Which Way Are The (Cultural) Winds Blowing?

Tony Kern, Ed.D

By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance

Posted on July 5, 2019
Group of 4 people chatting with coffees

It has been disturbing to read about the rash of general and business aviation accidents in recent months. I try to follow up on all of them by reading online news about each of them, and eventually, the official NTSB reports. If this batch follows the historical norms, a couple may be mechanical, and the majority will be some form of noncompliance or pilot error. A few will make it into human factors courses as case studies. But if we look deep enough, I will bet my next month’s Air Force retirement check nearly all of them will have an underlying cause that is related to the culture of the organization.

People talk a lot about culture in our industry. There are dozens of so-called cultural assessments that you can buy and use to determine – according to some pre-described metrics of the survey – what your cultural state currently is. A few might even offer some recommendations on what you can do to improve it. But those who have tried to change a culture can tell you it is an inexact science at best and requires a long-term investment in time combined with a laser focus to achieve meaningful results.

A year ago this month, I stepped away from my CEO role at Convergent Performance (I’m now the Chief Learning Officer there) to take a position as the Director of Safety and Quality with a high-tech startup that flies stratospheric balloons above 100,000 feet with amazing imaging systems hanging 400 feet below. I felt that my operational street cred was getting a bit stale and longed to do something operational again, and this sounded pretty cool. It is. Navigating balloons is all about surfing the winds and predicting trajectories, and that got me thinking again about culture.

I’ve studied, researched, and written about culture for nearly three decades, and come to understand that like the stratospheric winds I now use to navigate these massive balloons, culture exists as a current or flow throughout an organization. Unfortunately, the instruments used to measure it are far less accurate than those we use in the near-space environment.

But they are getting better.

Let’s continue this metaphor to look at cultural wind speeds and trajectories. The first thing we must do is determine our location. Only then can we assess in which direction we are moving and how fast. Then we must continue to monitor and assess what is occurring – on a regular basis – within our organizations, and find the right winds to get our trajectory towards where we want to be. So, let’s take a look at the instruments we have available for this purpose.

Culture is about people. It’s about all your people. But over the decades I have found that there are a few that can act as a bellwether to accurately predict the whole. As I describe these key people, you will start to put faces to the roles within your own organization.

The Maven hears the gossip. This person is often located at a cross-functional area within your company. Perhaps a scheduler, dispatcher, or administrative person. They are well-liked and have great people skills. They sense the mood of the organization. They are often women, and before you accuse me of sexism, there are dozens of studies as to why this is true. I can provide references if you’d like.

The Newbs have their eyes wide open. A new hire, especially a young new hire in his/her first job, observes and absorbs with a keen eye and soaks up your culture like a sponge. Watch their attitudes and behaviors closely, as they will likely mirror the organizational culture as a whole. The faster they change, the stronger the cultural winds are blowing.

B Players see a lot but say very little. These are the gals and guys who get overlooked by management. They define the middle of the pack. They bring their lunch box to work, do their job, and go home. They ride out new leaders, new technology, and cultural shifts. Because of their stability, they have a keen sense of changes in the wind, even though it never seems to affect them much.

The Curmudgeon is the grumpy old-timer who is skeptical about almost everything, and outright cynical about change. They’ve “been there and done that” and aren’t afraid to share their opinions about things.

These four archetypes – Mavens, Newbs, B Players, and the Curmudgeon – are the weathervane of your cultural winds. Seek them out. Pull their insights from them. Learn to listen to their opinions and observations. Then project your trajectory from your current location and determine how to create or find the winds of change to where you want to be. The limits of this article prevent me from going too far down this rabbit hole, but if you are interested, please feel free to contact us at convergentperformance.com for more insights.

By now the HR people and safety officers are probably thinking, ”What about me?” After all, culture tracking and shaping is in our job descriptions. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these people don’t matter. They do. But hopefully, if you are a good leader, you are getting an earful from them already. If not, you should be.

The Sounds of Silence
Another key to understanding your culture is the message you are getting – or not getting – from your formal and informal systems. Far too often, we view no news as good news, and this is not always true. Does the lack of information mean things are going well? Or going poorly? Or perhaps it is unclear what the current situation is. Perhaps the people don’t trust management enough to voice their thoughts. The leader’s default belief about this says a lot about their mindfulness related to the actual cultural situation. This is why seeking out the weathervanes is so critical.

Ignore culture at your own peril. It trumps the best plans, technology, and business strategies we can put in place. The winds are blowing, how you choose to ride them is up to you.

Fly smart!

Convergent Performance Convergent Performance
Convergent Performance is uniquely dedicated to reducing human error in high risk environments.

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