Chasing The Culture Fairy: In Pursuit of a Fully Competent Organization – 

Phil Liebman, CEO and Founder, The Bullfrog Group

colorful-1191082_1280Is there really some magical way to transform your company’s culture? It might seem so given how many books being sold and all the companies, product solutions and consultants that promise to be able to do so. This expanding marketplace is not surprising, since I have yet to meet a CEO whose goal was to have a terrible culture exist in their company. It’s like universal attraction to lovely weather – the people generally most interested in stormy days are the people who sell umbrellas or snow-shovels. It may be the same with today’s business obsession around building a “great culture” whereby there are solutions peddlers who strike at the hearts of company leaders – promising to be The Culture Fairy who will turn grey skies into rainbows.

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I’m not accusing all those offer to improve business performance by fixing its operating culture of peddling fairy dust. There are plenty of observable issues in organization’s policies and governance, communication, systems and leadership’s effectiveness that can be and should be improved. There are experts who are entirely capable of solving many of these problems – and plenty of companies that need their help. The problem I see is with the CEO who believes that they can somehow outsource the solution of improving the performance of their employees and their company on the whole– when the most important and critical place to begin may be with themself. In business, driving performance is a fundamental function of leadership. When leaders are either unwilling or incapable of doing this themselves –it is unlikely that the performance of the organization improve in measurable or meaningful ways. Leadership cannot be outsourced.

Part of the problem may be that the “culture” is difficult to define. A problem that cannot be defined or effectively measured cannot be solved. We tend of apply a vague community standard to assessing culture: we know a good culture when we see it. But the particulars are not always clear. Is it that employees are happy and they care? Is it that they are motivated and productive? Perhaps a good culture is all of these things. But you can have happy, motivated and productive employees and still have a poorly performing people – and company. It’s not just that your employees care about their work and the success of the company, it’s whether the way they demonstrate their caring leads to actually accomplishing whatever is necessary for the company to be successful in its mission. So what is it that actually defines a desirable culture – and more important – how do we achieve that in our companies?

The answer might be that we need to look at cause rather than effect. A high-performing organization – one where people are fully engaged, fulfilled by their work, rewarded for their accomplishments and supporting the success of the organization – is a result of how the company operates, the collective performance of all it’s components. And how a company operates falls under the role of leadership.

The driving force behind performance is competence. If your company is staffed by people fully competent in their roles, if the systems in place competently enhance the ability to effectively and efficiently get what needs to be accomplished done, and if the leadership is competent at orchestrating and driving this level of performance – it makes sense that the desired results will follow. What I am describing here is a “fully competent organization.”

So, what is competence? Like “culture” it is easier to describe incompetence than define what amounts to competence in any given situation or role. Competence or incompetence is experienced as a result or consequence. We get bad service, something is designed poorly or assembled wrong, or we get wrong information from someone who is supposed to assist or advise us. We don’t need to look long or hard. The business world – and society on the whole – is mired in incompetence. When we occasionally experience something extraordinary we are surprised. The rest of the time we hope for something simply satisfactory and unremarkable. But is “satisfactory and unremarkable” really signs of competence? I would argue it is definitely not.

Mediocrity is not the product of genuine competence. We can get by on mediocrity, but companies won’t thrive and civilizations don’t flourish without standards that lean towards extraordinary and demand ever expanding standards of excellence in performance. Ordinary efforts can’t be expected to produce breakthrough solutions, just as conventional thinking tends to only produce conventional results. Even if we employ a rather conventional definition of competence, “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently” – by today’s standards – attaining standards of mediocrity is extraordinary and remarkable. Incompetence reigns supreme where competence is not made necessary.

A better, or at least more useful definition of competence extends beyond knowing what needs to be done – to knowing how to best accomplish it. Skill and ability alone are not enough. We can see this in underperforming students and athletes – who have enormous natural talent – but never devote themselves to developing it – and are easily overtaken by those with more average talent who commit themselves to constantly challenging their perceived constraints.

I prefer the definition provided on BusinessDictionary.com: “A cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act effectively in a job or situation.” This speaks to those intangibles that must be engaged in order to fully realize the potential of our skills and talents. Knowledge – the result of learning, and commitments – derived from our values are both critical factors to real competence and the capacity to drive real accomplishment. It speaks more to efficacy: the connection of accomplishments to a stated purpose. Efficacy can only exist in a condition of curiosity that challenges assumptions of what is or isn’t possible, and a commitment to pursue discovery and results when it is often challenging and uncomfortable to do so.

Observing people in the workplace, you could form a seemingly reasonable assumption that most people are inherently lazy. As managers or bosses – we need to police the workplace – to protect the company from those who slack-off – and protect our “good” employees from being affected – or infected – by poor performers. There is a well-founded belief that tolerating poor performance in some will have a negative impact on the work of those who perform at a high level. This is the basis of the suggestion that as a leaders – ‘what you tolerate is viewed as what your endorse.’

The issue might not be employee’s attitudes, it could be their competence – or lack thereof. Given the opportunity – most people tend to gravitate towards the things they are most competent at doing. It just makes sense that we feel good when we can accomplish things – and moreover – we don’t feel good when we are struggling. It may be hard to have a good attitude when we are struggling at what we do for lack of competence.

This is where conscientiousness comes into play. A competent con artist, murderer – or even slacker will lean towards their competencies. In the workplace there are people who are masters at accomplishing nothing – and pride themselves in getting paid for beating the system. Conscientiousness speaks to an inner sense of what’s right or principled. With the exception of those who are pathologically criminal and have no conscience– those whose intentions are evil or greedy by expedience will sometimes benefit from seeing how their competencies can be redirected to a greater cause – or to serve the greater good. (Computer-hackers who get caught and then are asked to become high level security consultants are a good example.) Conscientiousness also speaks to the inner desire to struggle through whatever it may take to become fully competent at anything. We might call this emotional intelligence – or the ability to defer gratification – but this is actually driven by our beliefs and values beyond our ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills – which is the basic definition of intelligence.

Competent people are made – not born. We are born with the competencies to be a successful newborn. We cry for attention, inure affection and coo and we latch-on to feed, but we are not born with the competencies required for being a successful adult. We might be clever or cunning and become accidentally successful – or we might stumble through life aimlessly and want of purpose or even the means to survive on our own. Basic skills can often be found within our current means – but real competence is developed and requires some intention to do so.

Competent people by their nature tend to be naturally motivated by their dissatisfaction with mediocrity and the status quo. They are internally driven to make themselves and things they encounter better. They are innately happier given the satisfaction of accomplishment, personal growth and of performing at a high level. Competence speaks to being productive human beings.

This is why what we tend to look for when we imagine the culture we aspire to have – is really a demand for competence. A fully competent organization – one with competent people, competent systems and competent leadership is the cause of what most people think of as being an ideal company culture. We might hope that The Culture Fairy would transform our organizations for the good of performance – but wishful thinking is not what creates competence. It begins with competent leadership and the ability to develop competent people and competent organizations. If you are interested in some insight into what it takes to build and grow sustainable, fully competent organizations “The Competent Organization” by Lee Thayer is a good place to begin. Getting there, though, is a rigorous journey. It requires learning how to think in order to learn how to become the kind of leader who can do all that is necessary to build a fully competent organization in order to attain the kind of high performance that few companies ever succeed in achieving. Is it worth the effort? If you believe, as I do that those who lead successful businesses are the force behind the social, economic and cultural gains in society – the answer is yes. If you, instead, believe that you can simply leave it to others to resolve the problems of the world, or that The Culture Fairy and the like will save the day – you might want to think again.