- Mike Willison
The wine industry has long suffered the slings and arrows of people both inside and outside that have cried a derisive, "foul!" at the sometimes prolix, garrulous and elaborate vocabulary that is associated with assessing wine. Even in informal settings it seems that haughtiness prevails when talking about, drinking, or recovering from wine. For many, the need to spout hifalutin prose and wild, complex gallimaufry leaves the casual consumer feeling like a sinner at the church picnic. A simple, "I like it because it smells nice," just won’t cut it when the chap next to you in the Savile Row suit is speaking in baroque curlicues that seem to wrap around your head in ornamental rococo poofs.
Watching football the other day I was reminded of something kind of singularly funny about American culture: I know the rules and specific vocabulary of football (e.g. "clipping", or "encroachment") because I have been exposed, from an early age, to the mores of the game. Even having never played the game in an organized league, I can engage in thoughtful and insightful repartee with just about anyone on the subject ("The Tampa 2 defense leaves too many uncovered gaps against a team with an accurate QB that can move in the pocket"- see, not bad). Whether sitting around with Dad while he hurls expletives and cocktail franks at the television or in a lively group, we are immersed in the culture of football, or baseball, or soccer, or scrapbooking, or whatever. The culture of alcohol, on the other hand, is regarded largely taboo and depicted as evil until we turn 21 and miraculously are now responsible enough to handle alcohol so we go around drinking energy drinks dropped in Bavarian Kräuterlikör and making out with that cute girl that sits behind us in Macro-Economics.
We should be allowed to have our fun. I am 100% pro-fun. I stand behind that platform at all times. If your idea of fun in smashing beer cans on your head then I cheer for you and will be there to drive you to the neurologist when your brain is hurting from dents and aluminum shrapnel. However, I also believe that if alcohol and wine in particular was introduced into our culture at an earlier age that we would find much more ease in understanding the complexities and vocabulary of wine. On the other hand I realize that people tend to skew to the lazy side. Football is spoon fed to us by our old friend the television and our Playstations and adults that still paint their faces while wine is seen as "learning" which is code for hard work. Who wants to work all day and then work really hard to breathe deep of the ancient terroir and painstaking winemaking process when the option of sitting on the couch with a handle of XXX is out there?
Look, every single niche has its dungeonmasters. Paper airplane enthusiasts have a forum online. Drinking and enjoying alcoholic beverages is one of them. I like wine. It tastes good. It makes me happy. I also like wine because it teaches me about history, geography, vocabulary, bio-chemistry, food science, and the simple joys of discovery. I choose this path. If you want to become the Lord of Lego Architecture, fine, but don’t get your feathers in a ruffle when I claim that the wine in your glass is pedestrian plonk ripping with TCA. I can’t make a nifty village out of little colored bricks, but I can make something that looks boxy.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
From a wine-geek perspective, I agree with you. I've chosen to make this not just my passion, but my career. I can, and do, write long, flowery tasting notes. But standing on the frontlines actively witnessing people read the tasting notes has put much of their bellyaching into perspective.
Wine is frightening to most Americans. As you've stated, European culture is more readily accepting of alcohol in general and the wine culture there is merely an extension of their food culture. But ours is a different animal. Wine has a special place of perceived sophistication in our culture. We can’t necessarily discount this or brush it aside as a puritanical holdover and require that people get on board or stop drinking wine.
The combination of the public's general anxiety and inexperience has allowed many in the field of wine to overstep the boundaries of decorum and slide right into blatant pretention. The wine-snob stereotype follows the same rules as most: there's a reason it became a stereotype.
It is part of our job to make wine approachable. This is the step too-often missed by wine professionals. In the case of the hifalutin tasting note, maybe using speech that isn't so unfamiliar would go a long way in educating those who haven’t chosen wine as their profession. Just as I would expect an architect to explain, in layman's terms, what she plans to build if I’m employing her, so I think we owe it to the people buying our wine to make the process as welcoming as possible. I, for one, am happy that not everyone has decided to become a wine expert. It makes for some powerful job security.
- Mike Willison
I have had a few great bottles of wine in my day. A paltry few. More often, I have had a reasonably good to fair bottle of wine appear at a perfect moment leaving an indelible memory. Time and again, the garish, Hummer wines of the pricing über-stratosphere tend to fall flat with a whimper rather than raise a mighty huzzah! While I do not agree that any old plonk sloshed into my glass will a happy occasion make, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the beholder’s eye seldom sees things similarly.
Take, for example, this last New Year's Eve. I celebrated at the home of a friend in what has become our traditional manner with great friends, food, drink, music, games, dancing, and mirth. At midnight we choose a song that makes us wrinkle with embarrassment or giggle with the happy, bittersweet reminiscence of good times, and pop open the bubbles (even though they have been popping for many hours). All the usual suspects were there as well as few less conspicuous characters of both greater and lesser dignity. Call it a coincidence, call it bad luck, but the thing that struck me as funny was that, as we cleaned up the great mess the following afternoon, there was a bottle of Dom Pérignon amidst the rubble left half drunk near some toppled beer cans and uneaten maki rolls. It made for a few good mimosas. What had apparently been preferred, as the evidence accumulated, in great, happy slurps was the Costco classic St. Hilaire from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Now, I admit we were enjoying ourselves and that our palates may not have been 100% keen throughout the evening, but there is little doubt that the empty bottles were the result of people enjoying the wine, again and again. Great wine, in this case, is merely well-made wine with little pretention or fanfare served in a favorable atmosphere.
"Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result." –Wilde
- Carrie Kalscheuer
Essentially, what you are saying here is that if one gets drunk enough, the "plonk" doesn't really matter. It seems that these are the "conditions" for the success of the Hilaire. So, as long as the eye of the beholder is, well, wearing beer goggles, things like "good" and "bad" don’t really apply? I've got to disagree.
Sure, I've had okay wine at a fabulous party, but it was the party I remembered, not the wine, and this seems to be the case with your New Year's fete. Did anyone stop to think about the wines as they drank them? I would argue no. A great bottle of wine shouldn't be confused with a great party. A great bottle of wine stands alone. It is something to be remembered, cherished. It is not something that is "consumed in great, happy slurps" by the case-load. Those are good bottles, sure, but not great. A great bottle is something that happens rarely, infrequently and in paltry few sums. That is what keeps us coming back for more. After all, if we were all content to chase our next buzz with any old swill, would the pricing uber-stratosphere even exist?
In the Spring of 2008, David Collis, then of Harvard, and the late Michael Rukstad, coauthored an article in the Harvard Business Review titled Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? Professors Collis and Rukstad challenged executives to distill the objective, scope and advantage of their business to 35 words or less. In the research leading up to the article, they found that few people could and offered the obvious conclusion that if they couldn’t, neither could anyone else.
The business one really is in is often not the same as the business one is apparently in. Many years ago, after acquiring Taylor Wine Company, Coca-Cola subsequently purchased Sterling Vineyards with the idea of vertically integrating into fine wines. While Taylor had successfully fit Coca Cola’s business model, the Sterling acquisition was a misadventure.
Why? Because while Coca Cola well understood that its distribution capability was a core strategic asset, it neglected the fact that it was not adaptable to every beverage. Whereas, Coke, Sprite, Taylor wines and Minute Maid beverages all had common channels in supermarkets and the growing convenience store segment, fine wine was not sold in these channels. It was a classic example of over-estimating the scope of one’s strategic assets.
Similarly, Harry & David, the longtime mail order provider of elegant fruit gift baskets, decided to enter the direct retail segment and opened stores in upscale boutique malls, a move that contributed to the company’s ultimate bankruptcy. Harry and David forgot when and why people bought their products. Potential customers kept the Harry & David catalog on hand and, as needed, ordered gift baskets to be shipped. Besides incurring the learning curve of competing in direct retail, Harry & David failed to consider that shoppers will tend to focus on items that can only be purchased in that particular venue. Thus, the retail outlets became redundant as customers still went home to order by catalog rather than squander shopping time at their favorite boutique before having to pick the kids up at school.
Retailers long ago realized that they were in the business of buying and selling goods. They only needed access to a storefront—they didn’t need to own it. Before that, airlines determined that they were in the business of quickly moving people from one point to another. (Remember, I’m talking about a long time ago.) Similarly, airlines didn’t need to own aircraft but only have access to them. Thus were born the commercial real estate and equipment leasing businesses. Someone’s back office is always someone else’s front office.
Nuances of what seems to be the same business strategy can make the difference between success and failure. Blockbuster designed and marketed itself as a neighborhood storefront provider of films on CD and cassette. Netflix structured and positioned itself as a distributor of films. In this critical distinction, Blockbuster went the way of the telegraph and fax machine, its strategic assets fixed in a passing technology. Netflix, by keeping its focus on being able to most efficiently distribute emerging technologies such as streaming, continues to sidestep obsolescence.
Because of the warp speed of technological change, high-tech companies tend to have short shelf lives. For example, when laptops first emerged, competitive advantages were about speed and performance. Now it’s about battery life and wireless connectivity.
Few companies have the ability to adapt beyond their initial advance or subsequent enhancement thereof; far fewer have the ability to remake themselves completely. In the 90’s as the world moved away from mainframes and stand alone mini-computers to PC’s and server based technologies, IBM was slow to adapt and many gave the company up as a relic. However, IBM was using its considerable resources to carefully determine what business it could endure in.
So while most incumbents in the computer industry chose to compete in the soon-to-be commodity market for personal computers, IBM looked for opportunities where it could create entry barriers with its advantage of enormous cash and technical resources. The result was that while IBM nominally competed in the PC market, it turned its greater attention to developing complex control systems for such diverse applications as manufacturing plants, refineries, railroad traffic and urban traffic management. In this instance, IBM redefined itself from a manufacturer of computer hardware to a provider of software-based solutions for complex systems without regard to an applications niche. Thus, like Netflix, it avoided the trap of technological obsolescence by creating a strategy that naturally evolved with emerging technologies—whether it created those technologies or not.
The underlying principle—for better or for worse—of these examples is the importance of understanding a company’s strategic advantages and how best to deploy them to create entry barriers and sustainable competitive advantage. Most companies nominally define the business they are in which tends to foster obsolescence or misguided expansion. Blockbuster failed to account for the shelf life of its business model while Harry & David forgot when and where people buy. On the other hand, Netflix and IBM matched their business strengths and strategies to the reality of technological and market development.
Part II will look at how this applies to the wine industry.
The first viticulture book I read was written by an Australian named John Gladstone, Viticulture and Environment. It goes into depth defining climate, what influences climate, climatic indices and their relative effect on viticulture. The book also compares climates from wine growing regions from around the world. He does a fantastic job of defining climate by spatial scale.
Why does this matter? In any given vintage there is talk about the macroclimate but the day-to-day considerations and efforts to farm the best quality fruit deal with the meso and microclimates. The meso and microclimates dictate how each site is farmed, taking into consideration the climactic characteristics that make each site unique.
There are three spatial scales that are generally recognized: Macro, Meso and Mircroclimates.
The macroclimate broadly defines the climate of a region. Most of the time this describes the general climate pattern from a recording station. Its scale is from tens of miles to hundreds of miles. Examples of macro climates are the Willamette Valley (figure 1), the Rogue Valley and Eastern Oregon.
Mesoclimate is described as the climate of a site as influenced by elevation, aspect, slope or distances from large bodies of water. Its scale extends from tens of yards to miles depending on the consistency in topography. Mesoclimate is often referred to as Topoclimate for it’s the topographic influence on a site’s climate (figure 2).
Microclimate is the smallest scale of climate. Its scale is from tens of yards to millimeters. Examples include conditions behind windbreaks, near trees (figure 3), around the vine canopy and inside the canopy. Humans manipulate vine canopy microclimate with trellis systems, shoot positioning, leaf and lateral removal (figure 4). Manipulating canopy microclimate alters disease pressure, fruit composition and fruitfulness of shoots.
- Mike Willison
Men are, most assuredly, pretty ridiculous. We make bold statements, wild protestations, and haughty, puffed-up pectoral peacockings when challenged, yet willow into teary puddles of emotional melancholy over the slide of our fantasy baseball team in the daily standings. We believe that we are being watched. We think that everyone cares what we are up to and that there is some greater good we are upholding by our actions. For whatever reason, the behaviors of men, so we believe, are responsible for the reputation of Man.
Someone that knows more about anthropology than I will probably confirm this right away, but I believe that if you were to compare men and women to wild animals, the men would be pretty close to the genuine article; Maybe even un-evolved or dis-evolved. Our nature as hunter-gatherers remains somewhat unchanged in spite of the world advancing around us. Men have a need to look as if we have caught our food and drink in a trap made out household items and semi-precious poisonous gems we dug up in the back yard. We are dirty and have gilded and horned helmets. We throw the javelin. Our drinking pinkies have been forced up through a series of cruel and unusual experiments that have been foisted upon us by the publishers of Harper's Bazaar and makers of cream colored paper. We tape our pinkies down or have them broken in ritual ceremonies. The color of blood satisfies us, and our drink must be a reflection of this.
Maybe more important than even all of this is that we brutish men like to be right all of the time about everything. With wine, we are only comfortable remembering a small number of things about a minute couple of things only, and everything else is sissy juice. Big red wines look like blood and are obvious, chewy, imposing and good with steak when consumed young, and I am comfortable saying things like, "Cab" at restaurants without the emasculating Sommelier saying something like, "it's called MOO-ler TER-gow." Wild animals.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
The evolution of the American palate has much to do with gender. Alcohol, in particular, has some very deep social roots. As soon as alcohol becomes a part of the picture, whether you were a law-abiding 21 years old before your first drink, or a teenage heathen like me, there's no denying the immediate division between the sexes and their choice of beverage. I, and all of my J-Crew-clad girlfriends, drank lemonade-flavored wine coolers. My boyfriend on the other hand, drank beer and whiskey. Neither of his choices was made because he liked the taste.
It’s sort of an early trial-by-fire for the palate. Things we would probably ease into naturally (like going from tea to coffee or from cheddar to Roquefort) are thrust upon men earlier, setting the stage for rougher, heartier alcohol preferences, and making a man’s journey into the wine world a bit backwards. Women, on the other hand, tend to start with the sweeter styles, move into light white territory, then ease into the big, burly Shirazes of Australia.
Although the impetus is the same, the reasons that men shy away from white wines becomes two-pronged: whites are more closely associated with what women drink (oh no!), and their manly palates are used to the harder stuff. And it is unfortunate- nay, frustrating- as some of the best wines in the world are white. Riesling, for example (which, to further drive home the point is often done in a sweet style) is largely considered to be the most noble of the noble grapes.
Theories aside, the persistence of the white wine stigma is annoying. Trust me, men- your attractiveness is not determined by the color of the wine in your glass. If you are drinking wine, I view you as cultured, sophisticated. And if you are drinking white wine, I view you as self-assured, unfazed by ridiculous social norms and ultimately, sexy.
- Mike Willison
One of the reasons that a great cheeseburger is so wonderful has to do with balance. The fat of the cheese, meat, and mayonnaise is offset by the tang of vinegar from pickles, ketchup and mustard, and salt from the seasoning. Other ingredients provide textural complements like crunchy lettuce or snappy tomatoes, while bacon sways the balance again with fat and salt and is often paired with something spicy like chipotle. While there are many ways to ruin a perfectly good cheeseburger (the indignity of medium-well and beyond, for example) I find that the choice of bread and how it is handled can make or break the entire deal. Soggy, too crusty, sweet and aromatic, or worst yet, absent. The bun is both the Achilles heel and the keystone in a well-balanced burger.
Making a good burger isn't all that challenging. Making a great burger has its difficulties but, as in many things, a little sustained initiative and practice should produce the desired results. So it is with pairing food and wine. It isn’t magic but rather it addresses the same constructs as does making a proper cheeseburger; most notably balance. If I am faced with a butter-poached lobster, what it is lacking is the vibrancy of acid. Squeeze a lemon on it, or enjoy a racy glass of Pinot Gris to begin to understand how the balance works.
Imagine a gloppy bowl of cheese dip. Now imagine how it turns your mouth into a slow-motion astronaut walking on planet mud puppy. Ask yourself, "What am I going to do about this viscous glob of deliciousness in order to prepare my palate for another heaping chipful?" Perhaps you will consider the brisk, cleansing sizzle of a carbonated beverage. The more sophisticated palate might apply the same principle to a delicious beer or a sparkling wine. It works because it creates a balance between the goo of the fat and the zoinks of the fizz. Wine is really just food, full of all of the same elements and more, that make the balancing act of cooking and eating so compelling, fun, and surprising.
Culinary genius is spawned of centuries of trial and error using the simplest ingredients in myriad ways, many of which were pretty lousy, like Spam or Chipped Beef. One need only to look at how many French dishes are basically scrambled eggs gone wrong to realize that the good ones stick around. So try a plump white wine with an arugula salad or black olives with marshmallows and see what comes of it.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
Why does it have to be so technical? That's a lot to remember when standing in the supermarket aisle. Personally, it is an easy task- all I need to know is what I'm in the mood for. Who cares if I want red wine with fish? I've had many an enjoyable Syrah with salads. Sure, choosing one’s dinner and accompanying wine based on whim or mood might not create rare transcendent moments of taste bud bliss, but it needs to be said that one’s personal tastes are just that – personal.
Food and wine pairing isn't for jerks, it's just not something that needs to be so dang complicated.
Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.” A marketing organization with which I am familiar recently averred this maxim in its search for a new director.
After the departure of the organization’s first director, a search sub-committee of some nine people was formed to hire a successor. That successor lasted seven months. With no coherent marketing plan in place and the organization in disarray, the board recognized the need to bring in an expert who had built similar organizations and who could develop a comprehensive marketing plan. Logically, the assignment would extend to hiring a director who could execute that plan.
However, rather than relying on his expertise, the board reconvened another nine-person committee, made up of competing business and regional interests. Such partiality cannot help but become a Petri dish for breeding political self-interest.
Rather than permit a single individual, no matter how capable, to determine the outcome for all, success was sacrificed to control. Ironically, of course, with such attenuated power, no individual or bloc ever achieves control. As a result, the “winning” candidate is something of a chameleon, able to adapt to the prevailing environment. This yes man succeeds by offending no one and, in turn, accomplishes nothing beyond political survival as competing interests strain against one another rather than vectoring toward common purpose.
This is perhaps the most virulent strain of committee bacteria. More prevalent is the low-level infection that spreads through an organization and gradually vitiates resource and innovation. Individual initiative is subsumed to institutional inertia, sacrificing accountability and responsibility along with enterprise and creativity.
A to Z has 42 full-time staff. We have a safety committee of six people which meets once a month and a facilities committee of four which meets bi-weekly to walk the winery to discuss maintenance and capital issues. There is a monthly all staff gathering and maybe half a dozen other regularly scheduled meetings. Otherwise, people get together on an ad hoc basis as needed.
Committees directed at tangible issues such as safety and facility conditions can be useful as multiple eyes may see hazards or maintenance problems that one set of eyes might overlook. However, when perpetual committees are formed to address the qualitative considerations of the business such as marketing, sales strategy, product design or manufacturing specifications, discussions inevitably become diffused in the repetitive humdrum, resulting in a loss of focus and expertise.
Companies that keep committees in particular, and meetings in general, to a minimum have a much better chance of creating and maintaining a culture of initiative and ownership of responsibility. Entrepreneurial businesses rely on “skunk works” or loosely structured groups to think innovatively about the business. That innovative impulse not only makes creative problem solving the norm of the organization but also engenders inherent objectivity. Finally, organizations that rely on committee decision-making tend to be more bloated as that decision process is drawn out by the urge to consensus while those with a culture of results-driven autonomy are more streamlined and hence, relatively more profitable. Besides, they are more fun places to work.
- Mike Willison
"Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent, as the figure, the body, the reality of sin."
Hawthorne recognized the importance of brand recognition all too well. The big "A" on Hester Prynne was quickly identifiable to anyone within eyeshot of her as a sinner that had earned their sideways glances and private mutterings. Of course the book reveals all manner of duplicitous behavior on the part of ministers and husbands pretending to be doctors and Prynne, too, and in the end she is not forgiven for her behavior. Rather, Prynne is buried with a headstone that simply has the letter "A" carved into it, forever immortalizing her in shame and sinful behavior.
An easy solution to the greenwashing of the wine industry would be to require that wines made using conventional farming and heaps of chemical yuck-yucks should be required to put something on their labels announcing their many sins. May I suggest a scarlet picture of a bottle of Round-Up? Maybe a skull and Crossbow (bad chemical pun here for you nerdy types)? As a consumer, I too am frustrated by the NASCAR-ing of wine labels, proudly announcing how many certifications they have to signify that they aren't killing the planet with a sticker here and a logo there. Well, bully for you. Good job not being a jerk.
It seems that too many people are quick to pat themselves on the back for doing the right thing. Maybe it is time we start getting a bit more dark and stormy on everyone and work on our campaign of fear. Chances are, the industry will respond pretty quickly and the Shangri-La we all imagine will become a reality.
- Carrie Kalscheuer
The greenwashing of wine continues to be a thorn in my side. As "organic" turns into "sustainable" turns into "biodynamic," I wonder where it all will end. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for preserving the environment. I drive a hybrid, recycle and support local and organic farming. But I don’t need to tattoo these facts to my forehead. The blatant self-promotion of all things green is disheartening. Instead of wanting to preserve Mother Earth for the sake of Mother Earth, becoming green is now trendy.
And the worst part is that this marketing has become necessary. Unless a wine bears some type of "organic" label, the average consumer thinks he is drinking pesticide-laden, environment-depleting swill. This type of advertising is often misleading. Wines made "organically" aren't necessarily better for the environment. Pesticides are traded for natural fertilizers, which still produce a high amount of greenhouse gases. Wines made "organically" are often unstable due to lack of preservative use, making for bad wine. The list goes on.
It’s also largely an American problem. Traditional vineyards in the age-old wine regions in France don’t need this type of advertising. They’ve shunned it in most cases, in fact, although they largely farm much more organically than the restrictions of organic certifications would allow. This seems infinitely nobler to me. We should all be farming this way – both out of respect for the environment and for the simple desire to make good wine. In addition, with global warming looming on our collective horizon, it just makes good sense to farm with extreme care. The world’s wine regions are steadily becoming warmer. A vintner who doesn’t wish to stave this eventuality off at all costs would be idiotic.
Green should just be done, not talked about. It should be the norm, not the exception that requires those few who adhere to certain regulations to become "certified" to prove their commitment to the earth. In the same manner that I don’t find it necessary to advertise my commitment to sustainable practices by covering my vehicle in bumper stickers which scream "Buy Local!" and "Ban the Bag!," I don’t want the wine I drink to find it necessary to advertise their commitments to the environment on their bottles in order to compete for sales.
Probably one of my favorite place in Oregon is the Columbia Gorge. The fast flowing rivers, the dramatic cliffs, water falls and the forever blue sky’s never cease to take my breath away. As you drive east from Portland the landscape changes from dense conifer to woodland forest then to semi arid scrubland. This change in landscape starts around Hood River and continues to become more dramatic as you drive east. The influence of the Cascade mountain range is more than just physical presence. When the frontal systems roll in from the Pacific Ocean the moisture laden air has to ascend the mountains to continue east. As it ascend the temperatures get colder until the water turns from vapor to rain. This type of rain is dubbed Orographic. One thing that is typical of Orographic rainfall is that one side of the mountain range is always wetter than the other. In this case Portland is on the wet side and Hood river is at the cusp of the dry side.
Today I was visiting one of our growers in Mosier which is about 10 miles east of Hood River. Thanks to the Cascade mountain range the climate out there is warmer, drier and sunnier than the Willamette valley. These factors; sunshine and temperature make it great for growing grapes of many origins. It has enough sunshine hours and heat units to ripen Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah and Tempranillo just to name a few.
Summer may be warmer and sunnier than the Willamette valley but winter is much colder. The vines come out of dormancy about a week later. Spring conditions help the vines overtake the WV so fast that flowering in Pinot Noir was a week ahead! Right now they are about 2 weeks ahead and I was seeing the first signs of veraison. The berries are softening, accumulating sugar and changing color. Last year veraison started around the same time 8.18.2011. If it takes approximately 40 days from 50% veraison to harvest we should be picking in the first week of October.
Every year, The Wall Street Journal features a contest called Winning Workplaces to highlight outstanding small companies. When one reads profiles of the winners, the criteria for selection focus on such things as training, a hands-on work ethic, wellness programs, open book policies and sustainability. Rarely, if ever, is the overall culture addressed.
I suppose the reason is that company culture is hard to define, harder than say that of a sports team or an orchestra where the narrowness of objective tends to attract similar personalities and correspondingly creates cultural constraints. In a company, the diversity of disciplines, from engineering to finance to HR to marketing, attracts a corresponding diversity of personalities. To have a fulfilling environment for this breadth of individuality, the company culture itself must be broadly defined.
We have all heard ad nauseum of companies where “We are family here.” More often than not, that becomes euphemistic for “Your first devotion is to us.” This is not culture but rather, cult, where only those who adhere to the tribal ethic will thrive and prosper. Cult most often orbits about a patriarchal star—less matriarchal as women tend to subsume ego better—or a military work ethic.
Organizations that revolve around cult are more susceptible to ethical breaches as blind loyalty becomes a surrogate for a charter of principles as a foundation. There is also usually a revolving door of employment as whatever might be defined as culture most resembles junior high where one is either in or not and, if not, relegated to insignificance in the company.
Culture, on the other hand, a priori must be inclusive. While hierarchy is necessary to the management of an organization, that verticality must be complemented by the horizontality of culture. While perhaps not as whimsical as a cult-driven organization, one that defaults to chain of command is equally stultifying. An effective culture is, in many ways, independent of a management hierarchy. It is a set of tacitly understood principles—strategic, ethical, social, philosophical—that define the scope of the organization’s activities.
If these principles—different than policies—supersede individual arbitration, the culture not only creates a fulfilling environment for a wide range of people and skills but also instills a climate of self-management where the participants feel committed to uphold the cultural values in exchange for the autonomy conveyed. In a culture that values autonomy, a job description is a skeleton outline of goals and functions but allows creative latitude in how those goals are achieved and functions performed. Autonomous organizations generate far more creativity than those that rely on policy and protocol as people are willing to take initiative and risks in developing new ideas, trying new approaches to old problems or building better mousetraps.
In the largest sense, autonomy fosters a sense of ownership in the overall success of the organization as one feels that her contribution makes a distinguishable difference. More so, if hierarchal management is confined to necessity, the organization is empowered horizontally which cultivates the cross-fertilization of ideas. Finally, if the culture rather than the hierarchy becomes the implicit raison d’être of the organization, ego tends to give way to collaboration.
Just as culture is hard to define, it is elusive to create. Cult and hierarchy are comparatively primitive organisms where culture is the result of evolution—it can’t be created in a day. One thing is clear, however; the seedbed of culture is trust—trust that begins with senior management to empower the whole of the organization. That trust will then grow across the organization and synergies will bloom from there.
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