In today’s New York Times, David Brooks astutely points out that the challenge for GM is cultural, and not simply structural or financial. He notes:
On Jan. 21, 1988, a General Motors executive named Elmer Johnson wrote a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.”
On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant, wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed, especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back at the public trough again and again.”
In the final analysis, the challenge of leadership for our times is creating if not refocusing on our notion that we can accomplish things. Leaders have to take the responsibility for communal and organizational culture. Before anything else, they have to focus on the sense that we’ve regained our sense of cultural momentum, that we’ve overcome inertia and hesitation has been left behind.
Have you heard, “We have a can-do culture?” Or, “We have a culture that stays on top of things?” Sometimes momentum is a question of your ability to ingrain the culture of the group into the individual. In some organizations, you walk in and you immediately have the sense that they can run with the ball and go the distance. Such a culture is one of “drive.” Consider firefighters. Theirs is a culture full of tradition. They reinforce expected behavior through the stories of the heroic deeds of their brethren, by recounting pivotal events, important people and their actions. They tell and retell stories that subtly and not so subtly communicate how a firefighter is supposed to engage in that organization and that build a sense of belonging among its members. Firefighters take action and extraordinary risk because of their strong sense of mission. As a result, their focused drive saves lives. The most effective leaders of firefighters are able to sustain momentum by using the firefighter culture to inspire and deliver outstanding commitment and superior performance.
Imagine two groups with comparable resources. One group shows results, while the other can’t seem to get anything done. They start a lot of projects, but they finish nothing. They don’t have the capacity to go the distance. Sure, they may listen to the same CEO give the same call to action. But when it comes to implementing an agenda or demonstrating superior results, even though the teams have similar talent, a similar organization, “the B team” somehow falls short. Their agenda goes unfulfilled. You’ve seen plenty of examples of this. The new product launch, which was so highly touted, turns into a money pit. The reorganization that was supposed to improve customer satisfaction results in customer confusion. The rollout of a performance management system gets stuck in meeting paralysis. The best-laid plans become some of the worst-laid eggs.
In many of these cases, the X factor is cultural momentum. Using value and purpose, the leader of the “A team” created a sense of belonging, commitment, and collaboration among the group’s members. People relate to others in the group. They relate to the group as a whole. In a real sense, they define themselves in relation to the group and/or the initiative. This is the foundation of cultural momentum that will get this team through adversity.