No regrets on my Bachelors Degree in Anthropology leading not to far away lands, but to the jungles of Corporate America. Anthropology taught me the importance of a holistic view of my work and larger enterprise. The precepts of ethnography and observation combined with recognizing the importance of Culture has been critical to my approach to business leadership. Heck, I often joke that my direct studies of a troop of langur monkeys was a perfect training ground for life in a corporation.
As I think about corporate culture, I remember a time when subcultures dominated my working life. For some it was a problematic situation. Yet, through the lens of an anthropologist, I recognized how these subcultures were both natural and powerful and the best means to the impressive performance we needed during challenging times.
I managed a large department that peaked at over 100 employees. Our charge was to investigate mortgage loans for misrepresentation / fraud. For those in the know, too many mortgage loans were faulty leading to the financial crisis starting in 2008 and my company was in the middle of the storm.
My department had subgroups for Support & Analytics, Compliance Underwriting, Retrospective Appraisal and Classic Investigations. Our output was a completed file review and for every one we completed, senior management wanted ten more. No worries. Each subgroup did a great job and we consistently met our production forecast.
The story can end there … we got results. No need to dig deep to understand why. Yet, I am more curious than that and the anthropologist inside me wanted a voice. As I walked the floor each day I knew something powerful was at work. I recognized that my subgroups were better viewed as subcultures, distinct and very different from each other and these differences lead to our overall joint success. Here are some of my observations on why the subcultures worked so well:
Membership – Each person first belongs to his or her subculture. The subcultural group came before the larger department culture. This hierarchy of membership is challenging for many leaders to accept, but the subcultures were responsible for their own performance and held a strong sense of authorship of their work product.
Distinct Territory – We had to relocate several times and it was important to assure the new territory was distinct for each subculture. Indeed to the extent we could, we involved the individual members in the setup of their new territory … I mean, workspace.
Rituals and Rites – Each subculture had its own set of rituals and rites to further distinguish themselves from each other, and to reinforce membership within the subculture. This added meaning to their time together and aided their ability to work together.
Symbols and Artifacts – From holiday decorations to everyday workplace personal items, an outsider could spot the differences between each subculture. It was important to support these visual queues as a means to recognize each distinct subculture.
Language and Storytelling – There was a different pattern of speech and how each group communicated to each other. The stories, full of meaning for one subculture, had little meaning for the other groups.
For me no discussion on effective leadership is complete without recognizing the importance of culture and even subcultures to understand how people and groups perform at their best. I am grateful for the education I received first in school and then in the workplace where I got to witness the power of great work teams and their distinct subcultures performing at such a high level.