Decoding Organization Culture : Murali Nair

Leader: Murali Nair, FiServ, Ex-Zeta

What is an Organization’s Culture to you?

So organization culture, in my opinion, is something that is determined by the top leadership of a company. And what tends to happen is that different types of companies in all different cultures, based on what the leader at any point in time is.

For example, in my life, I’ve worked in several companies that were large and most multinational, and there I have seen phases in the way the culture in those organizations have evolved.

And when I reflect on what I saw in those organizations, there would be times when the organization’s culture would shift dramatically from being, for example, flexible adaptive, experimented active and innovative to rigid, somewhat less entrepreneurial and stuck without being driving innovation is all for example.

And when you think back on what changed in those times of flux, if you will, is that there would have been a leadership change, either the CEO of the company would have moved on and replaced by someone else or the entire top management would have changed with some key new people coming in to drive a new culture.

So, as a leader, the important thing that if you are in a position where you can drive the formation of culture, I think there are two or three things that you need to consciously be aware of and do.

  • One, you need to have a very strong HR sort of process built-in right from the word go, which firstly determines what organization culture currently prevailing in your organization is.
  • And secondly, do you have a sense of what that new organizational culture that you want to be developed in the organization is an articulated clearly enough in a vision statement, either in the form of operating principles or in terms of leadership principles, so that it leaves no ambiguity in terms of what you want the organization to be like.

A great example was one of the larger sorts of multinational network companies that I worked in, where the leader at that time actually wrote out what are called leadership principles, and then had those leadership principles disseminated in the organization. And those leadership principles were around how the employees need to act with the clients, what they needed to do amongst themselves when working together being collaborative, for example, it was also about the fact that they will always respect diversity, that they would you know, in some sense, openly communicate with each other, etc.

So, once you define those tenets of operating principles or leadership principles, then it becomes easy for people in the organization to understand what the culture is, and then try to align themselves to those behaviors which exhibit those culture because ultimately, what the culture is, is a sum total of the acceptable behaviors that are encouraged by the leadership and therefore, it gets embedded as the standard operating principle or the standard operating behaviors in the organization.

In terms of my own personal style, I like organizations to be built around teams, I don’t really like the idea of isolationist or individualistic, sort of approaches to do building organizational culture.

What I mean by that is that I think organizations succeed when there is genuine collaboration between the various functions when people really help each other to succeed rather than look at each other as competing…

The reward system has to encourage these kinds of behaviors in my opinion and only then that organization culture, that can get embedded.

So, these are some broad thoughts that for me are important in the way an organization’s culture is evolved.

I also think that organizational culture to some extent will be determined by the stage or the life stage of the organization itself. For example, in a startup, it is important to be really entrepreneurial, really innovative, flexible, and almost adaptive in the way an organization’s culture is built.

And the reason I say that is that, because a large part of your business activity in a startup is really around discovering what will work and being, almost not having anything rigid around the way the organization functions, because those are important traits for the startup .

Then the culture has to be designed around such principles, which means that people have to be flexible, that you cannot have too many boundaries, people have to be able to roll up. People have to roll up their sleeves, and be in a position to do, get their hands dirty, they have to be entrepreneurial and willing to experiment, for example. So these are some of the things that I think are important in a startup.

On the other hand, if an organization is scaled and becomes a steady state, then the kind of behaviors that you may want to encourage are going to be slightly different. You want to have somewhat of an organized sort of culture where people respect boundaries, people collaborate, but not experiment too much, for example, and they are happy with maintaining the status quo.

I would think that these are some of the tenets that I have valued. And if you are flexible, and if you are open to listening to your people, then culture can also be something that you adapt over a period of time.

And I think a good leader listens to people about what’s working and what’s not in their culture. And that’s another thing that I would think is important from ensuring that your culture is always evolving and changing.

These are some of the top of mind thoughts that I have about building organizational culture as a leader, you have to know that the buck stops with you. So you have to take an active interest in determining what the culture should be. And then disseminating that, and articulating that desirable culture in unambiguous ways, so that people can follow those behaviors, respect those practices, and then try to adapt themselves to fit in with that culture. Last but not the least, if people don’t fit into your cultural sort of boundary sets, then it’s better not to encourage those behaviors. And therefore, you have to sometimes be ruthless about making sure that people who don’t fit into your culture, leave the organization.

I think that’s about what I had to say about culture.

Thank you.





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