Note from the Field: Culture

Miriam is passionate about human development and finding out what adopted patterns hold people back from achieving what they really want.

I was approached by my colleague to write something on culture. What do I want to say about this topic to a community when I assume in my mind every single member probably has more knowledge and more structured and theoretical insight than me about this topic? So, this was my first thought when I was asked to write about culture change.

Therefore, choosing what to write is a difficult thing. And my response may simply be a story, which is often the case when I feel I may intellectually and conceptually not quite be up to the task. In that way, I can share some practical experience and insight, leaving it up to you to judge about its relevance for broader application.

Culture, including culture change and blending cultures, has been an important topic all throughout my life. I was raised in a family that was very culture-aware and culture-curious. This has probably helped me navigate in the very different environments that I have experienced throughout my life. A particularly memorable experience was celebrating Christmas 1991 with an American and Russian student in my parent’s house. I went on to study in a French/ German integrated engineering curriculum and then joined Airbus.

Certainly, the way I learned to look at culture is that there is no “one right way”, but simply ways that have been adopted, for good or for bad reasons in certain groups. Culture seems to consist of habits that are cultivated and that seem to allow people familiar with them to get along and not consciously negotiate the rules during every single exchange. At the same time, I have seen, throughout my 20 years within Airbus that culture is not something rigid and stable, but that it constantly changes. I have a sense that resilience is not necessarily found in the most rigid rules and controls but rather in cultures that are the most adaptable and the most able to question the status quo in the face of a challenge.

In this light, how do I understand culture? The definition that comes to mind for me is the norms, values, habits and behaviours that are preferred, adopted and practised by the majority of people within a given group.

So how does this link to the work we do in RISE?

This leads me to think of a client I’m working with right now, where the challenge was to establish a culture for a leadership team and the company at large. In fact, the topic for this engagement was not labelled as “culture” at all. First and foremost, it revolved around how to make people feel more accountable at all levels in order to allow for a sustainable and robust business, as well as cost control. We identified that the behaviour of the owners was part of the problem and we supported them in reflecting on their practices and behaviours as leaders. Through coaching, we helped them identify some of their beliefs that were at the root of this behaviour. In parallel, we worked with the leadership team that met for the first time in a one day retreat with us.

Miriam Binder-Lang preparing for client work

The RISE team focused on establishing trust and the ability to be vulnerable, as well as building skills around feedback, listening and communication. What we saw emerge was a greater readiness in the team and beyond to go the extra mile, to do things for a collective goal rather than only asking “what’s in it for me?”. The entire company was on board when a massive digitalisation project went live this month. We saw the enthusiasm with leadership team members who had previously shown very little interest. We were told that employees pro-actively offered to work on weekends to make this launch a success; even employees outside of the project team!

So from my perspective, the magic that has happened is that we have supported the leadership team members in better filling their role, the owners in asking explicitly for support and all of them together to take ownership of the future of this company.

Sometimes I wonder if we should have had a more structured approach, e.g. by addressing culture as the explicit topic in this journey of development. I wonder if we would have been able to address explicitly some of the rules of engagement with each other – or if on the other hand, we would have been the consultants who speak a different language.

A lesson that I have learned is that in order to keep people on board and engaged, we need to make it concrete pretty early on in the process; by linking the skills or habits that we support directly to a relevant project in the company. I think part of the success of the digitalisation project was due to the fact that one month before going live, the leadership team had a conversation about communication with regard to this project in one of our half-day workshops. That was not initially planned and we chose to reshuffle the agenda last minute to honour the urgency of the topic in our work.

A lesson learned for me here was: always check if there’s a project or topic in need of attention! And the way I link this to culture is: keep it practical. We have cultural norms, habits, behaviours that can be beneficial or detrimental to the success of a business, but culture needs to be evaluated in the context it lives in. I don’t see culture as something static that we create and then maintain and when we recruit, only wanting to hire people who fit in.

I think culture is constantly emerging and shaping the context as it is being shaped by the context. So, the skill that we need is to be able to pick up is judging what is helpful in a given moment and context and what is not. I like the idea of having antennas that are open to pick up what is present and enable people to ask the right questions to find out what is needed with as little pre-formatted judgment. This, in turn, requires that we are aware of our own preferences and cultural biases.

And, as far as our client is concerned, I’m curious to see how on-boarding three new members to the management team and possibly two retiring in the next 18 months will impact the culture of this team (and the company at large). And I’m also wondering if we should continue to not explicitly speak about culture and what it would do if we did…


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