One of the primary questions I am asked during Q&A after a keynote presentation is: “What is the most impactful thing you learned as a Navy SEAL and how do you apply that to leading your own organizations?”
And while there are many takeaways from my experience as a SEAL in combat, the one that ranks at the top of the list is the critical importance of aligning culture and leadership behavioral norms with strategy and desired results.
Research shows that most organizational leaders today understand the importance of leadership, structure, strategy and culture, but most focus on improving each in silos. And culture seems to be the most elusive piece for leaders to wrap their heads around. The most high-performing organizations (regardless of size, industry or geographic location) prioritize aligning these elements in order to achieve specific outcomes.
Essentially, culture can be defined in two dimensions: (1) the manner in with people interact, and (2) how an organization (at the team and individual level) responds to change. People interaction can further be broken down into independent (more entrepreneurial and autonomous) and interdependent (team orientation and collaboration). Responsiveness to change is usually either categorized as adaptability or stability.
When considering culture as it relates to leadership styles and business strategy, leaders and managers must first ask the following questions:
- How would we define our culture as it exists today?
- What are its strengths and weaknesses?
- What should we potentially change about our culture in order to remain competitive in an ever-evolving business landscape?
- What systems, structures, processes and behaviors need to change before culture will shift in the desired direction?
- How would culture transformation help us achieve specific results?
In the Harvard Business Review article, A Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J. Yo-Jud Cheng categorize organizational culture into eight buckets. Most organizations embody several of these cultural styles. They are as follows:
Caring – a trusting environment where people support one-another
Purpose – shared ideals and a focus on the greater good (internally and externally)
Learning – a focus on exploration, creativity and innovation
Enjoyment – a culture of happiness, humor and spontaneity
Results – goal oriented and the prioritization of winning
Authority – a bold approach towards controls and hierarchy
Safety – an environment of planning, caution and preparedness
Order – a culture of respect, structure and behavioral norms
Some of these culture styles coexist organically together while others don’t. When organizations seek to transform culture to achieve specific results and want to bring two styles together – that don’t naturally mesh well – it requires more organizational focus and energy.
For example, Order and Safety generally go hand-in-hand in cultural design while Safety and Learning do not. A culture of Order and Safety embraces stability, caution and structure while a Learning culture embraces risk, change and innovation.
The culture of the SEAL Teams brings together Results, Learning, Authority and Purpose. I was hesitant to label our culture as one of Authority because our leadership mechanisms are relatively agile and decentralized, but come on, its still the military! And because Authority and Purpose don’t usually naturally coexist in most organizations – they can when given the proper focus and management.
In my bestelling book, TakingPoint, I break down the tools and approach for diagnosing culture in order to better align with strategy and results. By considering the eight culture styles listed above and using that framework for identifying existing cultural norms, leaders and managers can being to take action on the following: better understanding the existing culture, evaluate employees’ view on the culture, identify positive and negative subcultures, more properly onboard new leaders into the culture for more effective leadership, understand the impact existing leadership styles have on culture and vice versa, and design a new aspirational culture that aligns with the organization’s goals.
It is important to note that while building and managing a strong culture can positively impact employee engagement, productivity and retention, when not aligned with strategy and results – organizations rarely achieve greatness.
For example, I experienced this first hand when leading a major transformation in one of my companies. We had been growing rapidly every year since our inception – and therefor drinking WAY too much of our own Kool-Aid. We had not yet matured into a resilient organization that constantly looks for threats and opportunities lurking ahead. Why would we? We were killing it!
But the industry was changing rapidly due to technological advancements and shifty customer demands. And usually by the time leaders realize major changes are needed, its almost too late. Or at least transformation will require a more significant effort. Which it did.
Our existing culture at that time could be categorized into the styles of Results and Enjoyment. But rapidly shifty externalities were forcing us rethink our entire organizational approach. Structure. Process. Services. Brand. Everything. Innovation would be a crucial part of our new competitive vision. Which meant we needed to shift culture more towards Learning (to achieve innovation) and Purpose (to connect the team to our new mission narrative).
The culture had to align with leadership approach and our new strategy or failure would be eminent! But as the last line of the Navy SEAL Ethos states: I will not fail.
So we took these steps in order to achieve mission success.
1. Used a series of custom surveys and interviews to gather the appropriate data for diagnosing our existing culture.
2. Identified culture strengths that could be leveraged for driving change and weaknesses that would stand in the way of our transformation.
3. Clearly articulated our renewed vision (especially as it related to culture transformation) and the steps necessary to achieve that shift.
4. Identified systems, structures, processes, mindsets, behaviors and cultural experiences that would be needed to achieve the shift towards Learning and Purpose – because these must first change before culture will shift.
5. Selected and developed well-respected leaders that best embodied the culture styles of Learning and Purpose – and deployed them across the organization as change evangelists.
6. Leveraged what I call Purposeful Storytelling – through formal and informal channels – to keep everyone connected to our mission narrative.
7. Reinforced the aspirational culture through new organizational design (process, structure, systems) by replacing legacy hierarchies with networks and ecosystems of empowered teams – we gave the employees the autonomy to drive the change.
It wasn’t without struggle, but we achieve our transformation objectives. By implementing this approach in your team – or organization-wide – you too can achieve missions success!