History matters. It matters not just because we can learn from the past, but because the present and the future are connected to the past by the continuity of society’s institutions.
Douglass C North (1)
Have you ever been in this situation? A new leader joins your organization (or maybe becomes your boss), and immediately starts making dramatic changes in multiple aspects of the business, which result in the team’s performance actually dropping. Six months later, a number of those decisions get reversed or abandoned, and the organization struggles to get itself back on track. Maybe you’ve even been that new leader. While some transitions do require leaders to make immediate and drastic changes to an organization and its operations, many of the transitions we will experience in our careers will (thankfully) not have that same crisis-level sense of urgency.
So, how does this relate to the question of history? One of the major challenges that any leader encounters when joining a new team or organization is understanding the culture of the place. Culture is one of those concepts for which everyone seems to have their own definition. In spite of that, it’s helpful to see how someone who has spent their career studying corporate culture defines it. Dr. Edgar Schein, the MIT Professor and social psychologist who has written extensively on this topic, describes the foundation of an organization’s culture as being the basic assumptions and values that explain “why an organization does what it does”. (2) Those basic, and often unconscious, assumptions and values have been developed over time through the organization’s experiences with growth, adaptation, and learning. In other words, the history of the organization.
In their HBR article on making professional transitions, Mark Byford, Michael Watkins, & Lena Triantogiannis describe five key tasks that transitioning leaders must undertake to help ensure their success. Engage the Culture is one of those five key activities. They contend that understanding the values, norms, and guiding assumptions that define behavior in the organization as being a critical aspect of a successful transition. More importantly, they offer some sage advice for those leaders with a strong change imperative: “The executive must also walk a fine line between working within the culture and seeking to change it.” (3)
I’ve made multiple transitions as a leader over the course of my career, and I would have been more successful at those transitions (especially earlier in my career) had I heeded that advice. What I have learned from my own experience is that I was most successful when I tried to understand the heritage of an organization - what made them successful in the past; what are they proud of; what are the stories that people tell about the place. For a leader who is charged with helping their organization to adapt to compete and succeed now and in the future, the history of an organization provides a rich vein of information to help not only understand why the organization does what it does now, but to also look for the strengths, capabilities, and motivators that will help it be successful in a future uncertain world.
So, who needs history? You do. As the economist Douglass North notes in the quote above - history matters. It is a conduit that connects the past with the present and future. For leaders, history is the window through which one builds a deeper understanding and appreciation for the culture of an organization.
- Dr. Edgar Schein has written extensively on organizational culture, and his book
Organizational Culture and Leadership is a deep exploration of the dynamic nature of cultures in organizations. His 2009 book, the Corporate Culture Survival Guide takes a number of the key concepts of Organizational Culture and Leadership and recasts them as a toolkit for leaders.
- One of the aspects of corporate culture that is always hiding in plain sight is the role of storytelling. In his book
Leading Minds, Howard Gardner discusses the fundamental role of storytelling in leadership.
Institutions, institutional change and economic performance by Douglass C. North. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein (4th Edition), John Wiley & Sons. 2010.
Onboarding Isn’t Enough by Mark Byford, Michael Watkins, and Lena Triantogiannis. Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017 issue.