Everywhere I go I hear people use the word "culture" when discussing their organizations' internal operations. It is a hot buzzword and has great meaning in terms of how companies, hospitals or health systems work. When businesspeople talk about corporate culture, they often relate it to the institution's values, attitudes and standards of the founders or past CEOs.
It's nothing to take lightly, as the vast problems confronting corporate America show. Too many companies have win-at-all-costs corporate cultures that foster the kind of unethical or even illegal shenanigans we see in the headlines every day.
On the other hand, a sound organizational culture can elevate a company to a higher plane. It's simple, but because of its simplicity it can easily be ignored and forgotten. Think about it. Don't you enjoy some of the stories that others tell you about some of the characters and pioneers who came before you and how they managed to do incredible things by using their wits to land a big account or survive some professional catastrophe? I think most of us like to hear those tales because we want to know about the roots of our respective companies.
When I first started my sales career with Life magazine, I remember hearing all kinds of stories about some of the people who had made Life a great success in the 50s and 60s. They actually gave me an incentive to do as well if not better than one of the individuals who had preceded me at the company. Of course, Henry Luce, one of the founders of Time Inc., which owned Life at the time, was the one whom we learned about. His values and beliefs were a big reason why Time was so revered.
We were told he was a man of great integrity and principle and that he believed devoutly in the separation of advertising from editorial content in any Time magazine. His philosophy and his adherence to strict ethical values were what made Time a powerhouse for many decades in the publishing business. People dreamed of working there because of its traditions and culture.
Take a look at HCA and how it was able to overcome all kinds of problems a few years ago by getting back to the core values that Thomas Frist Sr. had engendered in the organization. It is a great story that could be told to members of a company that is on the verge of disaster to motivate them to get back to the organization's roots and move past its misdeeds.
Thomas Frist Jr., who returned to the company to help rebuild it, could be classified as the hero in that story, but he is the first to admit that he relied heavily in the darkest hours of HCA's turnaround on culture his father had fostered. That philosophy was the bedrock that Frist returned to and helped bring the company back to profitability and responsible behavior.
Then we could go back to the Tylenol crisis that rocked the great Johnson & Johnson company. As most of you know, cyanide had been put in bottles of Tylenol. When it was discovered, J&J's James Burke pulled every batch of Tylenol in the country off the shelves and didn't produce more until a tamper-proof cap was in place, costing the company tens of millions of dollars.
As a crisis response it was a stroke of genius and J&J's image recovered quickly. The reason for that was actually simple. The founder of J&J, Robert Wood Johnson, back in the early 1940s, developed a corporate credo that made Burke's decision almost simple. The credo made it clear that the first responsibility of J&J was to its customers and patients, no matter what the consequences might be. The credo and the culture that it has created over the years still makes J&J one of the country's greatest companies.
A lot of corporate culture is tied to history. Too many executives and consultants don't pay attention to what great companies did in the past. Too often we delude ourselves into thinking that what we are doing today has never been tried before or that what happened a few years ago has nothing to do with what is going on today. That kind of thinking is not only shortsighted, but it can lead to disaster.
I see too many companies sticking their heads in the sand or their fingers to the wind to decide what to do. But much of what we are experiencing today has its roots in things that occurred years ago. If you are concerned about changes in the Medicare program, you only need to look back two decades at the establishment of DRGs to see how hospitals can deal with monumental change.
So the next time someone tells you something about corporate culture or about how the company handled some of its problems "way back when," don't blow that person off. You may hear some of the best words of advice you have heard in a while. It might even make your job more meaningful.
Look back once in a while,