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Hero Cultures

Can 'hero cultures' deliver strategy and growth for shareholders?

I think old habits die hard. Adaptation is essential for survival.

Recently  I had a call from a former colleague who asked “How do you get partners of a professional firm to let us highly paid and experienced functional leaders into the inner sanctum so we can actually do our jobs?”

First I chuckled. Then I pondered how long I had been fielding questions just like that one! My first memory dated back to 1990 when a friend called after making a career move from a trading bank to a global consulting partnership to complain “They didn’t tell me they would treat me like a mushroom; keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullsh-t!” (He is now owner and CEO of his own business, a successful national industrial waste management company). His words were etched in my memory. Can it be true, that twenty-six years later, global firms still allow hero cultures to prevail? 

There are some company heroes who inspire positive behaviour in cultures; those who have the courage to step up to solve an economic crisis, or put their lives on the line when others are at risk. But heroes who are adrenaline junkies and enjoy outshining others, or who create havoc so that they rescue the business from their own self-made disasters, are not the kind you want to honour. 

Change resistors protect damaging behaviour

Why do we hang on to old values when it is obvious they are no longer relevant to the new world order? Is it a generational thing or are the underlying assumptions of our organisation, industry or country cultures so firmly embedded that we cannot budge them?

I have observed hero cultures thriving in organisations, industries and nations for decades…and in almost every case the heroes secure power for themselves while, consciously or unconsciously, limiting the activity and restricting the performance ability of everyone else. By narrowing the scope of activity of others, heroes undermine their best performance. Other unhelpful features of hero cultures include patch protection, hoarding information, little coaching of others, insane working hours and burn-out creating poor role models.

There’s nothing sadder than watching heroes refuse to allow creativity and innovation to foster for fear of losing control, or worse, exposing their own shortcomings. Hero cultures that seek to bolster those in charge while keeping others who threaten their status and power in check are negative cultures – they limit productivity and stifle innovation and growth. The performance, satisfaction and tenure of salaried non-equity executives are compromised in these firms.

Hero cultures hire ‘from the same mold’ diluting competitiveness 

Let me share two recent examples that will resonate with some readers. These examples demonstrate how hero cultures expel talent for daring to speak up against the regime and how policies are put in place to ensure that only compliant people are permitted to join the business.

When I launched my book Stepping Up, that reports research with 100 leaders on issues limiting productivity and growth in Australia, I was invited to discuss the highlights with a global consulting partnership. At the meeting, I outlined the key findings to the two hosts from the firm and asked ‘Does any of that resonate with you?’ The non-equity partner replied ‘Yes, we have all of those issues here’, while the equity partner’s eyes widened in shock at the honest outburst and proceeded to detail the many programs they had underway that had ‘resolved’ the issues, insisting they were now ‘squeaky clean’. Three months on the non-equity partner, a gay man, no longer worked at the firm. 

A short time later in a conversation with the Managing Partner of another similar firm I was again curious about the extent to which the issues highlighted by my research findings existed in his organisation. He explained that they had put polices in place to make sure that they didn’t laterally hire senior people who would be ‘buck the system’. Their policy stated that the firm hired only people who had survived a certain period as a partner at another global make sure they would ‘fit in’ to partnership culture. They did not want senior people coming in from industry roles insisting that they change the system to be ‘more corporate’. He implied their apparent closed system had worked for centuries and a move to an egalitarian style of leadership would not fit the firm’s culture, ownership structure or remuneration system.

Ensuring there is a ‘values fit’ among people is important when trying to build a strong positive culture and align it to deliver strategy. But when you seek to ‘clean’ incoming senior talent pools to exclude those who might want to challenge the hero culture by encouraging partners to consider meritocracy, performance and diversity over tenure, ownership rights and privileges, there is something unhealthy going on. 

Counter-heroism is key to growth and survival

There is little room for hero cultures in the 21st century. If you want to attract the best talent to achieve diversity, full productivity and growth you need an egalitarian, open and moderate culture (see The Culture Circuit outlined in Stepping Up). The pace of change is now so fast that knowledge is said to double every 13 months. According to technology experts the ‘internet of things’ will soon lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours!

As the examples above indicate, employees and salaried partners working for you today are not blind to the motivations of leaders of hero cultures. They see the issues, have ideas about more effective work processes and many are keen to innovate. When you shut them out, they will, sooner or later, look for another place to work…unless of course they are the ones you have hired under the cleansing policy that protects you from hiring those who might ‘buck the system’. 

As well as looking to secure key senior talent to drive thought-leadership and change, future survival also requires that you can attract Millennials who are vital contributors to innovation and unphased by digital disruption. They are highly adaptable, technologically savvy and comfortable with the idea of working independently on multiple contracts. We need to rethink our offer if we are to attract and keep them in the regular workforce. Millennials are not inspired by hero-cultures. They want to be respected and included from day one and they are much less prepared to ‘wait their turn’ than older generations. Millennials abhor greed and their number one goal is rarely financial. Secret agenda’s, inner sanctums, partner privileges and dark cupboards for harvesting mushrooms must be binned if you are to survival the end of this decade. 

Changing your hero culture for an egalitarian one requires commitment, courage and time, but it has huge benefits. When people feel that the culture is open, democratic and provides equal opportunity it inspires creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. This new positive culture will lead to more sustainable solutions to problems and fuel growth. Don’t underestimate the power of culture on your bottom-line results. 

Think global as you grow your business

Survival is the number one goal of businesses, industries and nations. Constant and rapid change in local and global economies, digital disruption and slow growth in developed countries leads us to look outside our traditional markets for blue oceans and future growth opportunities. It’s the 21st century – the Asian century – and when you consider trends towards urbanisation and consumerism in China (population of 1.3 billion), India (population 1.1 billion) and ASEAN nations (combined population of 600 million) you are looking at the most flourishing region of the world containing almost half the world’s population with a total of 3.1 billion people.

To be a global business means you need to get more comfortable with diversity. A highly diverse leadership profile is needed to build a skilled, globally competitive business. You will need broader experience, appreciation for cultural differences, understanding of different marketplace drivers and tolerance of people whose thought processes operate differently from your own. If your Board and Management team is still largely white, male and over 50, consider the limitations of this on strategy formulation and performance risk. 

There is only one way to survive in the 21st century and that is to be accepting of digital disruption, adaptable to the environment, diverse in nature, constantly innovating and humble in success. 

Adjust your sights. Let others in. Make change a constant. Allow democratic processes to operate and put your trust in the whole team. 

The phrase ‘Do or die’ has never been so relevance as it is today. 

Pamela Young

Managing Director of growthcurv
Author of Stepping Up

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