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131. Leadership is (also) about creating culture

Half a year ago, we pitched doing training events for the Finnish Association of Principals. The Finnish schools are among the best in the world, and that means that many are looking to Finland for inspiration. Part of their success is due to their principals. But how do you teach “being like a Finnish principal”?

And who teaches them to become even better?

That was where we were supposed to come in, if things had gone the way we’d hoped. Someone from their organisation had been to a keynote speech Paul and I gave in Granada (at EMEC 2017), and had seen something we hadn’t realised ourselves as clearly, even though others knew it already..

Leadership is also about creating culture.

A good school principal (or any CEO, organisation leader, etc.) needs to be many things, but three things stood out.

  1. Any good leader needs to have some administrative ability. Not necessarily on the execution level, but definitely on the mindset level. If not, things tend to get chaotic. There are exceptions, but they’re rare.
  2. As a leader, you also need to be able to inspire and spar with your team. Whether it’s a team of five or an organisation of thousands, formulating vision, making decisions and communicating both are vital. Again, there are exceptions, but in general this is how it is.
  3. And last, but certainly not least, is the ability to create culture. This is done in a million small ways, but is incredibly important. In fact, it’s only quite recently that I’ve become aware of HOW much this means.

The Finnish Principals pitch wasn’t accepted. Why, we don’t know. Maybe some higher-ups weren’t convinced since they hadn’t seen us in action. Maybe they already had a solution in place. Maybe our pitch just didn’t hook them, even though it had LEGO figures in it.

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The learning didn’t go away because the pitch failed

But the analysis and the knowledge that we’re experts at creating culture remained, and I started looking into organisation culture and what that actually means. The more I studied, the clearer it became to me, that I’ve been doing things for most of my adult life that I didn’t even know about.

I’ve been creating organisation culture since I was a teenager. I just didn’t have the understanding to see it as clearly as I do know. But all those years of creating and running non-profits have been about that. Taking the idea of “What if I made my money doing larps?” and building a company around that together with Anders has involved insane amounts of creating culture.

It all pales compared to the last couple of years of international projects, where we’ve built culture more or less from the ground up. We’ve become very adept at it, and now we even know that’s what we’re doing.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

Wikipedia has this to say about culture:

Culture (/ˈkʌltʃər/) is the social behavior and norms found in human societies.

This is true for countries, for regions, for families and for religions. It’s also true for companies and organisations. And if we’re to believe Seth Godin (which I often do!), culture defeats everything.

To me, culture is simply “the way things are done around here”

If you want a company culture where it’s ok to make mistakes, make sure that it’s common to forgive people when they fail and to learn and move on. If you want a company culture where mistakes aren’t tolerated, come down on them with the fury of the righteous.

If you want a culture where employees feel ownership, make them involved and give them agency. The downside is that they’ll also feel ownership when things are going badly, and will worry more than they should.

Culture isn’t about better or worse — it’s about choosing WHICH better and worse. It’s about tradeoffs. And a lot of it isn’t conscious, unless we make it so.

I once worked in a children’s after-school institution (SFO in Danish), where we’d high-five each other as a greeting when getting into work. Whenever you got to the place, you’d go around the house and high-five whoever was already there. When others came in later, they’d do the high-five round and find you. It was fun. It was different. And it gave energy. Simple, but cool.

A lot of organisation culture is like that. Some of it is spoken (this was), and some of it is unspoken. Is in considered ok to make outrageous jokes? Do people bring their private problems into the work sphere? Do we see each other naked? Is it ok if salary payments are sometimes late?

Some parts of culture just happen — others are constructed carefully. When we do events, we deliberately create culture. It’s one of the reasons that we manage to take a bunch of strangers and quickly turn them into a trusting group of almost-friends who then become friends who play together.

One of the best examples is House culture at College of Wizardry

Every time we do the wizard school larp event College of Wizardry, we divide the participants into four distinct groups.

  • The Staff, who take on the roles of being Professors, Janitors and so on at the magical college. They run the show, teach classes and make sure that the school feeling is kept alive from the “adult” side.
  • The Helpers, who together with the organiser team, make everything function behind the scenes, and also play supporting roles (from werewolves in the forest to siblings on the run and magical newspaper reporters)
  • The Juniors, who are the new kids on the block. They start the event by arriving, wide-eyed and fresh-faced, at their new school, and spend the rest of the event getting integrated into this wondrous place.
  • And finally the older students, who are divided into five Houses (like Harry Potter has Gryffindor and Slytherin, we have Libussa, Durentius, Faust, Molin and Sendivogius).

The Staff is different every event. Sometimes they’re grumpy and sinister, sometimes friendly and cheery. Variety is immense, and usually a group of Staff members comprises everything and anything. The only factor that seems to remain more or less constant is their tendency to bicker and hang out in the Teacher’s Lounge while drinking something or the other.

The Juniors come in knowing nothing, and aren’t expected to either. Usually, first-time players choose to play Juniors, though there’s no requirement of this, and the veteran players gladly jump into the “I know nothing” mold.

The older students, however, are supposed to give off the feeling that they’ve been here for a year or two, and that their Houses have been there for centuries.

That means creating rituals, chants, songs and relations that make their House come alive and not seem like people have just met.

It means creating culture.

And unlike “real” culture, which is often created more or less organically, this has to be created fast and with purpose. Do we want to be a party House? Then we’d better have traditions that include a lot of excuses to party. Do we want to be bookworms? Then maybe putting up a scoreboard where everyone can see who’s making points for the House based on academic excellence is good. Do we want to feel like a family? Then calling each other brothers and sisters might be a good place to start.

A simple thing like colour does a lot, which is why we always spend time before the event starts on transforming the House Common Rooms at the castle into spaces dominated by the House colour. It’s impressive how little effort it takes to turn a reasonably non-descript hotel room into House Sendivogius (as shown on the picture).

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But what does all this have to do with leadership?

What we do for our magic school larp events is something that can also be done in companies and organisations. There’s no governmental rule that says that you can’t create a chant for your company, or a secret handshake. It’s completely possible to artificially engineer culture and spread it throughout an organisation. If you happen to be the leader of it, it’s even easier.

Many people look at admirable company culture and say “Wow” without realising that it doesn’t necessarily happen by itself. Sure, you may be lucky enough that a culture of respect, tolerance and empowerment just springs up out of nowhere, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Instead, taking matters into your own hands is the better way to go.

I recently had the pleasure of doing some consulting work for a big, multinational, billion-euro company. It turned out that one of their challenges was in simply getting people to speak the same language when they gathered. I was flabbergasted, because in my (much smaller!) company, we have people from eight different countries, so of course we speak English when we’re together. But then it hit me that speaking English is part of our company culture and we actively strive to uphold that norm.

Such a small thing, but with such a great impact.

And it’s just one example of culture in a sea of them.

Another is from the games company CCP, which does something I’m envious of and want to copy. They have an in-house band, and every year they produce a music video featuring they latest song. Their 2017 masterpiece “Come fly with us” is not only catchy, but also an awesome way of involving fans from around the world in co-creating something fun and cool.

In essence, it’s simple. In practice, it’s hard. But if you want to lead, you better realise that you (also) need to be a creator of culture.

If you like my writing, and want to free up my time, to write more, you can do exactly that, by supporting me via Patreon.

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=3351676

If you want to get into contact, you can find me at clausraasted.dk.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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