Organizational Culture

I am becoming increasingly interested in the culture of arts organizations. Spending as much time as I do now consulting to numerous arts organizations across the nation, I have observed distinct differences in institutional cultures.

While those who study organizational development and psychology have developed myriad ways to analyze the culture of institutions, I have my own simplistic way of evaluating culture: I find some organizations are fun to work with and others are not.

The fun organizations operate as a team of professionals. All staff members know their jobs, there is a healthy respect between board and staff, and everyone shares a common understanding of the organization's goals and strategies. When these organizations face challenges, they work as a team to solve them. They also know how to celebrate success together, reveling in the shared victory just as sports team do. And they are secure enough in their role within the organization that they are open to new ideas. It is enjoyable to consult with these organizations because one finds that the board and staff use any insight from the consultant as something on which to build, as an oyster makes a pearl out of a grain of sand. One leaves an engagement confident that the organization will continue to develop and prosper.

Those organizations that are less fun to work with tend to spend more time fighting each other than they do implementing strategies. There is almost always dissension between board members and staff, frequently leading to virtual paralysis. These organizations do not celebrate as a team; rather they each celebrate their own personal victories, often at the expenses of someone else within the institution. Consulting to these groups is not enjoyable; most of one's time is spent fending off those who are trying to make a point about the shortcomings of their colleagues. And suggestions from the consultant are used as weapons against those with whom they find fault.

The healthy, fun organizations are not necessarily the larger, better-funded or established institutions. In fact, healthy culture has little to do with size. I have observed small organizations with wonderfully supportive cultures and world famous institutions that are truly dysfunctional and vice versa.

But culture does have everything to do with the leadership of the organization, at both board and staff levels.

The great teacher of organizational development, Edgar H. Schein, wrote in his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, that "the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture ... the unique talent of leaders is their ability to work with culture."

Great leaders know that sustained achievement comes from a healthy, well-functioning organization. They take time to attend to the culture of their organizations. They empower their subordinates. They consistently manifest the values they hold dear.

This is why the loss of a great leader is so painful. Even though the basic strategies of the organization might not change, the work the former leader did behind the scenes "to create and manage culture" is sorely missed.