The Risky Business of Corporate Culture

Do companies worry about the consequences of a culture so ingrained that it becomes a barrier to innovation and change?

The following is based on a speech given by Myron Gray, president of U.S. Operations for UPS, at the Seattle Rotary Club on September 2, 2015.

Myron Gray

Most companies feel they have a distinct corporate culture, one that has evolved over time around the values and practices shared by their employees.

Most also would say their culture is one of the company’s greatest strengths, helping to instill a spirit of teamwork and aligning employees around common goals.

But I wonder how many companies worry about the consequences of a culture so ingrained that it becomes a barrier to innovation and change?

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Cultivating Culture

One hundred and eight years ago, a few young men gathered in a basement storefront in downtown Seattle to start the company that would become United Parcel Service. Little did they know they also were sowing the seeds of one of the most distinctive cultures in corporate America.

Our culture has cemented what we value and how we work: deliberately, precisely and efficiently. We have strong opinions about the way a company should be run: responsibly, profitably and with integrity.

Meetings at our company often start with a reading from our Policy Book, which contains the fundamental values and principles that have shaped our company for more than a century.

Recent research backs up the esteemed place culture has in corporate America today.

Fortune magazine recently released a study that said business decision makers place greater significance on a business partner’s culture than ever before.

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Companies that routinely toss aside new ideas by saying, “That’s not how we do it around here,” could fall victim to culture’s backlash.

According to the study, 80 percent of global executives agree that a successful company’s biggest idea is often the one on which it was built.

But culture and its trappings are also now one of our most significant challenges.

We are not alone in this challenge. Any company that routinely tosses aside new ideas by saying, “That’s not how we do it around here,” or bases decisions on what it thinks its founders would prescribe, could fall victim to culture’s backlash.

Plenty of companies were so intent on staying on the path of least resistance that they didn’t see the threat coming up behind them. Winners became losers because it was easier to keep doing the things that made them winners in the first place.

So, the question becomes: “How do you manage for growth while respecting your past?” My answer, is that the job falls to leaders. And it’s a job in three critical parts.

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Moving Forward While Respecting the Past 

First, leaders must be confident enough to hire people smarter than they are and ones who don’t fit the traditional mold.

The second thing leaders must do is recognize the power of the individual. Especially those who don’t look, act and think exactly like they do.

Finally, leaders who want to respect culture while managing for the future must be inquisitive enough to ask the right questions, starting with “Is there a better way?”

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If leaders are not curious about what might be, they’re going to leave potential on the table every day.

If leaders are not curious about what might be – if they’re not, as UPS founder Jim Casey described as “constructively dissatisfied” – they’re going to leave potential on the table every day.

Those of us in leadership positions – especially those of us who have been around for a while – must ask ourselves another important question: “Are we obstructing a view of the future?”

I also know that culture and dominant logic cut both ways. They can provide the discipline that companies need to perform consistently over the long haul. They also can act as blinders to fresh, new perspectives.

Leaders need to make sure that neither they nor an allegiance to company culture distort a clean line of sight to imagination and opportunity. goldbrown2

Myron Gray is President of U.S. Operations for UPS. He is responsible for all package delivery and logistics services for the world's largest economy in the United States.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.