downturn, many companies learned the lesson to improve the quality of their systems and processes, but not enough realize the need to strengthen their cultures also. No matter where you work, try to take a job in which you like the culture as much as you like the benefits package and the odds are much higher you'll survive the next dip because they will too.
To learn more about how to build a strong corporate culture, read Simon Sinek's new book Start With Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action.
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