Organizational Culture: Open or Closed?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Culture in an organization is comprised of shared values, goals, norms and processes. One overarching theme uncovered in studying organizational culture is that leadership creates and reinforces culture. A traditional organization operates in a hierarchical model with an authoritarian culture that seems to foster privacy or secrecy. An open culture is the foundation for creating a high performance organization. An open culture within an organization fosters transparency and accountability to its customers and the public. If management doesn’t have a culture of open communication, then that culture suffers.

One of the best practices of high performance organizations is for leadership to nurture a culture that allows for people to question openly and have honest dialogue. A leader’s beliefs and values create the direction and the boundaries that people need to perform well. In “Good to Great” (2001) Jim Collins asserts, “good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.” This is Policy Governance in a nutshell.

When organizational leaders have an authoritarian culture where people are afraid to question decisions, diverse viewpoints cannot be heard. When people can raise objections when they think they need to, it paves the way to better decision-making. If an organization follows Policy Governance principles, it will find that Policy Governance creates a “safe” way to have meaningful dialogue around an issue (instead of a personality), and largely, reduces organizational barriers to having the dialogue in the first place.

Warren Bennis is a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Bennis cited by Koestenbaum, Keys, and Weirich says, “Exemplary leaders create a climate of candor throughout their organizations. They remove the organizational barriers — and the fear — that cause people to keep bad news from the boss. They understand that those closest to customers usually have the solutions but can do little unless a climate of candor allows problems to be discussed.”

7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

7 Measures of Success

Many of us in the nonprofit sector eagerly awaited the publication of this book by The Center for Association Leadership. The book is a research project spanning four years and mentored by Jim Collins. With the assistance of the best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, The Center conducted four years of intensive original research and analysis of 15 years of data. The purpose was to tease out the characteristics that distinguish associations that achieve remarkable results year after year.While some conventional wisdoms were dispelled by the research (e.g., it’s better to hire a CEO from the outside), many common axioms were upheld. Collins wrote in the book’s introduction that “every association can deliver better results for its members.” This is a nice corollary to “good enough is never good enough.”It’s interesting to note the choice of words Collins used in his observation regarding the nature of what separates a great institution from the average. He says great organizations are comprised of:

“Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action”

Collins repeated this mantra a few times during a presentation to the American Society of Association Executives. Why not say “focused” or “purposeful” or “mission-driven?” If you’ve heard Collins speak, you know he’s a bit like that Monk character on television who is obsessed with order and detail. He doesn’t choose his words at random.In his speech to ASAE, Collins said it was more than mission or focus. Discipline requires the organization to stop doing the wrong things in order to have the time to do the right things well and achieve remarkable results. Collins’ observation is a meaningful one for governing boards. Is your board remarkable?

Consider these questions:

  • Is it difficult to get all of your board members to attend meetings?
  • Is your board having difficulty recruiting the members it really wants because those people “just don’t have time?”
  • Does your board spend most of its meeting time listening to staff and committee reports and little time on compelling dialog and debate about the future?
  • Does your board tend to rely on their own perceptions of the members rather than conducting diligent discussions with members about what they need?
  • Does the board struggle with how to evaluate your performance or conduct your annual review?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may indicate that your board views its role as managing instead of governing. If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may suggest that your board isn’t spending enough time on the “right things.”That’s where disciplined thought and action come in. Discipline helps the board get done what it needs to do efficiently and expediently. Discipline frees up time to make a difference for the people they serve (why most people join boards.) It creates meetings that are exciting and engaging (and worth attending.) It will help your board recruit and retain quality board members because everyone wants to be part of a remarkable board.Where do you start to create an environment that fosters disciplined thought and action? You can begin with the principles found in Policy Governance