Putting the ‘cult’ into culture

This week saw the publication of another report into an organisation, the Mid-Staffordshire hospital, which was deemed to have been poorly managed, and therefore to have seriously and dangerously failed its service users. Some of the contributing factors to organisational failure were thought to be the management team and board’s slavish persuance of government initiatives, which led to keeping an over-tight rein on the budget in order that the hospital might qualify to become a Foundation hospital, and/or superficial management to targets. By implication the inspection regime must also be at fault since the hospital seems to have passed a variety of inspections.

From this and other examples, what are some repeating patterns in organisational life, and assumptions informing them? What sorts of things do leaders and managers, board members and government ministers seem to be thinking about management and leadership that might be contributing to the mess?

Apologies in advance for the caricature – it is the weekend.

Belief in visionary leadership 

Leaders are special people, and therefore need to be offered a lot of money, otherwise they will go abroad or work for someone else. And since we’re paying them so much, they have clearly demonstrated that they are special people. One of their unique gifts is to be able to see into the future and to envision how things should be. They can then communicate the exciting nature of their vision to ‘followers’, who are encouraged to ‘believe’ in it. It’s important for leaders to set stretch targets, to urge employees to be above and beyond their very best. They need to unlock the potential of each and every one. Sometimes there may be a problem with the vision, or people don’t believe in it enough or are resistant to change. In the first instance, this might be a ‘failure of leadership’, in which case we need to recruit another visionary leader to turn things around. Otherwise staff just need to believe a little harder and just stop being so resistant to necessary change (see reform and change below).

Leaders have to do the important and big stuff – they have to keep strategic and transformational. Walking around in the organisation, seeing what’s happening, talking to people, is for managers to do, the transactional tasks. It’s important not to get too bogged down in the detail of how the organisation is running.

However, and at the same time, leadership can be spread around a bit. For example, if you adopt a distributed leadership style, then everyone can be a bit of leader and can be co-opted into delivering the vision. Sometimes even your customers or patients can be asked as stakeholders to exercise leadership and join in and help with necessary reforms (see change and reforms below). Leadership is both an exclusive phenomenon and a distributed phenomenon both at the same time.

It’s also important to train everyone in your organisation in leadership skills, right down to the lowliest member of staff. Good leadership makes the difference between success and failure in organisations. Although great leaders are special people, we can also teach leadership as a particular skill set. Set texts should include Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the biography of Steve Jobs.

Belief in the creation and manipulation of culture

Visionary leaders are responsible with their top teams for creating the right culture. This can be a ‘no-excuses culture’, like the one created by the CEO of A4E, the company responsible for security at the Olympics, or it might be a ‘can-do’ culture, or perhaps even a positive culture. When you’re a leader you don’t want people bringing you problems, you want them to bring solutions. And it’s important to be action-oriented, otherwise you just end up in talking shops all day.

In contemporary organisations it’s always important to keep positive. If people have criticisms then these should always be constructively made  – there’s no excuse for just carping – and it’s best if managers decide what’s constructive otherwise we’ll be opening all kinds of cans of worms and chaos will ensue. If we all believe enough in being positive, then the workplace will become a positive place to be: we can create our own reality. We’ll be one organisation, and we’ll really appreciate each other. Bad selves should be left at the door, and in the UK in particular we do have a habit of being rather negative. One of the good things about creating positive cultures is it means we don’t have to worry about negative things like power in organisations. Obsessing about power can just make people anxious.

Top teams are responsible for putting the ‘cult’ into culture.

Belief in targets and inspection regimes

Staff in organisations won’t know what they’re supposed to be doing without an organisational vision and mission, and without targets to underpin them, preferably stretch targets if the degree of dramatic change which is needed is to be achieved. Organisations can get better and better, relentlessly, all the time, and targets are the best way of improving. Although it’s important to be positive, warm words and touchy-feely management approaches aren’t enough. Targets have to be specific, time limited and measurable, so that everyone is clear whether we are achieving the organisational objectives or not. They have to be performance-managed against these clear targets so that they know exactly where they stand in relation to the vision and mission. This is a question of accountability. There’s nothing which can’t be measured, even openness and honesty. Staff should be legally bound to be open and honest, and measured against a metric. Inspection regimes should be zero-tolerant of bad practice so that it can rooted out. There’s nothing like rigorous and continuous inspection for encouraging people to be transparent about what they are doing.

If possible it’s best to link payment to results or performance since this makes everyone focus much harder on what they are doing. What you lose in cooperation between colleagues you gain in individual motivation.

Belief in constant change, known in the public sector as ‘reform’

The world is getting increasingly complex. Leaders and managers have to ‘deliver’ change to keep up, otherwise the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries will overtake us. Changing things constantly is a clear indication of how serious you are about change. And if you think you are in control then you aren’t going fast enough. And that’s why you need special people to lead the change, because everything has become so very complicated.

One of the things that helps change in the public sector is opening up services to competition and the private sector. This creates greater choice, which is what consumers really want from their schools and hospitals. Otherwise you have to design transformational change with ambitious strategies and stretch targets (see transformational leadership above). It’s best to be impatient about change, because you can’t really get enough of it, and change is always for the good, especially when it’s transformational change. However, some employees may be resistant to change and reform and so need to be persuaded why it’s good for them, and for everybody else. If leaders and managers are successful at what they are doing, then employees will begin to see the benefits of what is being proposed. Politics in organisations always needs to be managed.

If you want to keep your organisation up to speed, it’s best to keep scanning around to see what everyone else is doing, because they are probably doing things better than you are. Benchmark yourself. If you’re not feeling anxious about what you are doing, then you should be. Don’t worry about paying attention to what’s happening in your own organisation – much better to import best practice from somewhere else. Learn from the best in class, or from global leaders in the field: it’s the quickest way to be a global leader too.


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