What’s your ambition?

Do you have an ambition? I’m not talking personally – whether you want to walk on the moon, play the violin, or live by the sea is really a matter only for yourself and your loved ones. I’m also not talking about your career trajectory. I’m talking about the work that you do and the impact that you have.

It strikes me that we often make a big leap between personal ambition and organisational vision, but miss some of the most important elements in between. Most of us work every day, we attend a place of work and we do a lot of tasks – but for the sake of what?

As good corporate citizens we all adhere to the broader corporate visions and of course, we understand the role that we contribute towards them. But is there something else that falls in between? Something that operates on more of an emotional level?

For me that’s ambition.

When I work, I know what I want to deliver and I know what I want to achieve. I know what I need to do and I know the difference I want to make. It won’t necessarily happen immediately, often it takes significant time and effort. But it connects the work that I do to an overall purpose – it’s what is important to me.

I wonder what the power of team ambition would and could be, how it could help shape and form the work that we do into something that means and matters more. Not just about vision – that can feel too far away and ethereal – but something more concrete and emotionally engaging.

By its nature, ambition is big, bold and beautiful. It forces the mind to think beyond the immediately achievable, but to something that generates both sense of positivity and reward. It is worth the struggle, because it means something and it matters.

What’s your ambition? And how would achieving it make you feel?

Culture is everything. Everything is culture.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed tragic events take place on both sides of the Atlantic, under the shadow of separate political campaigns – the US presidency and the UK referendum. A brilliant piece of writing in The Spectator caught my eye, particularly the following line:

“When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged…..When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.”

In other words, those of us in power – whether political or economic – create an environment and people live within that environment. We therefore can’t and shouldn’t be surprised when the environment we create has an impact on the actions of people. On one hand it doesn’t create a direct line of culpability, but on the other nor does it allow immunity of action.

When I’m asked by leaders how you make a change in organisational culture, my first question is “how much do you want it?” Simply, are you willing to change your behaviour, your language, your interactions in order to help the organisation to change? Because it doesn’t start with posters, fliers and conversation makers – it starts with you. It starts with everything you do.

It is also the reason why I call bullshit on the arguments that corporate failures – such as phone hacking, financial irregularities and mismanagement are somehow down to a lone wolf or small groups of people acting without the knowledge of others. There is always someone who knows something that knows someone. And there is always, ALWAYS organisational failure and complicity.

When you work in a toxic environment – you know it. It just becomes the norm. You either get trapped or you sustain your efforts, hoping to be one of the winners. You lose your sense of compass and direction, but you know that it isn’t right. You just make arguments that help you to believe it might be justifiable and surround yourself with those that are trying to believe the same.

I know, I’ve been there.

And our organisations are part of the environment that people exist within. We form part of the air that they breathe, the emotions that they fell, the existence that they have. We have choices every day about the culture that we create and the implications of that culture. A million small choices that could make a massive difference.

I’m not drawing any specific parallels, I’m not trying to make any political points. But what I am saying is this; we can’t change the world, we can’t change the political rhetoric, we can’t solve the problems that have been created over decades, overnight. But we can influence the environment of our organisations, we can influence the culture, we can be more inclusive, more tolerant, more aware.

We can operate more successfully within our communities, we can reward the things that matter and we can be singularly unafraid to care. Every action influences our environment, every decision has implications and every person that we interact with will respond to that interaction.

In times of tragedy it is easy to sit in despair. It is tempting to retreat into the safety of the familiar to assume helplessness. But we’re not helpless; none of us are.  Each of us has the ability to act and influence those around us. And for those of us running organisations those actions can be felt far and wide.

The purpose of work

Ask yourself the question, “what do I live for?”

Your family, your friends, your lover, that glass of wine or pint of beer on a Friday night, to run, to cycle, to fly, to serve?

When push comes to shove, if you had one thing that you could keep in your life, what would it be?

My guess is, not work.

Of course, there’s always a group of rare individuals out there that have managed to align their vocation so completely and totally with their passion that they may disagree.

But not many.

The fact is that most of your colleagues, your employees, the people who serve you your over priced coffee in the morning, work for no higher reason than their paycheck.

Is that a problem?

The purpose of work is not to create purpose, but to afford people the opportunity to find it elsewhere.

You may find meaning in religion, Bob in accounts finds in his music, Brenda the CEO in elaborate pony-play and I might find it in the bottom of a glass. Who are we to judge which is right?

Our job is to create sustainable good work, that allows our employees to live their lives outside of work, rather than create an artificial environment of belonging within our walls.

Work is work. Just that. Nothing more.

And that’s absolutely ok.


Your corporate culture is dead

Do you feel like you belong at work? Do you want to feel like you belong?

What is the role of organisations in creating a sense of purpose and belonging? Is there one, or is it all a waste of time?

When employment was for life, or as near as, there was a sense of belonging and identity. Families worked for the same employer generation after generation, towns and communities were built around industries and employers.

But that time is past and now we move as freely between organisations as we do between pretty much every other aspect of our lives. And with the increase in those that work for more than one employer, can we really expect them to feel any sense of identity with multiple paymasters?

When people no longer come to the same workplace, from the same background or even the same country, can we really expect people to feel a sense of commitment and identity beyond the payslip?

Whats clear is that the way i which we view organisational culture needs to change. No longer can we tell people what our culture is and expect them to adhere. Like the condescending finger wagging of authority that we saw in the wake of this weekend’s rugby result, we can no more tell people how they should or shouldn’t react in defeat than we can tell them who we are as an organisation and how they need to behave. The management of corporate culture is dead.

Yet at the same time, people can feel identity and belonging without being present or managed into doing so. Beatlemania showed that you didn’t have to have ever visited Liverpool or even have seen the band to find some depth of association and belonging, Manchester United have fans that buy their shirts across the world without ever having set foot in Old Trafford. And of course, people are travelling across from across the world to fight and support ISIS without ever having any connection with Syria or the fighters that are there.

What does this mean? I don’t know. More questions than answers once again. But it suggests that the way in which we think about organisational culture needs to change. It is no longer a static managed product that is delivered top down, no matter how many bottom up exercises and listening groups you hold.

It is fluid, transient and needs to appeal more than it needs to dictate. It exists because people say it does and it lives because people want it to. It’s a sum of the parts of the hopes and dreams of every single person that wishes to exist within it is. And it is entirely voluntary, for better or for worse.