But mostly, people come to speak at events like this because they want to. They self-select themselves to visible jobs that demand presence, personality and the ability to network -- and then step out and share the experience. They provide, for whatever motive they have, a glimpse at the talent pool and leaders in the cultural, social and governance movements that companies are suddenly spending on as if it meant their survival.
When people like this come together, it’s an instinctive affiliation, not the evangelizing so many companies find themselves doing today. People recognize their own ilk and what and who they want to work with. A big problem we are just coming to grips with is that our work productivity, role complexity and specialized knowledge has peaked at the very moment companies have discovered the need for people to socialize and collaborate as never before. It’s the corner we paint ourselves in as people hit their stride in jobs that were once designed but became highly personalized in their execution over time.
Behavior doesn’t change until the processes and the rewards change, and both of those things are fragmented and not interdependent as a collaborative atmosphere would create. In many companies, it is actually the culture that calls for a workaround.
It is stating the obvious, but a lot of social corporate engineering going on today believes it can overcome the tribal environs of workplaces. Most people know that’s not possible, and the institutional response often looks either politely ineffective or brutally so.
In the first case, it’s brown bag lunches and consultants who might turn up a likely leader or two but aren’t going to deliver a sea change. It can look like a school dance with the boys on one side, the girls on the other and executives hoping that nature will take its course. You might find some careers that deserve attention, but it’s not really self selection and it’s not a likely social movement.
The second method is the big stick and an executive mandate for participation. It’s more direct than the brown bag approach, and as Forrester’s Rob Karel pointed out at our last conference, more likely to produce results based on who writes the paychecks. But corporate political reeducation always invites incredulity and it can’t make people want to be at the governance table.
It also can’t ensure a senior executive who owns or sees a vision can back it up every day when they have many other things to tend to. So do the people who are being asked to spend 10 percent of their day on new governance or social duties they never had before. Most companies won’t fire or discipline the nonparticipants because of the other 80 or 90 percent of their job they’ve always done (and don’t want to retrain because they’ll first have to figure out what it is the person does).
Startups are much more nimble than big old companies this way, which makes me more surprised when the latter pull it off. Culture isn’t a movement, it’s an environment that allows something to happen. When you meet a change agent from a bit organization, they’ll almost always talk about executive backing. They work in an area where the pain or opportunity was such that the status quo was challenged honestly and openly. They’re also smart to begin with, and either the company snagged them off the market or was smart enough to recognize their luck and support and reward talent in proportion to the mission they were trying to take.
It’s a fortunate confluence of events that sets up a lot of hard work. For many, it’s simply easier to muddle through the business plan and shrug at the bureaucracy. You can look around and recognize the kind of tribal culture you work in. Whether you belong there is another question. Stepping out to a good conference is to see how the other half works, and maybe find a new tribe of your own.