A few thoughts on culture | MBA Learnings

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Second-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

As part of my annual review process at the end of every year, I ask myself — “Who/what were my biggest sources of inspiration this year?”

It is a useful question as I think about all those people who’ve had a repeated positive impact on me. Inevitably, Seth Godin takes the top spot. I have been reading Seth’s blog for five years or more now, sharing his posts and thoughts here, and most importantly, revisiting his posts from time to time. Often, when I think of the topics he tends to write about, I realize that my definition of a particular idea came from one of his posts.

One such seminal post and idea is “change the culture, change the world.” This post boils culture down to one line – “This is what people like me do.” The first time I read this, I asked myself and all my friends (I think they got tired of hearing about this post within a week) — “What is it that people like us do?” And we ended up attempting to coordinate a “Mastermind Group” across three continents to discuss various topics that mattered most to us. We decided our culture was one around having conversations that matter.

The project didn’t work because of timezone issues, but it is one that demonstrated to us how much we cared about having conversations that matter. I have continued to implement that idea ever since — at graduate school, I have time set aside every week for a conversation that matters with a group of friends.

I realize now that my answer to the question about my biggest source of inspiration was actually incomplete.

There is one other person who has influenced me in a way similar to Seth – Clayton Christensen. While he doesn’t have a daily blog that I know of, his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” got me started on a path that has gone on to help me define how I live. I listened to Clay’s TEDx talk and read his excellent HBR article (which, unfortunately has been put behind a paywall) and I was again left thinking about culture.

Clay’s insight was:

“Ultimately, people don’t even think about whether their way of doing things yields success. They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision—which means that they’ve created a culture.”

Or, “this is what people like me do.”

I’ve written before about how you build culture in a team. Building culture and sharing the culture are two different things, though. While you might imagine any great culture would be automatically shared, it doesn’t work that way. As I have repeatedly learned, “build it and they will come” is fundamentally flawed. Our culture is built around “best selling,” or in the case of the Internet, “best sharing?”

I think the way culture is shared is by sharing stories. It is like the famous collection of Macy’s stories that talk about Macy’s employees who go to incredible lengths to please a customer. It is the Zappos person who was on the phone with a customer for many hours. Stories are powerful.

As I reflect on their power, I see the effect they have had on my life. In two days, I’ll be leading and participating in an initiative called “The Good Life Sessions” in my final quarter in graduate school. The Good Life Sessions is a three-part series of workshops that gets to the questions — “How will you measure your life?” through a series of other questions that help break that large question down. As you might imagine, there is a lot of Clay Christensen in the Good Life Sessions.

I also start these sessions, and pretty much any initiative I lead, by saying — “This might not work.” While I say this to myself every time before I take a leap, I say it in public generally to shocked reactions — “What do you mean? It should work. Do you lack confidence?” Those close to me understand it. Those who are getting to know me give me feedback about it and tell me I must stop saying it. And folks listening either love it or hate it.

This is one of those things where I choose to ignore all that is said and say — “This is the cost of me doing things. This is how I approach things and this is part of me being me.” “This might not work” is a Seth idea that embraces the fact that anything worth doing begins with an acceptance that it might not work.

As this example illustrates, Clay and Seth have shared their cultures with me and their cultures are an important part of my culture and how I operate. And they’ve shared this without us ever meeting in person. Clay doesn’t even know I exist.

That is how I’ve come to learn that cultural change is incredibly powerful. It is a big part of what I have spent my time learning about and pushing for during my time in graduate school over the past year and a half — to encourage more reflection, more conversation and more understanding. And as you might imagine, a big part of this is just attempting to be all of this myself — because that’s what Clay and Seth have taught me. You have to be the change you wish to see.

And most importantly, no one is going to pick you to make cultural change. You have to pick yourself.

Rohan Rajiv is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program and a Siebel Scholar. Prior to Kellogg he worked as a consultant serving clients across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He interned at LinkedIn in Business Operations and will be heading back to LinkedIn full-time after he graduates in June 2016. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on www.ALearningaDay.com.

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