Cultural alignment, i.e., getting everyone in the firm— especially those at the top—on the same page, is something everyone in our business can tell you is critical. Without it, decisions don’t get made, opportunities come and go, and in worst cases, the firm blows up into various fragments. The short-term results may suffer, and the long-term results most certainly are compromised. Seems to me that design and environmental firms are unusually susceptible to this problem. Why are we in this boat? Lotsa reasons. People are at different stages in their careers and have different priorities. Individuals have different ideas about what works and what doesn’t that are based on their unique experiences. Many times the firm is in a second or third generation and the successor group doesn’t have a strong leader that can bring unity. Perhaps the firm is still in its first generation, but the founders haven’t named their successors yet. Or perhaps the individuals who make up the top echelon have different cultural/sexual/religious/political/client backgrounds and therefore have different ideas about business. Any of these things and more could cause the problem. But rather than focus on the causes (not that there isn’t a lot to be learned from that), the topic of this article is what YOU can do about the problem. Here are my thoughts:Decide what the key elements of the culture are that you want/expect/need alignment on. The best way to accomplish this is to put together a really good strategic plan. That means that all of the philosophical stuff gets down on paper. I know it’s a pain to do a plan, but it’s time and money well spent. To do it well, poll all of your employees and managers to determine where these misalignments exist. And then get a strong facilitator to help you with the planning process to make sure those misalignments are confronted in the course of developing or revising the plan. A strong facilitator won’t let you off the hook unless you do this.Get a strong leader at the top who will insist on cultural alignment. A lot of “misalignment” occurs, in my experience, because the leader allows statements or actions that are inconsistent with the culture to go unchallenged. Sometimes it’s fear that the employee won’t like being confronted or agree with the firm’s culture— and it’s a good employee whom the company doesn’t want to lose. So there’s no response. I liken it to someone whose friend keeps making racist comments. If you never say, “That’s a crazy way to think,” or “Don’t you think that’s being prejudiced?” the friend could mistakenly think you agree, and it allows his or her “bad” way of thinking to take a foothold.Develop separate entities to handle different client or service types. The fact is that the people who serve land development clients are never going to look or think the same as those who work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In some cases, it makes sense to break one or more of those groups out as a separate subsidiary that has its own unique culture, rules, rewards, etc. Better to do this in planned way versus an unplanned way. Go through some really bad times together. There’s nothing like a real threat from the outside to bring everyone together some times. Then you can worry about the outside threat instead of the inside threat. Governments do it all of the time— it obviously works. But rather than suggesting you go create an external crisis or threat, this is just one of the ways you might bring on cultural alignment through a silver lining to an unexpected storm cloud.One thing is for sure. If you are the boss and you want cultural alignment in your firm your job never ends. New people will show up and new problems will develop, and that could take new strategies and new actions. Originally published 9/02/2002
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