For the past few months, Tesla shares have been trading at an all-time high, riding on the back of its founder, Elon Musk’s aggressive strategies and company performance results. For long, I have been an ardent fan of Musk’s, following his trajectory and observing his style of leadership. If last week he declared on the Saturday Night Live that he has Aspergers’ Syndrome (the second celebrity to openly admit it after Greta Thunberg), it kind of explains why he is so obsessed with what he does and shows very little or no feelings. Greta does the same way, in her own words, being obsessed with one thing which she relentlessly follows. What is also doing the rounds in the past few days is the letter Musk wrote to his employees way back in 2018 where he spells out his preference for work. Apparently, he hates meetings and large ones at that and prefers them only when they add value or something urgent is to be discussed. Stop using acronyms and buzzwords, he writes, urging people to use full forms of words. In another point, he stresses that communication must follow the shortest route without any hindrance, to be accomplished. Lastly, the letter quotes him asking his employees to stop following stupid rules.
Now when I see this letter in an independent context, I look at the kind of Organizational culture that Musk is creating, in effect. When the leader speaks about and urges a particular way of work, he is in fact advocating the culture of that organization. Or rather shaping it for better. I can only imagine how the employees of Musk’s work, whether they follow this advice to the T and whether they benefit from it. Had I been one, I would have loved these tips. And Tesla too.
Musk advocates a common-sense culture, where people’s focus is on innovation and getting things done rather than all the stupid rules that need to be followed because the rules exist and add no intrinsic value to either the work or the rule. This kind of advice may be unheard of from an older generation but is common of late. And see how it’s working. The leader sets the tone for this culture in case of Musk.
I have been a great fan of the Tata work culture too. In India, the Tata companies command an unheard-of respect, awe and admiration from the public and the government. I had quoted an anecdote from an ex-Tata employee Arun Maira, where Tata employees were exempted from being scanned by the airport customs officers just because they were Tata employees (who would, presumably, do no wrong). That is the kind of organizational culture that we’re talking about.
Nothing works better than a strong organizational culture in paving the way to a company’s success. I know of a small engineering company named Polyhydron, in one of India’s hinterlands in the southern state of Karnataka, where the owner Suresh Hundre, had vowed to pay no bribe and accept no favours from anyone. He stuck to it for over 25 years till his death a few years ago. The employees knew of this resolve and ensured that they did not entertain any demands from anyone about hastening the work under any pretext of bribing. Hundre faced many hurdles initially, delaying his work at times and antagonizing officers at others, but soon, word spread and rarely would one approach him with any of the above two taboo topics. His employees felt a sense of satisfaction working for the company and that lent it a different charm. So much so that he had done away with any supervisor in his company. All employees had their daily work chalked out and they completed it in whatever time suitable to them. When everyone is accountable for his outcomes, why do you need supervision, he asked.
Too many companies are flailing because they are a hotchpotch of employees coming from varied backgrounds and cultures and the company, itself bereft of any culture, fails to provide any semblance to the work that they do. No wonder such companies face large rates of attrition and find it difficult to attract new and talented people. If you observe closely, you will find that most of the successful companies, whether big or small, all boast of a strong organizational culture, set in tone by its leaders.
What constitutes organizational culture
It’s not easy to define and pinpoint. But it’s an amalgamation of several aspects, all of which function together to form a cohesive way of functioning. Organizational culture is a mix of internal values that are followed by every member, belief systems that give rise to these values, the way people and leaders function, both at work and off work (yes, it’s important that your organization’s culture is followed even when you’re not at work. How else would you believe in one?)
It is the way the organization addresses and responds to its employees without making an exception.
The organization’s connection with the outside world, including all stake holders like the government, the shareholders, employees, the way they do business with vendors and suppliers, their approach towards customers and pricing, with the media and the way the organization perceives profit and loss and the means to that end.
Over and above this, I would say that organizational culture is that whose whole is more than the sum of its parts. Your company must have a set of values and beliefs clearly demarcated and followed at all times. Along with actions that speak louder than words, intentions and communication play a key role in setting culture.
The onus of having a strong organizational culture falls solely on the leadership.
The Tata group boasts of a long roll call of leaders, not just from the Tata family but hundreds of others, including Maira himself, SumantMoolgaonkar (who brought about the successful Tata Sumo vehicle), F. C. Kohli (who started and successfully led TCS) and many more. The Tata group understood the importance of a strong organizational culture and promoted it tooth and nail. The Tata Administrative Academy in Pune in Maharashtra is a classic example of how great organizations take culture seriously. Young officers in Tata companies are trained here for future leadership roles. No wonder they go on to become exemplary leaders. The Tata culture of putting the people of the nation above everything else was seen during the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai when a few of them took people hostage at the Taj Mahal hotel (owned by the Tata group).Each one of the Taj employees stood their ground firmly until the last guest was safely evacuated. No one ever thought about fleeing, an obvious response in any other circumstance. So much so that Taj’s General Manager Karambir Singh Kang even led the rescue work until next day when a day earlier, his wife and kids had perished in the fire set by the terrorists on higher floors. His father lauded his efforts and asked him to hold on to his post. That is the kind of culture a good organization sets in place.
(Read the whole story of how Taj’s organization culture was in full glory during the attack in an HBR article here)
I sometimes think, what would Intel be had Andy Grove not been at the helm at the opportune time. Or Jack Welch for that matter, at GE. These two men reshaped the whole notion of organizational culture and ensured that it is shared by every member of the company. Culture is initiated at the top and percolates downwards. I have often quoted Ronald Reagan’s visit to NASA where he meets a janitor diligently absorbed in work. When Reagan inquires what he’s doing, he simply replies, I’m helping put man on the moon. That is the shared belief system that a great organization thrives on. It is not just enough to propagate an organizational culture, it must be exemplified by leaders and wholeheartedly adopted by each employee at all times, no matter what. These companies are based on values and never ever compromise on them. So when people see that the organization does not falter on its core values, they dare not try and break this. That leads to the culture being accepted and put in practice at all levels.
Remember, you may not show but people are watching. A leader’s behavior, attitude and honesty must always remain beyond exception. Set things in writing if you feel what you exemplify is not being noted by the employees.