Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Culture – Do You Need It?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on June 12, 2013


What is your organization’s culture? Can you define it? Is it even important? Culture can be viewed as one of those wishy-washy feel-good ideas – put in the same category as handing out golf balls with the company logo and then easily dismissed. Mistake. Big mistake. Defining your culture needs to be the first thing you do, before setting strategy, deciding where to invest time and resources, marketing, hiring, or recruiting volunteers. Why? Strong culture = success and financial viability. Weak culture = confusion, wasted money, time and resources, and failure. So what is ‘culture’, how do you create a culture, and what happens when culture isn’t addressed? This is a longer blog than usual, but I hope you’ll stick with me, because the right culture leads to success.

Let’s start by defining culture. Culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”.  Culture is ‘this is who we are, this is our identity’. I will argue strongly that the culture is set, for better or for worse, by the top management, and especially the President or CEO. If volunteers or employees don’t seem to have a clue or aren’t doing what you envisioned, or if people aren’t walking the talk – look in the mirror leaders, it’s your fault. But it can be fixed.

A great example is Southwest Airlines, whose motto is “We are THE low-fare airline”. Low-fare, but the only consistently profitable airline and known as such a great employer that they received 23 times as many applications as they had job openings in 1996.  Why their success?  Every business decision, every employee’s attitude ties back to the culture Herb Kelleher created. We are THE low-fare airline, and we are happy about it! They have created a culture where people feel pride, even downright joy as people carry out their daily work. They are living the Southwest culture. Click here for an example, and watch at minute 2:22 for an example of how the CEO supports the culture.

Culture filters down from the top. If the CEO encourages (or doesn’t actively discourage) sexism, racism, fluid interpretations of the law, profits first/ethics later, or attitudes of ‘quarterly results matter most’, ‘it’s all about me’, and ‘screw them before they screw us’ – that attitude will permeate the entire organization. Ditto if the CEO is sending mixed messages, ‘do what I say, not what I do’. I’m all in favor of a strong bottom line as money is necessary to gather data and implement good programs, pay talented people fairly, and fund effective awareness programs, but none of this can be achieved effectively unless your culture is clearly defined and your top people walk the talk.

I strongly suspect that part of the current turmoil within Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) that I discussed last week is rooted in a conflict within the culture. Perhaps the purported actions at the top are not in sync with the culture within the individual clubs. Perhaps previous ideas about the role of women are changing within Australian society and SLSA is out of step. Perhaps attitudes about women in lifesaving are lagging current realities in general, not just with SLSA. I don’t know the answer, but I would encourage SLSA to look to their members and their leadership and see if the culture is consistent, take appropriate steps to mend any inconsistencies, and have the leadership commit to walking the talk, not as lip-service, but because they have created a culture they genuinely embrace, otherwise it won’t succeed.

One example of how to commit to changing a culture comes from the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the All-Women Lifeguard Tournament.  The Tournament was created in response to a task force which recommended that, among other things, Gateway National Recreation Area take measures to correct underrepresentation of women in its seasonal workforce, which includes surf lifeguards. The Tournament is part of an “innovative recruitment action” resulting from U.S. policy regarding diversity in the Federal workforce. As a result of this commitment, the number of women in surf lifeguarding at Gateway has steadily moved upwards, from zero. The Tournament also gathers substantial participation and positive press.

How do you set your culture?

First define your mission. Too often, organizations are confused, schizophrenic, trying to be too much. What is your purpose? Is it education? Training? Raising awareness? Teaching children? Teaching adults? Teaching swimming? ‘We are ending drowning’ is not a culture, it’s an end goal. Be specific – work with the words until no one outside the organization has questions about the meaning. It must be crystal clear to the general public, to people who don’t understand what you do. For example (I made this up): We teach swimming and water safety to children with a full range of developmental, physical and mental disabilities in a positive and encouraging atmosphere using best practices in education, child development, water safety education and swimming.

Second, pull out key attributes, your core values. In our example, “positive” “encouraging” “best practices”. Everything in your organization should tie back to these attributes. Does the curriculum support the attributes? The physical environment? The attitudes of staff and volunteers? And here is the tricky one, how do you get your funding or build revenue streams? Can you run it through the same attributes or are you just taking any money, and then contorting yourself to fit the demands that come with the money? Are you asking for support or partnership with someone like Southwest Airlines, which shares a similar culture, or from someone like Halliburton? (Halliburton does have a definite culture, manifested in it’s operations and business methods, but I’m not impressed with the questionable ethics they exhibit.)

Third, identify your target market. If it’s “children with a full range of developmental, physical and mental disabilities”, all your marketing efforts and social media efforts needs to go to engaging your target market and those who are involved with your target market. You may want to work with SwimFin, explore SKWIM® as a sport partner or connect with the Special Olympics. You might want to target mom’s groups, medical providers, support networks and awareness groups  and support their work while raising awareness about your work. Be creative, think outside the box to build alliances, but always run it through the filter, does this fit with who we are, our key attributes? Is it positive, encouraging and best practices?

Finally, live it. If you have chosen and developed a culture that fits the personality of the leadership and the organization, reinforcing the culture will require little effort and result in maximum success. If you haven’t intentionally looked at your culture, it’s not too late, but I do encourage you to take a step back and follow the three step process and then filter your future business decisions accordingly.

Henry David Thoreau said it best, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

What is your culture? I’d like to hear, just Tweet ‘@RebeccaSaveKids Our culture is (fill in the blank) http://bit.ly/17H2Nnw #stopdrowning’

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