unCUlturers: musings on organizational culture & development (and stuff about credit unions too)
Seth Godin does a masterful job developing this idea in his fantastic book Linchpin. The sooner you read that book and understand this idea, the better.

In fact, I'm going to stop writing this post so you can get off your computer, go read it, and adjust your mindset accordingly.
There was a soda brand a few years back that labeled itself the "uncola." It wanted to be different. It wanted to be better.

Southwest Airlines also appears to get it. They've taken concrete steps to establish a culture altogether different and unique. They've embraced the idea of being silly, odd, even irreverent. Their corporate culture is unlike any other out there. They've built an unculture. They know who they are organizationally, and aren't afraid to let the world know that they're different, countercultural, counterintuitive, etc. They're glad to be the unculture.

And don't think for a second that it doesn't matter. If you don't think that type of attitude and cultural climate have a positive effect on both their employees and their bottom line, you're kidding yourself. You know those silly commercials on TV that show bag handlers ripping open their shirts to display the words "Bags fly free" on their chests? Yeah, those are all actual Southwest employees. When asked why they chose not to hire actors for the commercial, Southwest's response was basically something like "Well, we didn't really think actors could capture the spirit, passion, and attitude of our employees." You think choosing the unculture just amounts to wanting to be silly? Think again. Southwest is full of passionate, engaged employees.

And lest you think this is all just a bunch of touchy-feely nonsense, I should mention that this unculture is one of reasons that Southwest is now widely regarded as the most successful and consistently profitable airlines out there right now. Even through the economic downturn they've managed to be innovative and progressive, attracting top talent from around the nation and world.

But isn't cultivating an unculture risky? Sure it is. It's messier. Things don't always fit into nice little boxes like you'd like. But organizations that understand that their culture can be a huge competitive advantage, both in the consumer and employee markets, will actively cultivate a healthy, unique culture. They'll cultivate an unculture.

Am I saying that every organization out there needs to be just like Southwest? No, of course not. That would kind of defeat the purpose. It's OK not to be like everyone else, or anyone else for that matter. It's OK to be different. It's OK not to be just like every other soda brand. It's OK not to be just like every other airline. It's OK not to be just like every other financial institution. It's OK not to be just like every other non-profit. It's OK not to be just like every other church. 

So figure out who you are as an organization, and who you want to be. Then take active steps to build that culture. Be bold. Be courageous. Be innnovative. Develop a distinct organizational and cultural identity. Then celebrate and cultivate that culture. The effects will be seen in your bottom line for sure, but as a byproduct of more passionate, engaged employees.
No, that's not a misspelling, and yes, I realize it's not an actual word. But it's exactly what a lot of organizations need.

Countless organizations out there right now, while perhaps even appearing healthy and stable to those on the outside looking in, are dying on the inside. Morale is down. Infighting and politics are on the rise. Trust is lacking. Inefficiency isn't. In short, it's a mess.

So what's to be done? Well, that would certainly depend on the group or organization, and what the specific symptoms are, but I think there's at least one common denominator. These organizations need leaders, whether they have the fancy title or not, to step into the fray and become initiators of change.

When those leaders--again, whether they have a title or not--begin to shift together, use their influence together, talk together, dream together, strategize together, and, well, you get the idea; when those things happen, a group or organization will start to see change. And it will be the best kind of change, because it's organic, felt-in-the-heart change, not some overwrought corporate mandate that comes down from above. 

So if you're a leader within a group or organization, whether officially recognized as one or not, start the shift. Lead. Encourage others to do the same. Get together with them. Talk about it. Recruit others to join you. Make a difference.

It's leadershift.
Too many organizations of all types (companies, churches, non-profits, etc) are unwittingly, or perhaps even "wittingly," cultivating a pretty crappy culture within which their teams and people are required to function. And I say hey, if you're going to create such an environment, at least go all out. (I say this with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.)

Here's one thing you can do to ensure your organization's culture is crappy. If you're in leadership, cover all of your mistakes. I mean that. Every last one of them. It's crucial to your survival that the team or organization you lead thinks you're flawless. I mean, think of the consequences if anyone within your organization got wind of the fact that you're a human being that makes an occasional mistake. That would border on cataclysmic, would it not?

So whatever takes, don't admit mistakes, don't be vulnerable and open with your team, group, or organization, and no matter what you do, do not--I repeat, do not--let anyone know you make mistakes. There's always someone else to blame, after all.
...Then I'm afraid you're likely missing some opportunities. Too often people wait on this or that. They wait for approval from everyone they know before they act. They wait for the timing to be perfect before trying something. They want to be sure what they do won't rock the boat. Or anyone else's boat for that matter.

If there's something you want to try, try it. If there's something you want to create, create it. If there's a problem you want to solve, try to solve it. Quit succumbing to to the pressure to fit in, fly under the radar, and be representative of the status quo.
If you’ve been around peewee league soccer, there are a few things you know. You know that there is absolutely no strategy involved whatsoever. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.

You also know that it’s “just for fun,” or something. And really, it is. As parents, we show up, put out some lawn chairs, and watch a clump of children swarm the ball wherever it goes on the field (and sometimes off). 

These days, a lot of leagues have even stopped keeping track of score altogether, choosing instead to acknowledge everyone for participating. At the end of the year, children nationwide are given certificates of “participation.” 

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a huge problem with that. But if I’m honest (and if you are too), you often find yourself cringing a little bit. You think things like: If we don’t keep score, what’s the point of playing? Doesn’t my kid need to know how to both win and lose the right way? I want my kid to excel, not just be content to participate! And so it goes…

Well here’s the thing. The same thing applies to your professional (and personal) life. As you progress through life’s various stages, are you really interested in merely “participating”? It’s like someone saying, “Hey, great job. You lived and breathed.” The sad reality is the corporate world, society, churches, etc, are filled with these type folks. Is that really what you want?

No, I want something more than that, and I hope you do too. I hope you’re interested in far more than a certificate of participation. I hope you’re interested in far more than watching others excel. I hope you take what you do really personally, and determine to do what it takes to be among the best in your field. Take risks, be creative, work hard, learn well, and for Pete’s sake, don’t just participate.




I’m just a bank teller. I’m just an customer service rep. I’m just a trainer. I’m just a new hire. I’m just a receptionist. I’m just a clerk. I’m just one executive. I’m just one manager.

If you repeat things like that long enough, they may become true.

Sometimes I really hate the word just. I’ve been trying to pin down exactly why I detest it so much in some instances, and I think it has something to do with what people mean when they employ the word.

Think about the examples above. If someone says they’re just a customer service rep, what are they actually saying? What they often mean is that there’s something they can’t do, initiative they can’t take, dreams they can’t accomplish, change they can’t create, or goals they can’t attain. There’s usually a whole lot of can’t behind the word just.

I hate the word because it downplays the potential any given individual has. Now, do I mean that if people believe or want something strongly enough that they can always get or do it? No. Of course not. I really wanted to be Superman when I was a kid, but you’ll notice that the outfit I’m wearing today is more Clark Kent than Superman.  A tie isn’t nearly as fun as a cape, by the way.

But now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, I hope you’ll understand this: when you say you’re just this or that, it’s really like you’re taking your own legs out from underneath you. Instead of being an empowered, creative, positive, motivated individual, you’ve reduced yourself to being just something (whatever that happens to be).

So don’t fall for it. Don’t fall into the mental trap that so many fall into. You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization. You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. 

Don’t settle for just.
Organizations needs leaders. If the first name that popped into your head was someone else’s, you’re already missing the boat. 

You see, it doesn’t really matter what title you hold, what level of education you’ve attained, or even how long you’ve been with your organization. Groups, departments, organizations, teams, churches – they need leaders. They need you.

Now, I’m not saying you have to come up with some novel idea or head a project team or even be charismatic and outgoing. What I’m saying is that we need leaders. What I’m saying is that we need you.

We need ordinary folks who will step up and do the hard things. Do hard things like admitting mistakes, being vulnerable, forgiving past mistakes, and building trust. Do hard things like complaining a little less and finding solutions a little more. 

Do hard things – like really taking ownership of the direction of your organization. Too many of us think we can’t do that. We think it’s someone else’s job. We think it’s only the executives that are in charge of that. Your organization is just as much yours as it is theirs. (And really, the sooner you can stop thinking of it in terms of “yours” or “theirs” the better. Think ours.) Want something to be different? Then as someone told me recently in conversation, you need to be the change you want to see in the organization. 

Do hard things – like actually committing to change something in yourself instead of thinking that only everyone else needs to change. Do hard things like being the first in your group or department to change your behavior and encourage others to do the same. Do hard things like looking for the best in people, even though you’ve been burned before.

As I’ve said to many groups I’ve presented to, it’s about ordinary people doing some simple (but not necessarily easy) things over and over again. Before you know it, you’re leading yourself and others toward a healthier group or organizational culture. 

But if you and I want any of that to happen, we need leaders. We need you.
You can fit in, or you can stand out. You can't have it both ways.

There are scores of people and groups out there who are more than willing to describe for you to a "T" how you're to act/look/think in any given situation. Perhaps they've been there since you were a wee lad or lass, encouraging you to fit in to a given mold.

Think of all the books, scoldings, fringe religious zealots, co-workers, employees, school systems, etc, who took (and take) great pains to establish for you exactly - and often it really is a precise thing - who or what or how you're supposed to be. It can be overwhelming. And paralyzing. What becomes abundantly clear is that we're really good at enforcing the status quo, and we're often fiercely loyal to it.

"This is what a corporate cog...er...individual looks like."

"This is what an executive looks like."

"This is what a Christian looks like."

"This is what an affluent kid looks like."

And so it goes.

But if you fit in too much, you won't do anything. Think of people who do or have done things. Great things. Remarkable things. Things that make a real difference. HIstory is full of such people (Jesus of Nazareth, Ghandi, MLK, etc). Rarely do they "fit" anywhere. They do great things precisely because they're willing to challenge conventional wisdom, think outside the box (though I still loathe that expression), innovate, and be, well, different. Isn't that the very essence of the word extraordinary? Something outside the ordinary?

What groups, churches, organizations, and communities need is just those people, but sadly (though not unpredictably) they're largely missing.
You’ve got to not only be able to see the truth of the reality around you, but also tell that truth to your group or organization. This requires experience, expertise, finesse, and before any of that, a willingness to look for it. 

Lots of folks refuse to acknowledge what they see and know to be true. Some may look around their department at work or their staff at church or their team on the field and know something to be true. Perhaps their department uses a process that has at least two unnecessary and redundant steps (but it was the boss who put it in place). Perhaps their church staff has a pastor far more interested in status than in actually ministering in any meaningful way (outside the pulpit) to the people in the pews. Perhaps their team is stubbornly sticking to a game plan that may have worked previously, but hasn’t for some time now.

It’s not that these folks want to lie to themselves. But they’re certainly in denial.

Often there’s a small group, or even just an individual, who can see the truth; but that group or individual doesn’t want to speak up, because, well, the status quo is awfully comfortable. To say the Emperor is actually naked, after all, could be professional suicide. To question is to be a troublemaker, or so goes the myth you’ve bought into.

Organizations and groups that really get it will seek out someone who can see things for what they are, and further still, will stand up and talk about it. An individual who really gets it will be that person.