It’s been years since Peter Drucker taught us that culture eats strategy for breakfast. On a more micro level, culture can quickly chew up and spit out even the most talented people who don’t understand and can’t navigate the culture. I saw a great example of this recently.
A woman executive I know was hired as a leader in the healthcare industry. Her background was in financial services, an industry where hard-charging, driven leaders are most successful. As she began her new role, she was surprised at the lack of sense-of-urgency of the members of her team. In team meetings, she would push them for speed and commitment. This frustrated them because other leaders in the organization never did this. On her performance evaluation, she was asked to “smooth over her rough edges, break less glass and soften her sharp elbows.” This, in turn, frustrated her. After all she was trying to wake the place up and add energy to an institution in bad need of transformation in light of Obama-Care.
She quickly recognized that she did not fit the culture of her new organization. She was smart enough to hire an executive coach with deep business acumen in the healthcare industry. This has helped her adjust to her new culture and succeed as a leader, learning to get more done by pushing for less — paradoxical as that sounds.
Just recently, I heard a similar story of cultural incompatibility. A major financial institution had churned through several talent development leaders who were perceived as designing programs then pushing them to business leaders who resisted embracing them. This approach works in many industries, but not in financial services. In this case, the company responded to this problem by appointing an existing business leader as the next talent leader, someone who understands how to navigate the culture and give line leadership what it perceives as important rather than what HR perceives as important.
These problems can be avoided if you take the time to understand your culture and explain it to new leaders who are hired from outside the organization. How can you do this? It’s actually not very difficult. Every time I coach a senior executive, I learn the company’s culture. I also learn it by doing 360 interviews for senior executives.
More formally, we measure talent with structured interviews of 8 -10 leaders within companies. As an alternative, you can hire a firm that measures talent using an organization-wide tool. This will give you rich data approaching the size of a large telephone book. But there is really no reason to go to this extreme, and the data can be hard to assimilate. Most important is to develop a formal approach for onboarding new leaders that gives them the information they need to thrive in your culture: a clear and concise cultural road map that will make them successful.