The Importance of Cultural Soil

There is a troubled organization that is attempting to pull off a transformation. It is a school district with massive problems.   When the process started few people had hope.   At the outset Kim Cameron and I were invited to introduce the science and practice of positive leadership.   We did this on a number of occasions and our ideas were surprisingly well accepted. The transformation team committed to build and maintain a positive culture while engaging in the very stressful work of transformation.

At the nine month mark, we were invited to meet with the transformation team for the fourth time. At the outset the person who was leading said, “An organizational culture is like a garden, if the soil is toxic then everything in the garden dies.”

She went on to say that without a positive culture, a successful transformation could not happen. She asked people to report on their assessments of the cultural soil. A woman stood up and indicated that she had been working for the organization for a long time. Then she said, “I feel love for the district, I love the people in this room, I have never felt that before.”

The leader thanked the woman for the comment and then made it possible for everyone to assess the soil and share what they really felt. Some were enthusiastic and others were skeptical. She honored every statement and moved forward nurturing an entirely authentic conversation.

The participants were asked to share examples they witnessed of times people in the room exhibited positive leadership. One woman was singled out. She was responsible for the children in Head Start when the funding for the program was cut. In a seemingly miraculous manner she secured new funding. People referred to her as “the quiet storm.”   When asked to tell her story she was quite reticent to take center stage. People kept coaxing her.

Finally she made very a short statement. “In the crisis I discovered that everything I think, say or do matters. I learned to speak in behalf of the children. I made sure people heard my voice. Now when I talk people do hear my voice.”

The room went very quiet. It was clear that we were listening to a woman who had acquired transformative influence.   Other hands went up and other sacred stories were told. We learned of a teacher who donated a kidney to a student, of meetings that were full of appreciative expression, and leaders who in the midst of very dark administrative realities, continually focused on possibility so that their conscious optimism permeated the group they were leading.

Finally we heard a presentation form the senior most executive. He had spent the last nine months being thrashed by state legislators, local power figures and by the press.   He survived by focusing on one thing, the “good of the children, born and unborn.” He then reported that 92% of the plan proposed nine months before had been successfully implemented. I was astounded. He then said, “I believe in the power of faith, it takes faith and it takes a team to do what we have done.”

He opened the floor to questions. People respectfully raised real and difficult questions. He welcomed each question and an authentic dialogue ensued. What emerged was a clear picture of the still huge amount of work that was yet to be accomplished. In some other organization the challenges might have been seen as formidable enough to justify quitting. Yet no one seemed ready to quit. Because the cultural soil was right, everyone was ready to move forward.

Reflection

  1. What kind of cultural soil exists in my organization?
  2. Why is it necessary to take toxicity out of the cultural soil?
  3. How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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