During this cold and flu season (and having already been stricken with the seasonal bug), something about the concept of a virus struck me as a great lesson for leadership.  (OK, maybe it’s the cold medication talking, but stick with me for a minute and we might get somewhere).

In the wild viruses strike fear in the heart of the public every winter as the seasonal cold and flu season picks up. Reports of viruses sourced from animals like the bird flu and swine flu increase our fear of infection.  But viral behaviour can be managed through science and every year the new flu shot concoction is made available to the public to help fend off the effects of what we think will be the seasonal strain of flu.  To develop these flu vaccinations, scientists use a biological culture called Agar to grow the virus that threatens all of humanity in a controlled environment in order to develop and test methods of prevention.

Both in the wild and in the lab culture, the virus simply behaves and grows naturally, but in one case its effects are the decimation of our work force (one sick day at a time), and in the other the result is a vaccine that can be used to control or prevent it’s negative effects in the wild.

Viral behaviour is natural and is very similar to our own social behaviours as we can see the same viral patterns on the Internet as great ideas and videos of cute cats spread from friend to friend.  While we might be intentionally sharing the video of two year old Timmy eating his first chocolate pudding, and unintentionally infecting the person next to you on the subway with your cold, the effects are the same.

Those effects are also evident in the culture of our organizations.  I recently read a great post entitled “Five Critical Questions About Organizational Culture That People Avoid Asking” by Idris Mootee that I think hits on this topic precisely.  Mootee references an Harvard Business School blog entitled “Culture Takes Over When the CEO Leaves The Room” and I think that title speaks volumes.  Culture breeds behaviours that live on when the leader isn’t present, or as we’ll see in a moment when the leader leaves permanently.

When a company has an effective and deliberate leader who recognizes the power of organizational culture, the viral behaviour can be controlled much like in the science lab where culture is used to grow a specific virus for a positive purpose and outcome.  When a leader consciously selects and consistently communicates a culture for an organization they can similarly grow the right viral behaviours in the organization that generate the type of customer experience, profits, and employee environment that are critical to organizational success.

A. G. Lafley took the helm of Proctor and Gamble in 2000 and very quickly instilled a culture of Innovation across the organization.  His intentions were deliberate and designed to eliminate the “Not Invented Here” culture that was dragging down Innovation performance.  The results of Lafley’s leadership are undeniable as P&G built more billion dollar brands and grew faster than their competitors in their core market spaces.

On the other hand, with an ineffective leader or a leader who doesn’t prioritize the development of a positive corporate culture the viral behaviour will more likely mimic the flu in the wild with negative feelings and behaviours being passed from employee to employee unwittingly until the organization ceases to function effectively.

While many admire Steve Jobs as a creative genius, much is emerging about the culture within Apple that is based around secrecy and very driven by Jobs’ own creative ideas.  While there will always be debate on this subject and we still have yet to see what the effect of Jobs death will be on the company, what appears clear is that employees were on a need-to-know basis about new product development and that final decision making on strategy always came from the top.  Certainly since Jobs’ death Apple’s stock performance has continued to be solid, but questions are starting to emerge about the ability of the company to continue to compete after somewhat underwhelming product introductions like the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini.

As a leader it is your job to look at your business, marketplace, and employees to consciously identify the right culture for your team and organization, and the focus on consistently communicating and living that culture.  If innovation is a priority the one must build a culture that is willing to take risks, be open about failures, embrace design thinking, and willing to disrupt itself.  In an operations environment the focus may be on operational excellence, eliminating failure and variability, and efficiency.

Whatever that “right” culture is for your business, it is your responsibility to define it, explain it, teach it, live it, and maintain it.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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