In high school, I learned that culture is a collective norm of a people. I am paraphrasing because that was eons ago. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the culture of the corporate kind is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” When I worked for the World Trade Organization Secretariat (WTO), we had a culture of honesty regarding time worked. Professionals were expected to complete their projects on time without a supervisor breathing down their necks. Directors did not visit people’s offices to make sure they were present. We worked all hours of the day and night and even on weekends when it was crunch time. When we were less busy, we filled work with coffee breaks and a small glass of wine during lunch in their cafeteria. How do you lead a culture?
What was fascinating was that the WTO had people from all over the world working there. It had three working languages, and every staff member spoke at least two languages, plus some native tongue. Yet, we had a culture of wearing dark suits and somber colors. There was a culture on how decisions were made, which I wrote about in another blog. Everyone remained polite and had a diplomatic way of greeting each other, even insulting each other in a way that would not raise your blood pressure. There was an understanding that teams and people create culture.
Once, the organization hired a new director for my division. He was brash, a showoff, and lauded his doctorates and general intelligence over his peers. His strategy was to rule by decree, as was his home culture. He could not understand why, when he instructed his professional staff, they would ask ‘why’ and propose other ways more fitting with the organizational culture. He demoted recalcitrant staff while they were out sick, changed our process of delivering technical assistance, and verbally attacked his colleagues. His peers resented him, and his professional team continued to challenge him. As a Director, he had to be able to lead in a convincing way, not by a dictatorship. He did not last. Culture beats strategy, eventually.
What he failed to realize, he was a new member of a team. His approach was that he was coming to be the boss of brilliant people. True. But that also meant he had to respect the culture created by the people of the organization over many years before he arrived. His issue was a lack of respect, while he assumed he had earned it just by showing up and gracing the organization with his esteemed presence. The culture fused into the programs and method of delivery over many years of molding, including a deep appreciation for the WTO members’ needs. He was messing with a delicate balance of culture that directed strategy that was the WTO way. Multilateralism has challenges, and it’s essential not to unravel the culture to suit yourself.
Diplomats tend to have a keen sense of adapting to the culture. They have to adjust to the organizational culture of their office or embassy, the community they now call home, and the body they serve, whether a federal government, private sector investment, or an international organization. Diplomats who are new talk less and listen more. It’s ideal when there is an overlap between the old and new diplomats so there can be a training period on the real issues and nuances. The diplomats who are more excited to be a “diplomat” than actually working with people tend to be less liked and, therefore, less successful.
Some leaders are afraid to be seen as failures because of various insecurities. These insecurities can stem from childhood. Parents may have never shown confidence in their children and allow them to make a mistake here and there, learning from the experience. The adult, therefore, wants to micromanage everything. While interviewing someone for a job, I realized that the person wants to work in every department with the intention that someday they will be qualified to run the organization. It’s noble and worthwhile to understand what’s happening in the organization. However, it can go wrong if the leader is insecure.
If the leader believes that because they covered all the departments at some point in their career, they can do the work of anyone in all the departments, they will likely want to micromanage. Micromanagement often means you neglect the work of leading because you are busy interfering with everyone else’s work. We have a saying that the leader becomes a “jack of all trades and a master of none,” including their job. It stems from fear of failure and lack of trust, resulting from fear of insufficient staff to do the work. What’s worse, the real experts become so alienated and unrewarded by this behavior that they surrender their work sovereignty and watch the organization fail. Or they leave. Eventually, the boss leaves for another organization to do the same for an even bigger remuneration.
Today, we use diversity to mean we have included a few token people of a different race, gender, nationality, or ethnic origins in the organization. This is the new catchphrase called diversity and inclusion. It often does not mean integration, in the sense that every culture and idea from everyone is infused into the organization to have a rich culture. Yet studies show that those genuinely integrative organizations have a deeper understanding of their market and are more successful. Rarely are the ‘diverse and inclusive’ staff in decision-making leadership positions.
Integration and natural diversity utilize all the people in a society in a way that all are valued and added to the production and output of the company. There is the joke of NASA providing 100 tampons for Sally Ride, a female astronaut, to spend a week in the orbiting space station. Having women in the logistics section with authority to make decisions would have helped the men make better choices. Many companies cripple themselves by hiring mini-me’s of the hiring manager – same race, gender, culture, language, all so that they can feel comfortable, rather than what’s suitable for the long-term success of the company. Since cultures are cultivated daily, every organization must develop a culture of integration to reap success easily.
Can employees in your company easily describe your organizational culture? Do you interfere with that culture or try to go against it? Can you describe your organization as truly integrative and, therefore, diverse?
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