Do you have a company culture of elephants or penguins?


"Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." - Peter Drucker

You might have the best-laid plans. The most powerful strategy you've ever created. The problem? Your culture might be getting in the way of accomplishing your plans and realizing your dreams. Let's start with my simple definition of culture: your culture is the behaviors that you tolerate. A leader may preach a culture of excellence, and then tolerate poor performance. A leader may preach a supportive culture, and then tolerate "smart jerks". Do you have a culture that is more like a herd of elephants, or a waddle of penguins?

The difference between elephant and penguin cultures

When a member of a herd or waddle is sick, both elephants and penguins will form a circle around the sick member. But elephants and penguins behave differently when a member is sick. Elephants? They form a circle facing outwards around the sick elephant, to protect and defend her. Penguins? They form a circle facing inwards around the sick penguin. And they peck him to death. Think about the culture you have in your team or your organization, in regard to performance. When a member of the team can't or won't do their job, are you a herd of elephants? Do you and your team rally around the underperformer or the person who made a mistake, and help them? Maybe you even take this too far and you protect a sick member, an underperformer, for far too long. Or when a member of the team can't or won't do their job, are you a waddle of penguins? Do you quickly face inwards, turn on the person, and peck them to death? Full disclosure: I first heard this analogy about culture when working at Rackspace. I have since tried to validate the accuracy of the behavior of penguins and elephants, alas I haven't found proof yet. Whether true or not, I believe it is a great metaphor to help us understand and shift our culture.

Be a culture of elephants, but don't protect people forever

If you want a supportive culture that won't eat your plans for breakfast, I recommend that you aim for having a culture of elephants. This means you don't tolerate people turning on each other and pecking them to death. This means that you support people when they struggle or make mistakes. This also means that you don't protect people forever when they can't or won't do their job. What one behaviour in your company culture do you need to stop tolerating right now?

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