Whether it’s a pandemic, a Supreme Court decision, inflation, economic softening, or the never-ending march of technology, when the latest change knocks at our doors, we business leaders turn to our cultures for guidance on how–or whether–to let it in. But perhaps the way we think about “culture” itself is due for a change.
As CEO of Tillamook County Creamery Association–a 113-year-old dairy co-op with an incredible legacy and a recent record of market-leading growth–my bosses are dairy farmers. Whenever I talk with a particular farmer-boss he’s likely to say, “Patrick, we’ve been here for 100 years, and we’ll be here for a 100 more.”
We need to honor our past and hone our future at the same time–and only a fluid organizational culture can allow us to do both.
Building a better boat
The dairy farmers who were early settlers in Tillamook County found theirs to be a tenuous business in a raw and unforgiving place. Many simply left defeated. Others persisted against one of the most intractable challenges: getting their product to market over harsh terrain.
Eventually, someone came up with the idea to build a boat sturdy enough to carry their butter and other products to the markets in Portland and beyond. They named it the Morning Star–and it was a turning point. The boat became a metaphor for the resilience of the settlers who remained and, 50 years later, for the co-op they became.
I think about the commitment and character it took those pioneers to risk everything to build a better boat. I wonder, what is the role of culture in “building a better boat”? And what is the role of the leader in that culture?
It is not the role of the leader to preserve culture. To preserve is to petrify–and that runs goes against everything we discuss in business, like innovation and growth. To me, the coolest part of the Morning Star story isn’t that our predecessors decided to build a better boat. It’s that they allowed room for the kind of people who would suggest it.
Fluid v. fixed culture
Fixed culture asks, “Does this idea or person fit into what we’ve been?” Fluid culture asks, “Does this idea or person add to what we want to be?” Fluid culture recognizes that excellence comes from amplifying the good, not constraining the different.
For instance, inclusion and diversity efforts will stall in a fixed culture because they are necessarily additive. In fact, Stanford Women’s Leadership Lab says getting managers to ask themselves what each person adds to their teams is one of the most powerful tools they have for increasing diversity and inclusion.
Fluid culture seeks to expand the potential of people and of the organization itself. Doing that can be especially hard for older organizations because time has a way of encasing habits in amber. When your organization is new, everything is new. But when your organization is 113 years old and has been especially successful, you have to think carefully about balancing legacy and change.
Inspiration, not prescription
Our legacy is gold–an endless source of lessons in diligence–but it’s not a Magic 8 Ball capable of delivering answers on command. What fixed culture gets right is respect for legacy. What it gets wrong is strict devotion to it. You have to understand the values at work in your past, not just the actions.
So, if the role of the leader is not to preserve culture, what is it? It’s to cultivate the environment. To act with intention to build on your organization’s historical strengths while clearing room for new strengths it has yet to imagine.
Fluid culture doesn’t mean leaving everything behind, but it does mean choosing what stays, what goes, what changes a little, and what changes a lot. It means hanging out a welcome sign to new ideas and perspectives.
Cultivate both core and aspirational values
A few years back, we were refreshing our values. I put forward with great confidence the statement “We play to win.” However, employees said, “It would be nice, but if this is supposed to be what’s true today, then no dice.”
Their reaction stung a bit. Play to win” wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t true yet. Patrick Lencioni laid the groundwork for this fundamental shift in thinking 20 years ago in a pivotal Harvard Business Review article. We are better off today, having cultivated both our core values (true today) and our aspirational values (true tomorrow).
Define expectations, not outcomes
The “control impulse” is so prevalent in leadership that when billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates recently wrote “[it’s] important to place trust in the people and organizations we partner with and let them define success on their own terms,” observers said she “turned modern leadership upside-down.”
A leader can’t masterplan every outcome. Instead, we must set the expectation that every decision hinges on whether or not value is added. This is especially critical in hiring: “Culture fit” keeps you in the past. “Culture add” moves you toward the future.
Listen and revise
Employees want to be heard, but it’s not clear if leaders are listening. You must make opportunities to hear what your people think even if it stings. But then you must act at every level because policies and practices calcify quickly.
Re-examine and refresh even the most seemingly mundane of policies routinely. Look for past decisions that now restrict innovation, leave people out, or are based on assumptions that have been disproven.
Drawing on the past while embracing ambiguity has been good for our business. It has led to more expansive ideas, which have led to growth and innovation. An inclusive, diverse, and fluid culture has been good for our people, who report a more fulfilling experience and respectful environment. And just as important, our fluid culture is good for the communities in which we make our awesome cheese–precisely because it makes room for awesome people and ideas.
Patrick Criteser is the president and CEO of Tillamook County Creamery Association, a 113-year-old, billion-dollar dairy co-op in Oregon.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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