Four data points highlighted the importance of culture for me over the last few days.
Let's take a look at them.
- BlogHer09 - I attended the fifth annual BlogHer conference in Chicago last Thursday through Saturday. It was fascinating to see roughly 1,200 women-who-blog gather to revel in the new-found power of feminine expression. Not only was I one of the few men at the conference (were there 10%?) but as a late registrant (representing a client who'd decided to participate at pretty much the last minute) I was unable to attend the full sessions, only the peripheral goings on known as LobbyCon (or, "LoserCon" to those of us relegated to this conferential nether-limbo.) As is true in any culture, BlogHer is governed by a powerful set of beliefs and norms, most of them seen but unexpressed. "Mommy blogger," "fitness bloggers," "Lesbian bloggers," "marketing bloggers" and others found ways to claim their respective territories, stratifying themselves according to audience reach, influence, advertiser attractiveness, and other characteristics indiscernible to relative newcomers/outsiders such as myself. I watched with Meadean fascination as women clustered with one another, performing subtle rituals of great evident significance, the true meaning of which I could only imagine. It was a unique experience.
- York Beach, Maine - I departed Chicago to join Karen, my wife, and our daughter Kristin's family in this quintessential New England family beach community. (Kristin is actually my step-daughter but that term sounds so alienating, as if our relationship isn't every bit as parentally significant for us both as one originating from shared DNA.) York Beach is an authentic hoot. Karen and I had joined Kris, Jeremy and our then-only-grandson Benny here a couple of years ago (we've all since been blessed by Caleb's arrival). It's the kind of place that has the repetitive rhythm familiar to sought-after beach communities up and down the East Coast. Rise early. Depending on the tide, stake out a spot on the sand/rocks (this is Maine, after all) and hang out. A few people venture into the freezing Atlantic (this is Maine, after all) but most of us simply sit watching the children enjoy their youthful energy, oblivious as they are to the joys, sorrows, disappointments and compromises awaiting them in much too short a time. Everyone knows the drill. No one decides to bathe nude. No one blasts rap. We're here for the York Beach experience.
- Zo-e Tribe, Amazon rain forest - OK, this is where things start to get a little meta. Yesterday, after a day on York Beach, Karen and I retired to our room and started channel surfing (Internet access? what's that?). Geeks that we are, we were instantly transfixed by an offering on The Travel Channel chronicling the story of the Zo-e tribe. The Zo-e are our planet's mostly recently discovered civilization. A missionary aircraft accidentally came across them in northern Brazil in 1983. 1983. Imagine. Zo-e wear long hardwood plugs, called "poturu" that extend through holes in their lower lips. No one knows why. Their tribe is known as "the marrying tribe." Their marital customs are mysterious to outsiders. Sometimes a woman will have several husbands, some of whom fulfill a role that we would call "apprentice," learning the husbandly craft of providing for their wives' needs. When asked about these customs on camera, one young woman simply giggled coyly. It was as if she were saying, "You wouldn't get it; it's a Zo-e thing."
- Amazon/Zappos purchase - You've probably heard that Amazon.com decided to acquire Zappos.com last week for about $887 million. Big deal. Amazon.com Founder/CEO Jeff Bezos decided to make a video explaining his rationale for the purchase. The key? Zappo's culture of "customer obsession," "invention" and...well, watch the video...it's definitely worth the 8 minutes. Point is, Jeff wants Tony Hsieh and his management team to stay in place and keep this culture growing.
OK, so here we have four examples of distinctive cultures: BlogHer, York Beach, Zo-e and Zappos. The commonality? We seek them out. We'll go a long way to experience them; be a part of them. They are unique examples of ways people relate to one another. You are unlikely to come upon anything exactly like them elsewhere, which is what makes them distinctive and valuable. In Zappos's case, that value is almost $1 billion. In BlogHer's, over time, maybe more.
The point is, does your organization's culture has nothing to distinguish it from any other? Does your store feel like just another store; your firm, just another accounting firm; your motel, just another respite?
Why aren't you using your most powerful asset, your culture, to make yourself extraordinary?