Why Openness is an Excellent Indicator for a Healthy Culture

One of my mentors is a big fan of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and while I haven’t studied Fuller’s work yet, there are a few quotes that stuck with me. Perhaps one of the most powerful Fuller quotations is this:
“True leadership comes from the willingness to admit publicly to your mistakes.”

Now, it would be thoughtless of me to not admit some of my flaws right away. After all, I do want you to think that I am excellent leadership material, right? For example: during the past 15 years I steered clear of Microsoft products. Not that I would call myself an Apple evangelist but over the years I became more and more convinced that Mac computers and their hardware and software ecosystem were superior to that of Microsoft. And in my growing conviction of being on “the right side” of technology I fell into the hipster trap.

Satya Nadella 2

Sure, I had gone Mac long before the iPhone and the hype around Apple. And I will admit that the Mac mania also felt quite reassuring; I had made the better choice of… well, of what: Brand? Technology? Fashion? Tribal belonging?

The mistake I made with my increasingly uncritical choice of computing product was that I lost openness to other options. I stopped even considering that there might be a different solution for my technology needs. And even though I have since become aware of my tunnel vision, I am still drawn more to Apple products than to any of their competitors.

Be that as it may, the point I’m trying to make is not about my purchasing preferences. The key point here is: Closing yourself off from outside impulse will put you in an echo chamber and chances are you’ll suffer from it. Microsoft was the perfect example for this. Before Satya Nadella took over as new CEO in 2014, the company epitomized the image of a stale giant which had lost its creative mojo and, as a result, was trailing the competition in growth and innovation. In today’s tech world there is an increasing number of people who would now use this same description for Apple.

In the past few months there have been several reports about the cultural shift which happened at Microsoft since Nadella was charged with turning the stale giant around. Most observers credit a strategic mindset of openness for the company’s transformation. The Financial Times recently wrote how Microsoft has found “a way to stay young and relevant.” According to Nadella the changes at the company are about more than making the numbers meet the projections. For the Microsoft CEO, the culture created inside the walls of any company isn’t just important, “it’s everything. […] Ultimately what any company does when it is successful is merely a lagging indicator of its existing culture.”

Anyone who has been part of an acquisition knows that, however strategic such moves may be, what makes them succeed or fail is how well the cultures fit. So most companies insist that the newcomer conforms to the ways of its acquirer. Microsoft’s approach is both harder and potentially richer: recognizing in its acquisitions the opportunity to reinvigorate itself and its place in the world. You could say that the cultural transformation at Microsoft has replaced fortress walls with a porous membrane: a dynamic relationship between the company and the markets it serves […]

You could also say that a commitment to keeping an open mind is the key to adjusting to cultural differences in global business. Without openness we stop learning. Without learning we stop growing. And if we don’t grow, we die. The FT article quotes Michel Van der Bel, CEO of Microsoft UK, who says: “Transformation has to start with you. […] Sitting in your office looking at spreadsheets won’t help you meet your numbers. You have to get out, talk to partners, to customers — directly. You have to think about: what have you done differently in your behavior that makes the company better? What are you learning?”

It is no different in global business: you have to get out and interact with your foreign counterparts. You have to try out different nuances of new behaviors. You need to practice the foreign language you have been learning.
And you need to make mistakes, admit them and learn from them.

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Comments 1

  1. As a lifelong Apple user, I admit to having developed tunnel vision in regard to technology choices. I believe Android phones often outperform my iPhone, but at this point, I am unwilling to switch my chaotic-enough life to a new platform. Is there a parallel to this in my cultural adaptability? While I would hope not, human nature is a hard trend to buck.

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