September 11, 2019

Moon shot culture

I know the time for the anniversary of the moon landings is over, but sometimes things take a while to percolate through my mind.

A few weeks ago my friend Bob Weston told me about a podcast he had listened to (after he’d listened to ours of course) about the Apollo programme. Gene Kranz was Flight Director for the Gemini and Apollo programmes. On the morning after the Apollo 1 disaster, where 3 astronauts died on the launch pad, he addressed his people. In a powerful speech he accepted responsibility “Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up.” But he also stated that from then on, Flight Control would be known by two words: tough and competent (you can find out more here).

The words came back to mind when I was thinking about high performance culture. I’ve believed for a long time that the only source of sustainable competitive advantage is a self-regulating performance culture. That is a culture that is able to adapt to its environment without being directed from above or being forced to change by external forces.

And it’s hard work. There may still be some people who think of culture as “soft stuff”, but they’re wrong. Creating and sustaining a high performance culture is the hardest work of leadership.

A high performance culture isn’t soft either. Tough and competent is a great way to describe a high performance culture. I’ve been reflecting on some of our sessions of recent weeks where we looked for learnings from the tech giants and also the All Blacks, two very different expressions of excellence. I know which one I prefer, but the tech robber barons can teach us something about what it takes to break through to scale in a crowded market.

I think a high performance culture embraces failure but punishes failure to learn. It’s big on empathy for its people but the interests of the organisation always come first. It’s long on innovation and creativity but even longer on discipline: doing the basics well, continuing to do better on the things that work well. It honours legacy and rituals, but it ruthlessly drops the obsolete. It celebrates individual contribution but the team is paramount. It embraces diversity because it wants different perspectives, not just representativeness. It wants people to have balanced lives because happier healthier people perform better. People enjoy themselves at work, not because it’s fun but because they enjoy coming to work to prove and improve themselves.

Sounds great, but here’s the catch. Culture is modelled not made. An aspirational culture has to be modelled all the way through the organisation, from highest to lowest paid. And it’s mediated through managers. When it comes to managing themselves, managing others and managing teams most managers’ skills are inadequate.

You don’t get to play in the performance culture game until your managers are competent at the basics of management.

If you’re interested in building that competency, see our Active Management Programme 


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