Leading a Resilient Organization Culture

In newsletter #10, I made the case for resilience as the critical characteristic of an organization that can navigate the cascading waves of change in this globally interconnected, technologically intense reality. Leaders need a framework to guide clear thinking and timely action to develop this capacity.

In business, when a new company enters a market and suddenly shifts the fundamentals of how things are done, this is called ‘disruptive’ change. A clear case is the way Uber has ‘disrupted’ the ride/ride-sharing business. It started with an idea on a street late at night in Paris, France sparked by how inconvenient it was to find a cab. Then, Uber used the smartphone in almost every pocket to breakthrough to more convenient service, lower cost, and higher satisfaction. Within a few years, Uber has completely redefined how we get rides in cities around the world.

The recent U.S. election offers more evidence that change is the new normal. We are poised at the threshold of an unfolding set of possibilities for ‘disruptive’ change in the political and economic spheres, here and internationally.

It’s tough to make predictions,

especially about the future.

Yogi Berra, baseball coach and philosopher

 No organization leader can know how and when larger trends and events will form into a wave of change that surges powerfully into an organization’s operating environment.  However, every leader (corporate, nonprofit, government) can know that the increasing signs of uncertainty are all around and recognize the risks for disruptive change. Simply put, the way your organization does its work in the next 3-5 years could be significantly different. Acting calmly from prudence, not fear, what should you do to prepare to respond and adapt?

At the heart of your organization’s capacity to operate resiliently amidst changing conditions is its culture. After four decades working with corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies from small to large, local to international, I am convinced that:

  • the power of organization culture as a positive or negative force should not be underestimated; and
  • leaders have an important, ongoing responsibility to shape and strengthen organization culture.

 Your leadership actions to prepare for more change can be guided by understanding the framework elements of a resilient organization culture. Think of it like a ball that can absorb the shock of impact (change), retain the integrity of its shape, and bounce back. The ball is constructed with three layers that contribute to the ball’s resilience.  At the core of the ball is your organizational identity. This has two parts, WHY and WHO.

  1. You need a clear, brief inspiring statement of mission/purpose (WHY we exist) that everyone knows by heart.
  2. A series of strong, declarative statements confirm your organization’s core beliefs about what matters and orient everyone to the work that carries out your purpose. These core beliefs also articulate the values that guide and define you. (WHO we are).

There are many examples of organizations with well-crafted statements of mission, beliefs, and values with operations that fall short of their professed identity and ideals.  The identity of mission and values must be ‘lived’ and integrated through consistent, principled action. This  practice adds another layer around the core, establishing norms of behavior (HOW we work together and with others). A positive culture only takes shape through predictable, constructive behavior over time. Does your organization have a set of action principles that are intentionally practiced by people at all levels of the organization?

The final outer layer is the visible proof of a healthy organization culture. There are six mature characteristics that develop from clarity of identity and consistent, principled action. These indicators assure the resilient capacity to respond and adapt to change:

  • Unity – able to come together with an authentic sense of interdependence (We are all in this together. What are WE going to do?)
  • Agility – able to pivot, adjust direction, and continue to move toward the shared vision (What moves do we need to make to be successful?)
  • Tenacity –  able to meet challenges and setbacks with determination and sustained effort  (How can we regroup and face this challenge?)
  • Creativity – able to step back, shift perspective, and consider new and different ways to respond to the challenge  (Is there another way to look at this?)
  • Psychological Safety  –  able to maintain conversational spaces where everyone’s dignity is respected and everyone consistently contributes their talents, perspectives, and ideas 
  • Growth Mindset  – able to meet all issues and challenges with the attitude that we can learn from this, improve our skills, and build our capacity

How many of these indicators of resilience are alive and well in your organization? Use this framework to study your organization’s resilience and your readiness to face, and even embrace, inevitable changes. In upcoming newsletters, I will offer practical ways that Leaders can grow each dimension within the organization. If your organization’s formal leaders are not fulfilling their responsibility to prepare for change by building a resilient organization, remember that there are Leaders (those with formal authority) and there are those who LEAD. Some of the most inspiring LEADERS I have met were not the people at the top of the organization with titles. They were people in the middle with deep commitment who took action and influenced others.  For a .pdf with a graphic of this model of Organization Resilience go to here.

Practice Tip #11

Refine Your Action Principles

Your organization’s collective capacity to face challenges and navigate change depends upon shared expectations for  constructive behaviors (respect, listening, and dialogue) that forge unity. These behaviors must be clearly stated and commonly understood so they be practiced enough to become norms for how we engage, how we treat each other, and how we communicate. Only consistent, constructive behavior creates a climate of psychological safety and a growth mindset that sustains motivation and creativity. For more information go to my website.


Words of Wisdom

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. —
Louis Gerstner CEO, author Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance: Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround  

Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground. —
Rosa Parks civil rights pioneer

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. —
Aristotle  philosopher

Culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves. —
Warren Buffett  Legendary investor in successful organizations