Too Important To Leave To Chance

Distinguished professor at UC Berkeley Jennifer Chatman discusses what leaders can do to build a strong culture that aligns with their missions and yet also evolves as necessary. 

“Culture is inevitable. No matter what you do, your organization will form a culture,” says Jennifer Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Chatman was the plenary speaker on the final day of AACSB’s Deans Conference in San Diego. During her presentation, she emphasized that it’s up to the leader of any organization—including a business school—to make sure culture reinforces, rather than undermines, strategic objectives.

But for culture actually to help an organization achieve its goals, it must be strong—that is, pervasive throughout the organization and deeply understood—and it must be adaptive to change. Chatman’s research has shown that “organizations that are culturally strong and have an intense focus on being adaptive over time perform best over all measures,” she says. The organizations that perform the worst? “Strong cultures with low adaptability.”

So what can leaders do to build a strong culture that aligns with their missions and yet can evolve as necessary? Two things: encourage employees to generate ideas, and follow through with quick implementation. Employees usually don’t have a problem generating new ideas, Chatman notes—but they often don’t feel safe volunteering them. Therefore, leaders need to create an environment where risk taking is supported and failure is acceptable, so idea generation becomes common. Once ideas are accepted, leaders must approach implementation with a sense of urgency, realizing that the window of opportunity could close quickly.

For business school leaders who want to push for cultural change, says Chatman, there are four levers: recruiting the right people, training them, rewarding them, and being aware that their own behavior signals what is important. “How do you spend your time? What do you follow up on? How do you set your agenda? What do you celebrate?” asks Chatman. “These are data points for your people to gather what’s important to you. If you don’t supply that data, they’ll make it up.”

For all these reasons, Chatman says, she considers culture a leadership tool. Not only that, she adds, “It’s too important to leave to chance.”