That might seem odd to many. After all, aren’t execs supposed to define and drive the culture? If they work late nights, shouldn’t everyone? Isn’t that kind of the definition of “culture,” even if we don’t totally understand what “culture” means anymore, especially within COVID?
That’s one theory.
But the deeper you get, it makes no sense for executive-level thinking to wrap its tentacles around the entire organization. Consider a few examples:
- “It is important for our culture and collaboration that the entire team sit here in San Diego:” Indeed, perhaps it is. But coastal is expensive, and simply because founders/execs are from San Diego, like Stone IPAs, and like to surf … doesn’t mean everyone needs to try and live there, especially given housing costs and potentially stagnant salaries. If someone can get their job done from Topeka, we should let them. COVID helped more people realize this (although I’m not sure who exactly didn’t realize it before COVID), and again, for the people in the back: we mostly hire employees to get work done. That’s why we still hire largely from bullet points instead of in more creative ways. The bullet points, constituting the task work, are what matters. So who really cares where you sit?
- “We grind and hustle. We do deals and we grow:” That’s perfectly fine for execs, because (a) that’s their job and (b) they receive incentive structures tied to that. For most people, answering emails at 12:03am does not do much for their career or their earning potential except they maybe get a few “Atta-Boys” along the way. This is the exec model of thinking that, when scaled, becomes stress and burnout. And because managers conflate “A” (get on the grind) with “B” (the cost of biz), most of them are not well-equipped to handle burnout.
- “This is fast becoming a data business:” It may well be, but unless the data is transparent and not hoarded at the top levels, the other levels throughout the org cannot do much to be “data-driven” aside from a few meandering, meaningless Excel docs that no one really looks at.
- “We are very passionate about social justice, committed to diversity, want to repair democracy, want to adjust capitalism…” Lots of execs take on a lot in their speeches and mission statements these days. It’s the Cheesecake Factory model of corporate leadership — 17-page menu, and most of the shit is done OK, but nothing is subsequently done very well. No exec is going to put “social justice” above growth, revenue, and his/her bonus structure. They’re just not. At lower levels, we just don’t have the authority to work on this stuff at a corporate level (an individual level, maybe, but a lot of that is woke-chasing or woke-washing). When execs say this and expect us to up and do something, it goes back to the burnout discussion above.
Work would be more functional if we had tiers and understanding, although it becomes very fraught with need for relevance, vocabulary, and various connections to work. Here’s what it could look like:
Executives focus on revenue growth, deals, big plays, and steadying the culture so that it’s a good place to work and there are opportunities to grow. They “own” bigger strategy, although ideally said strategy is developed at multiple levels. They increasingly allow for flexibility in their orgs.
Middle managers communicate, develop employees, and translate the big strategy into day-to-day, week-to-week tasks. They let tech “make the trains run,” as opposed to them doing it.
Rank-and-file employees do the task work and look for opportunities to grow and stretch assignments, which are ideally provided and endorsed by the middle.
Think any of this could work?
My broader point is that if we heap too much on the execs and expect those execs will demand the same of everyone (which is how we sometimes frame up “culture”), we all just run in circles for years and years.