Why your culture matters now more than ever

Maya Angelou wrote about a car ride in Ghana with Malcolm X. It was the height of the Civil Rights era, and Angelou was expressing her disdain for a particular activist’s lack of faith, and isolation from the Black American struggle. Malcolm X’s response was swift and harsh.

“Sister,” he said. “Picture American racism as a mountain. Now slice that mountain from the top to the bottom and open it like a door. Do you see all the lines, the strata? Those are the strata of American life, and we are being attacked on each one. We need people on each level to fight our battle. Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you do or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

I think of this story often lately because it’s clear that we are once again in revolutionary and evolutionary times. There are obvious technological differences between the 1960s and now, and they contribute to an unsettling sense of frenzy, with cacophonous messages delivered through images, video and sounds nearly around the clock.

But the organizing principle – the Big Why – is the same: every issue we are grappling with is a critical element of culture change.

Nearly every conversation – from boardroom discussions with agency leadership about innovation, diversity or even family leave to the powerful declarations of #TimesUpAdvertising to ongoing social media posts and conversations about justice and equality over at Diet Madison Avenue or Girls Day – is in service to the same fundamental question.

How do we create high-performing, impactful, inclusive cultures that serve us all – and where everyone can thrive?

Creating new culture requires the willingness (and courage) on the part of people to ask “why.” As the neuroscientist, Beau Lotto once observed, “why” is the most dangerous word in history. Because the moment you ask that question, you open up the possibility of change.

We are in a disruptive, watershed moment – and asking why we do things the way we do them and taking action to change things that no longer serve us all is no longer an option – nor is complacency or privileging some over others.

Much of culture work involves training company leaders not to assume firm boundaries, immovable walls and hard spaces where there aren’t any. Realizing that the boundaries are just habit, the walls are movable and the hard spaces an illusion is the first step to becoming comfortable with the discomfort of ambiguity, of not knowing what comes next.

This is why those who are not necessarily members of “in groups” – young people, people of color, women, immigrants, creatives, among others – can be such effective change agents. Their experiences, observations and perceptions open up entirely new worlds, new ways of being, better ways of working and living. Every movement needs a spectrum of actors and actions: its truth-tellers and storytellers, its warriors, bricklayers and builders, its visionaries and creators of what could and should be. We can fear and denounce them, or we can listen to them, learn from them, let them lead the way.

A few of the many things we’ve seen agencies and their leaders not know, but learn:

You can’t make good decisions from a place of fear. Sometimes agencies come to us during a period of crisis but continue to insist we help them solve their problems with the same thinking and methods that brought them to the brink in the first place. We can’t but we can – and do – work with anyone who’s willing to show up with honesty, self-awareness and humility.

Diversity is probably your most significant competitive advantage. A slew of research supports this and most company leaders have become adept at paying lip service to it. But mindset matters and if you don’t truly understand the importance of diversity in the context of everything from brainstorming and product design and development to company policies and community outreach to #metoo and #TimesUp, you risk irrelevance, legal jeopardy or worse. What this means, in particular, is:

If you see your diversity, inclusion and belonging efforts as separate from your innovation efforts, you don’t understand diversity, inclusion and belonging OR innovation. Most leaders say all the right things when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but they see it fundamentally as corporate social responsibility. It isn’t. The threshold for all innovation is diversity and the firestarter for your most creative ideas, products and services is giving people the space to show up with their different-ness, genius and whole selves without worrying that it will make you uncomfortable. Which leads us to:

Diversity is not sameness that looks different outwardly. And most of us have to be trained to understand that – and become comfortable with it. When companies say they’re looking for diversity, what they actually mean is that they’re looking for black and brown faces who show up more or less like their white counterparts. HR can tell you what happens to most of those hires: they leave.

Hiring and keeping your diverse talent is not a pipeline or retention issue; it’s a design issue. The two most common refrains we hear about diversity: “We can’t find qualified people of color to hire” and “We can’t retain our people of color.” Talented, diverse creatives are and have always been there. It’s your definitions of how they’re supposed to present that require a redesign.

Affinity and creativity biases limit the inflow of diverse people and ideas that will energize your business, create new products and services, and connect you to existing and new communities who need what you offer. And these biases are also the reason why you can’t retain the diverse creatives you worked so hard to find – because they can’t show up to work day to day with their whole selves and their genius. Pretending is exhausting work.

The future is now. More than a decade ago, Daniel Pink pointed to a seismic shift from “an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities.” That shift is the disruption you are experiencing, and it’s gaining momentum. You can see it as a threat and fight it to the death or embrace it as an opportunity for learning, growth and evolution. But either way, you can’t go back.

Amanda Enayati is the head of culture innovation at The 3% Movement and works with companies to design and launch high-performing, impactful, inclusive cultures. See The Drum’s coverage of last year’s 3% Conference in New York City.


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