Cultural sausage

Paul Heagen Uncategorized Leave a Comment

What does weisswurst have to do with company culture?

Well, it might first serve us to define both words.

Weisswurst, I discovered on a recent trip to Germany, is a white (yes, curiously pallid white) sausage that is the pride of Bavaria (rivaled at least, I hope, by their Audis and BMWs). It is presented at restaurants with great ceremony in steaming ceramic pots of broth, accompanied by honey mustard and the ubiquitous pretzel. Oddly, you simply cannot get these white sausages past late morning. Why is that?

As gastronomy tells it. Bavarians have been making these little buggers for centuries but without nitrates or other preservatives, natural or otherwise. Hence, they had a questionable shelf life of only a few hours, or at least that was the notion at the time. So for years now, they have been restricted to morning fare only, even though I suspect that modern practice would allow them to stick around longer. Ritual and legend, one might argue, replaced reason and reality.

You know where this is going, right?

Culture — the kind we talk about in most business contexts — is often painted as the values and endorsed behaviors that direct an organization’s vibe. Most often these cultural markers are institutionalized on wall plaques and posters. If it’s in a frame, it must be true.

The fact is we can talk about culture, plaster its representations all over the place, but what most often defines culture — deeply and seemingly mysteriously — is legend, folklore, anecdote, and defining events. Those factors — like the white sausage — may have little connection to where we are today.

You can only change culture through a determined, patient and pervasive focus on behaviors, starting with leadership, notably yourself if you’re the CEO. (If there is a member of your leadership team who is not fully embracing and honoring the cultural direction, that will get more attention than any wall plaque.)

What is sometimes missed in discussions of culture is that it needs to be more about the future than the past, more about what people can achieve than just about people themselves. Culture has its boundaries (that is the nature of culture in a broader social construct) but those boundaries can function as limits to what an organization sees itself as able to do. When culture, instead, is wedded to a clear sense of purpose and direction, it has relevance; divorced from that, it is merely a set of platitudes that don’t translate into the tangible sense of progress that fuels any change.

There is no factor in business that will more profoundly influence long-term success than your culture. More than any strategy, it is the fuel that gives people permission to do what needs to be done in the way it should be done. You can’t buy it or think it will matter to adopt the same list of single-word bromides that can be found most anywhere. Culture is a narrative, a story, a social order. It is your own legend and folklore and heroes and defining events.

It is sausage — full of subtle ingredients and a bit messy when being shaped, but it has to be your sausage if it’s going to last.

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