Not long before the pandemic, as I returned from a trip through London, Paris, Aachen, and Amsterdam with my daughter, I found myself wondering how my life might change. As a young boy, I would lay in the backyard and watch planes fly over our home on the glide path into Long Island’s LaGuardia Airport and wonder if that was the plane that would bring my mom home. Or if that would be the last plane that my dad and his ground crew would
service before he came home. I was the odd child who could identify airlines in-flight by their tail logos. Part of it was wanted my mom and dad home. Part of it was wanting to be on those planes. While we didn’t travel by air as a family, I was ready to go.
My first real trip abroad happened in 1989. I was amongst a group of knucklheaded soccer players from New York playing for the expat German coach of Fordham University and about to tour perhaps the most accessible of a dying breed of cold war nations called the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or West Germany. Among my most remarkable memories was a trip to the heavily fortified frontier with East Germany - the ironically named German Democratic Republic. I was hooked and wanted more.
Through the 90s I would blaze a trail through post-cold war Europe, seeking each next frontier and the coveted passport stamp that validated my passage. A reunified Germany, Austria, and Ireland, where my zeal for discos earned me the nickname ‘Eurosmitty,’ served as an appetizer to Spain, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Italy. By this time I was well into an undergraduate degree focused on these very same lands and the experiences of their people through the 20th century. Within a year I was back at Heathrow where Britain, Greece, Sweden, and Finland were on offer. I even spent time in Estonia where I struggled to come to terms with the fact that there I stood in what had until so recently been the Soviet Union. For a kid who grew up in mid-1980s USA, the USSR was a big deal indeed.
Kids growing up in the late-2010s - early 2020s USA might not even know what the USSR is, or was. In 2018 and 2019, my daughters had the opportunity to travel to some of the same places that I did. In some cases, they found themselves in some the very same photos taken of me many years ago. The girls shared memories of traveling internationally by train, breakfast in Paris, meeting the Burgermëister in a local German village, traveling by
canal in Amsterdam, taking in a big European soccer match, and standing in 3 sovereign states at the same time. My observations of my daughters’ experiences were almost as powerful as my first-hand experiences then and now as well. In each of my girls’ trips, they participated in a German home stay. While neither girl spoke a lick of German, I was so pleased for the opportunity for them to discover both differences and similarities with their German counterparts. While nuances in language and fashion differed, similarities of being a 12 year old girl wanting to fit in, be silly, joust with parent demands, and learn new things served as a powerful introduction to culture.
Culture refers to patterns of norms, behaviors, and values expressed in a common environment. One truth about culture is that it is harder to see from the inside. I often paint a picture for my clients as we consider culture in their organizations. “Start with the family and imagine you, your partner, and your children have been invited to dinner at the home of another family. Chances are the norms, behaviors, and values of the other family’s children will readily jump out at you - the less familiarity you have, the more they will jump. What you might not notice is that your host parents are having the same experience in the same moment with regard to your children.” Culture is always affected by the lens through which we see it. And through our own norms, behaviors, and values - which also include our biases - we interact when we participate in that environment.
Human beings make continuous, split-second, unconscious decisions about their willingness to fit or stand out. These are micro-cultural assessments and to experience them can be very powerful. It can be great fun to share in something like school spirit, but it can also be deathly frightening to become the target of a micro-culture should you not or should you choose not to fit in. Such experiences can be powerful enough that they can drive decisions and even accommodations.
For many of us the workplace represents a culture too close for actionable perspective. It is like our family, whose children’s behaviors have become so common that we often fail to
notice things that fall within the expected range - even if the very same behavior might be well beyond the expected range for the family next door. Being with the team day in and day out, even through the recent pandemic, has made us too often numb to our corporate cultures, and their benefits and risks. That’s not your fault.
While too many leaders readily push culture into the HR job jar, culture must necessarily involve leadership. While leaders may not drive a culture, they must validate and approve it. I cannot tell you how many clients we have served where we worked collaboratively with staff who grew exceedingly excited about new cultural infrastructure, only to hedge their bets because they knew that changes would never be sustainable without leadership buy-in… or a revolution. Healthy culture demands not just approval, but adoption by the leaders.
While a leader isn’t the keeper of the culture, the leader owns the environment in which a culture persists. There are right ways and wrong ways to build a culture. I used to work at a large professional services firm and I remember an instance where many senior partners (not me) returned from a retreat happily sharing with some of the rank and file (me) that we now had an updated set of core values [aka governance for culture]. I’m not sure that I appreciated being told what would now be deployed as my own corporate beliefs as much as they thought I might. That probably wasn’t the best way to build culture.
Here are some best practices for leaders who find themselves both willing and able to invest in what might perhaps be their organization’s most valuable attribute:
Understand that people’s experience with culture is unique because it is viewed through their own personal lens. When you build culture in your organization, never lose sight of that truth.
Encourage broad and sustainable ownership of culture as a path to sustainability. Be willing to share culture. ‘Our thing’ is almost more valuable than ‘their thing.’
Recognize that culture influences behaviors - not all of which are positive. Consider how norms play to formally and informally police in the culture.
Appreciate that a healthy culture will be an attractive attribute for talent retention and acquisition. Be the field where the best athletes want to play.
Avoid the compulsion to ‘cherry-pick’ someone else’s culture. Start by listening to what your people need from you.
Invest in your culture, taking specific times away from the ‘work’ to evaluate, validate, and strengthen that culture. Never take culture for granted.
We’re flirting here with the nuance between corporate culture, and macro and micro national and regional cultures, but in doing so we can focus on the fundamental role of culture in providing and conditioning experiences. Employees want to know their leaders are doing this. I’m not sure if I would have ever had a relevant perspective with which to understand culture if I hadn’t gotten on one of those planes. This is far from saying that you need to travel to appreciate culture, but you do need to know what it feels like both from the outside and within. A leader cannot provide for a healthy experience if they don’t know what it feels like.
I believe it was the night before Easter Sunday in 1997. Backpacks loaded, we walked through Prague en route to the train that would take us to Vienna. We imagined, albeit ambitiously, taking in some “culture” in form of the world famous Boys Choir on Easter. While the schedule boards at Praha-Holešovice offered Vienna after two or three hours, the siren call of Krakow Główny beckoned, “Now Boarding.” And so we went. Perhaps we’d find that “culture” another time.
The overnight train carried us nearly eight hours due east. Eight hours deeper behind what had been the Iron Curtain. In what locally was a luxury overnight car for which we paid as little as we remembered paying for even the most modest training in Western Europe, we rolled towards one of the most Catholic countries in Europe at the dawn of one of its holiest days. Krakow that morning was a ghost town save for a pleasant, yet persistent local woman and the sign she carried. Written on a piece of cardboard were the words: “Room available. $7.” And yes, while she didn’t speak any English, her sign did. She made us nervous. Quickly a backpack disgorged Let’s Go Europe and we pursued some hostels suggested in the book. Following at a respectful distance, she didn’t have the words to tell us that accommodations were limited if not completely full.
Over the next couple of days in the old city and countryside of Southern Poland, we shared some remarkable experiences: gothic and renaissance architectural treasures that had miraculously survived two world wars, a gourmet, seven-course meal for pennies on the dollar, and a somber visit to the village of Oświęcim, which the Germans once called Auschwitz. These and all of the unique experiences across Europe might rather inform a book rather than a simple blog post.
On our last evening in Krakow, I remember sneaking a peek into the room next to our $7 accommodation. Perhaps being less careful than I realized… ten-cents-a-pour top shelf Polish vodka can have that effect, I found myself face-to-face with our host. In her hand what replaced her sign was a photograph of her and a girl who appeared to be about my age. “Uniwersytet.” Our conversation lasted all of one word, but we communicated. I understood that her daughter was in college, and perhaps in her eyes she saw another mother’s child away from home to learn and explore just as her’s was. As I turned back
towards my room, I noticed the wall in her daughter’s room. Those of a certain age would have instantly recognized the paint on the wall as the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo… the one with the asterisk in the middle. I always thought it was cute that she spelled “chili” with an extra “L”… maybe it was the vodka.
The more we try to be different, the more we find that we’re also the same. Take me to the place I love. Take me all the way. It wasn’t until later that I understood that this was when I had fallen in love with culture. Best seven bucks I ever spent.