The Importance of Culture in a Crisis

“Communications and culture may be even more important than strategy and vision at this time.”
— John Chambers, former Executive Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, Founder of JC2 Ventures

John Chambers recently sat down with TechNexus CEO and cofounder, Terry Howerton, to discuss some of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on today’s workforce. While many points were illuminating, the candor with which John and Terry discussed culture was seemingly uncommon. A topic that can sometimes come across as trite in the workplace was touched on meaningfully. Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, when layoffs and furloughs run rampant and pay cuts are all but guaranteed, both share the sentiment that above all, culture matters.

As Chambers pointed out, those of us who joined the workforce in the last 12 years have yet to experience a downturn in our professional careers. During this conversation, Howerton indicated that “Having the right type of people around you and making sure you protect that culture fiercely is what gets you through these down cycles.” Over the past few months, I’ve felt an overwhelming amount of gratitude for my coworkers at TechNexus. While working from home is an adjustment for everyone, our team was quick to organize healthy touchpoints to regularly check-in. Daily standups to make sure we are aligned, weekly coffee chats, (evidently catered to the extroverts like myself who need some morning banter) and sporadic house calls from our cofounders made me feel recognized in spite of spending most days in solitude. Transferring the sense of community that exists in the office to working from home is not easy, but translates to: we care.

Chambers describes culture as a secret weapon, as it is often what people underestimate. Akin to a sports team, he describes how, “It’s so much easier to beat a team of all-stars with a team of very good players who share a common vision and a culture.” While Terry and John have seen this firsthand over the course of their careers building, managing, and investing in teams, this observation about unified team behavior is grounded in research. Google dedicated significant resources, studying 180 teams over the course of two years, to better understand team effectiveness. This recent article by Michael Schneider from Welltower details the outcome of the initiative that shocked Google Execs: compiling the best people did not yield the best teams. This research discovered that there were five team behaviors that ultimately enhanced the group: dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, impact, and psychological safety. Deemed the Aristotle project, this study reinforced the notion that, “The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.”

After listening to this talk and reflecting on what culture means, I think it can aptly be described as: to genuinely like your colleagues as much as you respect them. Culture starts at the top, and permeates from leadership throughout the rest of the organization. While we look to leaders for strategic vision and direction, in times of uncertainty, we seek compassion. And when the going gets tough…the stronger the culture, the stronger the team.

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