Culture – From the Top Down

I used to work for Scott Paper Company. (Don’t confuse this with the Michael Scott Paper Company.) In its final years it was led by a CEO named Al Dunlap, aka Chainsaw Al, aka Rambo in Pinstripes. Not a pleasant person. Seen at the time as a shrewd value-oriented CEO, he dramatically influenced the price of Scott Paper stock for all the shareholders. He also dramatically destroyed the culture. But he didn’t need to be concerned about the culture because he knew that eventually that wouldn’t be his problem.

During his tenure I was in a job I loved. I was working on a plant start-up and had dual accountability for the people strategy and part of the operation. I began to hear stories from employees in other locations about the cut-backs, the firings, the pressure that was starting to run rampant. At our location, we were challenged to accelerate everything. Make more stuff faster. Get the extra people you need. Throw out the equipment learning curves and get everything to capacity ASAP.

I had run other operations. What was great about this one was that it had proven, top notch equipment and we were hiring incredible people. It was just a matter of time before it would be out-performing any other similar equipment in the corporation. Only time was being trimmed away. Do it faster. Do it now.

George, one of our business VP’s, announced that he would be visiting and wanted to see the plan for bringing my unit up to the expected performance. The plant manager and I worked on the plan, and a few days later the three of us were in a conference room to review it. I handed a deck to George and opened the first page.

“We aren’t going to look at this,” he told me. “Because whatever is in here doesn’t matter.”

My manager and I looked at each other and then back to George. “What do you mean?”

George looked directly at me. Like a principal when he is delivering the sternest message possible. “You know the output we need. And I don’t care how you get it. My job is on the line here, and if I go, I’m taking you with me. Am I clear enough for you on this?”

Wow. The new culture was moving deeper into the organization. We had a choice to bring it into the organization right there, confront it, or pretend. We opted to play the game.

My manager stepped in and assured George we understood the urgency and that the plan will generate the result he needed.

One day later, we re-aligned the work in the facility, and a more experienced leader from another facility was brought in to take over my operation, while I put more time and effort into accelerating hiring and on boarding.

Twelve months later, Scott Paper was no more. We were acquired and given the type of support we needed. George was gone, and a short time later called my mill manager to ask for some advice on how to create the kind of work culture we had. He told him to go read a few books on the topic, because he clearly didn’t know it when he saw it.

In a recent episode of This American Life, a  program heard on National Public Radio, Dunlap was part of a story on psychopathy. He acknowledges that he has some of the traits of a psychopath, and he felt that some of those traits were part of his leadership capability.

The deal to sell Scott Paper came before the culture Dunlap drove  became pervasive. His actions, in fact, caused a whole range of subversive behaviors. People trying to give him the impression that they were doing what he told, like eliminating jobs in some areas, were themselves playing a shell game of their own. Why would they do this? Because they believed they could protect some of their loyal co-workers in the midst of crisis and adversity. And in many cases, their bets paid off. The culture immediately reverted back to it’s former state, and then gradually shifted to the culture of the acquiring company – Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

Culture does move from the top down. You can choose to accept and support the culture of your leadership. You can choose to campaign against it in an effort to convince someone that you have a better idea, which rarely works. You can choose to outlast leaders. This is an approach that many people take in regard to their supervisor. You might outlast, but that doesn’t mean you win. You win when you find a workplace that has a culture that is compatible with you.

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