Book review: Culture Connection – How Developing a Winning Culture Will Give Your Organization a Competitive Advantage

This review first ran in the Feb. 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Culture Connection: How Developing a Winning Culture Will Give Your Organization a Competitive Advantage

By Marty Parker


What you want is an organization loaded with fully engaged high performers who constantly move the yardsticks on your strategic priorities.

What you’ve got is a workplace overrun with disengaged and all-too comfortable non-performers who expect more, give less and defend the status quo at all costs.

Moving from an entitlement to engagement culture may seem like an exercise in frustration and futility. But don’t give up the fight.

The answer to your prayers is in the stars, says author and CEO of Waterstone Human Capital Marty Parker.

If you want to know what elements of your culture to replicate and which areas to tweak or bury, spend time with your high performers. Talk with them, watch them in action and spot the behaviours they have in common.

“You’ll start to identify the kinds of behaviours that drive success – and that drive performance – in your organization,” says Parker. “Map and model their behaviour and you’ll have a true understanding of your culture.”

Behaviour defines your organization’s culture. And it’s leadership that drives behaviour. Your leaders must be the poster children for how work gets done and how everyone gets along in your organization.

Lack of consistency or split personality leadership is a surefire culture killer, warns Parker. “Leadership has an enormous influence on corporate culture for better or for worse. Leaders can kill culture in many ways: it may be marred by bad behaviour, made confusing by a series of different leaders over time or simply be unpredictable and inconsistent.”

High performing organizations with well-defined cultures have consistency at the top. Leaders walk the talk. These organizations also draw on a shortlist of tools to align culture.

“Every day, everywhere people gather for purposeful work and the culture either works or it doesn’t. It either enhances the organization’s strategy or works against it. It’s one of the two, and if you’re hoping for the former, aligning your culture is the only way to truly make it work for your organization.”

Performance management, recognition, compensation and training and development are among the tools that can reinforce and reward the right behaviours and align culture with your strategic priorities.

Parker highlights leaders and Canadian companies that have made a conscious effort to create winning cultures. One of those leaders is E. Hunter Harrison, who transformed the culture of Canadian National Railway. On his second day on the job, Harrison declared an end to early quits. Employees could no longer work for four hours and get paid for eight. Supervisors and officers who allowed early quits to continue risked pink slips. When told that early quits could be stopped everywhere but in Western Canada because the “cowboys” would shut the railroad down, Harrison said that’s where they’d focus first on ending the four hour work day.

“If you’re going to be a gun fighter and you want to develop a reputation quickly, go fight the fastest gun in town,” Harrison told Parker. “Take him on and win, and guess what – that goes a long way.”

Harrison set out five principles that served as the “here’s what we do and here’s why we do it” guiding principles for all employees. He launched offsite Hunter Camps where he talked about the five principles and the importance of leadership with small groups of frontline supervisors and middle managers. And he launched Railroad MBA, an 18-month training program to identify and develop CN’s future leaders.

Along with CN, Parker sings the praises of WestJet, Maple Leaf Foods, the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and TELUS. These organizations all recognize that culture is the greatest competitive advantage of all.

“Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage an organization has,” says Parker. “It is the only pure thing that differentiates your company thereby driving your performance. Your competitors can adopt your strategy. They can copy your innovations. They can even attempt to steal your clients or customers. But they can’t duplicate your culture. Like DNA, it’s a nonrepeatable marker setting your organization apart from everyone else.”

So if your organization’s culture is hard to define or in need of a makeover, folPublishlow Parker’s advice and start by looking to your stars.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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