The Similarity Between Culture and Parenting

I always enjoyed the film Parenthood, from the late 1980s. Steve Martin played a guy who struggled with being the perfect parent (which is, of course, impossible). But there was a scene where Jason Robards, who played Martin’s father in the movie, gave a great speech about how it never ends. Even though he was an empty-nest grandparent, he was still parenting. There’s no finish line. There’s no touchdown, complete with end-zone celebration when you’re done. One stage ends, and another begins. You solve one problem, and some new problems emerge. It’s a good life lesson, if you ask me.

Workplace culture is the same way. I think there are a lot of people who look at culture the way Martin’s character looked at parenting. It has to be “right.” Outsiders must look at the culture we’re creating and approve of how we’re doing it. There is an objectively “perfect” culture out there, and when we get it, we will be done with culture work.

Nope.

Culture, like parenting, is a never-ending spiral. Hopefully that spiral will be with an upward trajectory—solve one problem, and then happily greet the next few problems that emerge. Rinse and repeat. But if you’re looking for the end-zone, you’re missing the point.

There will certainly be some metaphorical touchdowns along the way. There will be plenty to celebrate. But it doesn’t stop. In our culture consulting, we help clients identify a set of what we call “culture priorities.” The priorities are carefully designed to make a connection between what is valued in the culture and how that drives the success of the enterprise. But it’s important to understand that the priorities are, by definition, kind of temporary. These are the priorities right NOW. They may change down the road. We may need to shift. Once we set these priorities and develop some awesome actions to make them a reality, we are likely to discover some new problems, which might have us shifting our priorities.

And that’s okay. That’s the work of culture. That’s the work of leadership.

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