Organizational Culture: An Aphorism is “Worth a Thousand Words”

organizational culture aphorism

In our daily lives and our daily work, we are undoubtedly impacted by subconscious messages that we have been socialized to accept. Often these are reflected in the choice of leaders that our society venerates. Other times, these messages enter our lives via quotes, mottos or aphorisms, such as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” that are so common they are often cliche.

Though they may seem harmless in everyday use, these mantras are incredibly powerful, simplistic guideposts on our thinking and how we prioritize our time and attention. For example, how many colleagues do you know who seem to operate according to the principle, “if you want something done right, you got to do it yourself?” or, “if you want something done, give it to a busy person?”

Acknowledging the presence of these subconscious beliefs is the first step in making any sort of change; these believed aphorisms might be ingrained in your organizational culture, and/or they might be ingrained in your own modus operandi. For example, in the case of the above mantras, trying to instill a culture of empowerment of staff might be challenging if it’s commonly accepted among the managers in the organization that they need to “do things themselves” if they want things “done right.”

In some organizations, recognizing that this is pervasive and unpacking why managers think that people below them can’t do things “right” might be exactly where to start to facilitate culture change.

What Aphorisms Are Guiding Your Culture?

Knowing what beliefs and behaviors drive your culture is the first step to changing it. Take a few moments and write down some aphorisms that guide your own approach to leadership and life. Then, think of a few that guide your organization.

Once you finish, take a look at some of the common (and not so common) quotes below. How does your agreement (or not) with these statements match up with the current-state of the culture in your organization? How do these mindsets serve you (or not) in your own development as a leader?

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.

There’s no time like the present

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got

Perfect is the enemy of the good

Winners never quit and quitters never win

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

You can sleep when you’re dead

Time is money

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Move fast and break things

Change or die

When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’

As you reflect on these statements, It’s also critical to remember the aphorism, “what got you here won’t get you there.” While a reliance on “doing things yourself” could work at certain stages in your development as a leader, or your organization’s development, it might no longer serve you or your organization given the current state. That doesn’t mean that the aphorism isn’t true– it just means that belief in these truths might be holding you or your organization back from operating more optimally.

And if that didn’t convince you to re-examine how aphorisms are subconsciously guiding your thoughts and actions, this statement might: ”Echoes from the walls you build around yourself hurt your ears the most.”

What aphorisms guide your leadership and culture? We’d love to hear from you!

Positive Change Without Authority: A Night For Intrapreneurs

organizational change

We’re always looking for interesting ways to connect with people and organizations who are excited about organizational culture and change as much as we are! And last week we got just that opportunity in San Francisco, at the event, “Culture Design: Positive Change Without Authority.” This workshop was led by Christopher White to promote his new book, Changing Your Company From the Inside Out: A Guide For Social Intrapreneurs, and was organized by Culture Lab X, “a global community of founders, designers and practitioners who curate conversations, connect communities and experiment with the future of work.”

From the moment we entered, the buzz in the room was immediately palpable; there was so much passion and desire for attendees to learn how to change their organizations from within using some of the lessons from social movements, or larger scale group actions that mobilize for change.

After sharing his own story of his failed attempt to change the water bottle use at a company as a summer intern, and contrasting that with another case study of a successful intraprenurial organizational change, Christopher led participants through an exercise where in pairs we workshopped a specific intrapreneurial change we wanted to make in our own organizations.

These intrapreneurial changes were framed within the broader context of social movements; a sense of urgency and ability to mobilize people is crucial for making change, whether in society or in an organization.

Some big picture concepts that we gleaned throughout the evening regarding how to think about making an intrapreneurial change included:

  • When: How does the timing play a role in the specific change? Is there an opening? Can you create a sense of urgency?
  • Who: How are you engaging key allies and a variety of influencers within the system to get more support for and momentum around the change?
  • Why: How are you telling the story of why the change is important? What’s in it for the entire organization as well as individualized groups that will make them want to mobilize around the change?
  • How: Given your understanding of your organization’s culture and its potential aversion to change, how are you best tying this change to existing programs and systems? Or how are you framing it as an experimental pilot or focusing on the change being carried out by a self-organized group within the organization?

In our pair at the workshop, we found that thinking through the answers to these questions allowed for a more strategic, dynamic approach in making a plan of action for implementing the change.

At gothamCulture, we take a similar approach to supporting organizational change with our clients; our Assess phase allows us to understand our client’s organization and our Dialogue phase includes conversations around some of these broader issues before we move on to Design and Implementation together with our clients.

Special thanks to Culture Lab X for organizing this great community event and for building energy around the importance of organizational culture and how to make change in organizations. We’re excited to read Christopher’s book and learn more.

What other events should we be attending? What are other books about organizational change should be next on our list?

How Culture and Leadership Pave the Road to the Super Bowl

As we head into Super Bowl 49 this weekend, we at gothamCulture can’t help but think about a professional football team’s culture and leadership that has (or has not) helped teams get to the big game.

Like a corporate organization, NFL football teams’ organizational culture is largely made up of leadership, team members, and the brand. Each of these plays a unique role in a successful (or unsuccessful) team on the road to the ultimate goal every year: a chance to win as world champions in the Super Bowl.


Formally, the Coach provides a great deal of the leadership, like the CEO or the Executive Director. He sets the tone along with the team’s General Manager. The owner is usually the one who is most concerned about how well the team is doing and leads the hiring and firing of those two based on the team’s performance.

This might be similar to the board of directors or advisors in a more corporate organization. The Coach and General Manager are usually the first to take the fall if the team does badly. For example, as Owner Woody Johnson of Gotham City’s own 4-12 New York Jets said, “It became pretty apparent during the season the team wasn’t getting better and, as (Bill) Parcells said, you are what your record says you are…It was kind of obvious we had to make the change. It was obvious to me, anyway.”

Former Cleveland Brown’s quarterback Bernie Kosar reinforced the importance of this formal leadership in his recent comments, “When you have a front office that’s really uneducated, and I’m not talking about just the coach, there’s way above him that deserves this, they don’t know how to lead and organize and set a culture to play winning football, to win in the NFL consistently.”


The Owner, GM and Coach aren’t the only leaders on the team. Fans often hear about quarterbacks “leading” their team to victory. If the quarterback is having a bad day, it’s very hard for the team to do well, and often when quarterbacks are hot, the team is unstoppable.

These are the leaders in the organization who play outsized roles, whose successes and failures have ripple effects across the organization. While quarterbacks may control the game by function or role, and perhaps are the most visible of players, many other roles on the football team are critical to a team’s success.

One such example was during the NFC Championship and the Seattle Seahawks. Jon Ryan and the special teams players made a few critical plays when the team was losing badly to turn the game around. These pockets of action and success highlight the importance of the team coming together; the offense wasn’t the only one responsible for scoring points, just like one division within a company isn’t the only one responsible for making a profit.

And, even for those key opportunities for the special teams to be successful, advanced research was conducted on the opponent Green Bay Packers’ weaknesses, the coach had to be willing to take the risk to call the play, and the players needed to have the skills and focus to be able to deliver.

In corporate culture speak, this involves a culture of creativity, trust, empowerment, risk taking, and thorough market research of competitors.

Fan/Customer Appreciation

The Seattle Seahawks are also known for an organizational culture of appreciation. Their stadium is lined with #12 flags, representing their appreciation of their fans; arguably some of the most loyal in the country. They are the team’s 12th man on the field, and thereby critical to their success.

Seahawks fans are known to be so supportive and vocal that there was even a seismograph machine at both recent playoff games to measure the decibels. The fans screaming and jumping in the stadium was thought to be as powerful as a minor earthquake.

That kind of brand following is critical to organizational success.

Applying These Concepts To Your Organizational Culture

While the parallels between your corporate environment and the NFL may not be immediately apparent, there are some key concepts that you can apply to the culture of your organization:

  • The buck always stops with the formal leader; if it’s not working, don’t be afraid to make a change
  • Informal leadership within the organization plays a critical role in team success
  • A culture of learning, risk taking, empowerment and research can pay high-dividends
  • Appreciation goes a long way and leads to brand loyalty

What other relevant leadership and culture insights have you gleaned from watching football? Let us know how you’ve been inspired from leadership on the field into action in your office!

(photo credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) 


What Campaign Culture Teaches Us About Employee Engagement

campaign culture

gothamCulture’s Samantha Goldman came to us with some incredible organizational experience under her belt: campaign work. Studying employee engagement through that lens became her thesis at The New School and is the basis for her first ever LinkedIn post (congrats Samantha!).  Here’s an excerpt:

Political campaign organizations are rarely discussed alongside broader issues of management, leadership and organizational culture. Yet, because of their agility, ability to scale quickly and high level of engaged staff, organizations can learn a lot from them.

To build off these insights, leaders in non-campaign organizations can connect staff to a clear singular mission in personal ways, empower and invest in staff as the front line of the organization and develop a culture focused on learning and adaptability. These best practices can apply to organizations with short-term or long-term endeavors. Even if the endeavor is longer than a campaign cycle, leaders can still build a strong sense of urgency centered on scaling up using key measurable goals and milestones.

Campaigns are heightened environments that showcase the power of organizational culture and staff engagement. Why shouldn’t we deconstruct them to apply best practices in other settings?

(Click here to read Samantha’s full article: Election Cycle Wisdom)

Implementing Change, Part 2: Recognizing our Human Nature

In Implementing Change, Part 1: With More Predictability Than the Weather, I discussed how reflecting on your own reactions to feeling out of control in relation to the weather is helpful in gaining empathy towards employees who often feel like the changes in their organization are as unpredictable as the weather.

As humans, we respond to our environments, whether it’s meteorological climate or to our organizational climate. There is research and a model that reminds us that we as humans respond to our environments in the same ways that we might only think of other animals responding–even in organizational settings. For example, we are grounded in our innate tendency to monitor our environment for threats and rewards and to then take action to avoid threats and move towards rewards. This circuitry and these impulses in our brains impact our relationships with others and more broadly how we interact with our environment and ultimately make decisions.

The SCARF model (developed by David Rock) highlights the importance of looking at these basic human instincts when trying to understand social interactions.

It is crucial to look at our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

These feelings are at play in our life, and definitely at work when we think about how people experience their relationships with others in organizations. For example, my sense of autonomy (my sense of being able to control events) is exactly where I feel challenged when I cannot stop the oncoming winter and changing seasons in the outside world. I bet you could think of tons of examples within your own organization when your sense of autonomy was challenged; this is an often felt sentiment in organizations going through change. Similarly, my sense of certainty (being able to predict the future) is challenged from the weather when I don’t know if my flight will be canceled due to snowstorms, or if my much anticipated picnic in the park will have to be rescheduled; this sense of “not knowing” is also all too common in organizations when impactful changes are announced at random.

In organizations, it is crucial for leaders not to forget our humanity and to always try to address such needs as our needs for certainty and autonomy. This is even more critical when an organization is going through change. It’s important to be constantly asking:

  • How can we implement changes that allow people to have the most control in the process and a greater say in the change?
  • How can we be clearer about upcoming events and changes so that people know what to expect as much as we are able to predict?
  • How do we communicate this out in a way that respects people’s needs for certainty and autonomy?

The more we can support people’s needs rather than leaving them ‘out in the cold’ feeling a lack of autonomy and certainty, the less likely they will shut down due to a threat response. The more we can give people a sense of autonomy and certainty in their work, the more likely they will be able to have positive relationships with others and be productive in their organization.

Implementing Change, Part 1: With More Predictability than the Weather

If you’re like me in that you wish every day was summer, but you happen to live in a place that too soon will be covered with snow, you might be feeling some anticipatory blues. Yes, there are still many months (hopefully) until we need to pull out our hats and gloves (see my previous post about putting them away!) But, just the occasional chill in the air and the noticeably shorter days reminds me where we are headed–and that’s a long, cold winter.

In my work in organizational change and my desire to understand how people react to change and handle transitions, I often find it helpful to reflect on my personal reactions towards changes in the weather. Understanding my own feelings of anticipation and loss as the seasons cycle allows me greater empathy towards individuals in organizations where they experience changes that are also seemingly not under their control.

Organizations are their own world and the people within them often are at the whim of the leadership or the marketplace–feeling as vulnerable as we do when the seasons change. And, while we as humans have mastered indoor heating and air conditioning to protect us from the elements, all we need is a week of rain to remind us of how much we need sunshine or a debilitating blizzard to reinforce our lack of control. Even just feeling the temperature drop, watching the leaves fall, and noticing the days getting shorter reminds us that there are greater forces at work, and that we must adapt i.e. wear a jacket, or find ourselves cold.

Whether people in organizations are facing the natural ebbs and flows of organization life i.e. the yearly busy tax season or the arrival of the latest wave of new hires or are experiencing much larger disruptions such as a merger, new leadership or new systems and processes, the resulting feelings are similar and stem from a sense of lack of control.

Recognizing that people within organizations often feel at the whim of the organizations and have a lack of control, is an important data point to consider when designing any sort of organizational change. The more you can minimize this lack of control the better. Engaging people in the process, frequently communicating, and making the process as predictable as far out in advance as possible, supports people in feeling more of a sense of control and predictability.

Our nature as humans is a huge part of how we react to changes and transition in our environments. Stay tuned for Part 2: Implementing Change That Recognizes Our Human Nature where I describe a bit more specifically a model that addresses some of the key feelings we feel as humans within organizations. I also list some questions you should ask yourself during the change process in order to make sure you are considering the human needs of your employees.

An inside look at gC’s culture of Learning

Each quarter at gothamCulture we get together virtually and have a discussion about the “Book of the Quarter.” We find this to be a productive culture building practice that supports our desire to be a learning organization—an organization that is continually reflecting, sharing ideas and learning from best practices. 

Why do we do this?

  1. This ritual encourages us to discuss some of the more foundational works in the field as well as learn about new concepts in the organizational development world. We discuss how the concepts apply not only to our work with clients but also to our work within our own organization.
  2. Regularly engaging with new ideas in a structured way also supports our own professional development as individual practitioners. The fact that this time is put aside during a normal workday reinforces the organizational value that professional development is important.
  3. Our book discussions are a great opportunity to build relationships with colleaguesin a lower stress environment and learn from each other. This overall contributes to the sense of team within gC.

This quarter we read (and some of us re-read) Ed Schein’s classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. Despite its 450plus pages, it’s a quick read and organized in an accessible way if you want to focus in on a specific area of culture or leadership. It’s full of Schein’s tales from his real life experience with clients. His observations about these organizations invite readers to immediately make parallels with their own organization; His description of specific components of organizational culture is especially helpful when analyzing your own organizational culture.

I asked some of my colleagues to share their favorite key learnings from the book and here’s what they had to say:

  • “Culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated by leaders.” – Chris Cancialosi, Managing Partner and Founder
  • I like what Schein says on defining strategies as opposed to goals: strategy concerns the evolution of an organization’s mission, whereas goals reflect the short-term tactical issues in order to ensure survival. –Dustin Schneider, Associate
  • “Organizations hold implicit assumptions about the role of space utilization in getting work accomplished. Where things are located, how they are built, the kind of architecture involved, the decorations encouraged, etc…reflect the deeper values and assumptions held in the larger culture and by the key leaders. …organizations attempt to symbolize important values and assumptions through the design. “ –Katie Papazian, Associate

If you’ve read this OD classic, let us know your biggest takeaway from this book by posting in the comments section!

Next quarter we plan to read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki so stay tuned.

Designing Leadership Development for Organizational Impact

Data. Metrics. Impact. Evaluation.

These key words are only becoming more dominant in organizational life as we have increased our capacity to collect, process and analyze larger amounts of data. But what are we really measuring? Often times, when we think about program evaluation, especially leadership development programs, we ask people if they liked the program and if they learned something useful and call it a day. What we forget is that just liking a program or learning something does not always translate into organizational impact.

And in fact, participants might even say they didn’t like a particular experience, but at the same time, it was one of the most transformative experiences that they have ever had. Additionally, when we think about impactful learning, we often think about the importance of inducing a bit of “productive discomfort” in the participant as a means of creating a transformational learning experience. This also might not be ranked so highly on the smiley scale. Clearly, measuring impact is important, but measuring impact only from participants’ on-the-spot evaluations falls short.

Just as connection to mission, intentionality, and advanced stakeholder alignment are crucial to designing and evaluating any initiative, they are also critical when designing and evaluating leadership development initiatives in a way that has a clear, measurable impact. Thus, it is crucial to intentionally engage all of the key stakeholders early in the process of designing the leadership development program and create metrics of success together.

As key stakeholders, participants should also be included in the process of designing metrics because they will be the ones doing the learning. Additionally, if they understand and are involved in designing their own goals for the leadership development experience it will be that much more powerful.

And of course, these metrics of success should be tied to organizational mission or bottom line results, or else why is the organization spending resources on it? For example, one measure of impact could be that at least 90% of participants will receive higher rankings from their direct reports in their next 6-month 360 in a pre-determined aspect of leadership that has been deemed crucial to organizational success (tied to mission or bottom line).

Knowing and agreeing upon these metrics from the beginning creates more opportunity for having broader organizational impact because the starting point of reference is grounded in organizational impact rather than creating a positive individual experience. While measuring organizational impact of leadership development initiatives might be more of an art than a science, this challenge is no excuse not to try to think in terms of impact and metrics.

Put Away the Winter Boots! (It’s Time for a Change)

When the weather gets warmer, we instinctively shove our hats and gloves into the back of the closet and pull out our sandals. The obvious change in weather or climate is easily felt and clues us in to the reality that the objects we might have needed last week or last month are not going to serve us well today or next month.

Organizational climates evolve in the same way that the weather does, yet we often continue to do the same processes that we did before. We can all think of that mandatory in-person meeting/conference that started back when so and so was in charge but is no longer an effective use of time. Or what about certain policies around working remotely that don’t reflect the current technology at the organization?

These relics from a different climate or season are often continued because no one has noticed that the meeting or policy etc. is no longer serving the organization. Or if it is noticed, those individuals trying to be agents for change often find themselves facing resistance. It is because that meeting or policy is embedded in the organization’s culture, or as we call it, a part of “the way we do things around here.” Changing a culture is hard, yet if we can understand the resistance to the change, it is possible to create opportunities for change. First, however, it is imperative to understand what is working about the meeting or the thing we’re trying to change and where the resistance to that change is coming from.

For example, in the case of trying to cancel an in-person meeting or conference where employees are resistant because they enjoy and feel appreciation through the free food/lodging provided during the meeting, one solution could be to give employees a stipend to buy their own food and/or a vacation bonus and then attend remotely. This continues what’s working (free food/lodging and appreciation) while saving the organization travel time and costs for holding an onsite meeting. Or if people enjoy seeing each other face-to-face but the meeting is not deemed a good use of time perhaps the meeting agenda, leader, frequency or length could be adjusted to increase the likelihood that it is an effective use of everyone’s time.

In short—it’s necessary for your organization to have a level of cultural awareness and a willingness to change when organizational needs are not being achieved and processes could be improved. Just like we wouldn’t want to be caught wearing our snow boots in July, we shouldn’t get stuck continuing to do things at the organization because they met the needs of a previous organizational climate.

Organizational Culture, Talent Management and Onboarding Across the Generational Divide

Recent articles such as “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” and “The Brutal Ageism of Tech” highlight and reinforce the importance of adhering to some crucial tenets when thinking about organizational culture and onboarding across the generational divide.

1. Your organization’s culture will impact what kind of talent you attract.

Policies for employees are a critical part of your organizational culture, or “the way we do things around here.” For example, guidelines like a minimum vacation allowance rather than a maximum limit, the frequency and energy at organizational happy hours, and the expectations around working hours might attract younger employees. Conversely, policies such as paternity leave, stock options, retirement contributions and a set 9-5 schedule will likely attract an older demographic.

2. This culture you created and the talent you attracted will also impact how you onboard them. If the culture values innovation, trial and error and is moving quickly, and then the onboarding process might involve some shadowing of a colleague, personalized coaching and meeting with some more tenured colleagues for learning about a deeper sense of organizational mission, history, and values. However, if the culture values structure, hierarchical process, consistency and might be in a less of a hurry, a more formal, standardized onboarding process could be necessary to make sure that the new employee will be perform consistently and with clear expectations.

It’s crucial to remember that no culture is necessarily “better” or “worse” nor is there a “better” or “worse” approach to talent management or training. What is critical, however, is to ensure that your organizational culture and onboarding is intentionally designed in such a way to attract and train the talent you need to be successful as an organization. This alignment between culture and talent and training is one often overlooked piece of the puzzle in achieving your organization’s mission and well worth a close look.