by John Coleman
Organizational culture is a remarkable competitive advantage. McKinsey & Company, for example, has found that top quartile cultures outperform median cultures by 60% — and bottom quartile cultures by 200% — and that those company’s cultures are both difficult for competitors to replicate and allow the organization to better adapt to changing circumstances. These findings are echoed in the research of Alex Edmans of London Business School, who found similar outperformance among companies with exceptional cultures.
Great corporate cultures are not just good for performance, but for the flourishing and engagement of the people who work in them. In my own work, I focus frequently on the need for strong culture, its components, and how to craft an organization’s culture to deliver greater meaning and purpose. But oft overlooked is the central role that curiosity plays in shaping these norms. To unlock the potential of their institutions and the people within them, great leaders need to demonstrate consistent curiosity about their employees, customers, their own roles, and the changes occurring in their institutions over time.
Curiosity about employees
Leaders must be curious about the values and motivations of their employees in shaping and maintaining a corporate culture. Organizations are a collection of the mindsets, attitudes, and values of the people that work within them. Founders and leaders have great influence on the types of people who join an organization and the values they bring with them. But by tapping the collective intelligence of the group, organizations can seek to be truly distinctive. That requires even brilliant leaders to display curiosity toward those with whom they work.
In the early days of Whole Foods, for example, founder John Mackey elected to engage his entire company in shaping their mission and values — an effort spurred by his desire to tap the collective intelligence of his people and build a “flat” organization where everyone was engaged. The document that resulted in 1985, their “Declaration of Interdependence,” survives to this day and was fundamentally shaped by employees from top to bottom. Similarly, Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio famously created the principles by which Bridgewater is managed through an open-source document that allowed employees to challenge existing precepts, offer up new ones, and collectively codify their model of success (a process I experienced while working there one summer).
Whether through walking the halls and talking to people directly, formally surveying employees, or engaging them in focus groups about the tenets of culture, every leader has the same opportunity to display curiosity in shaping mission, vision, and values.
Curiosity about customers
This curiosity must be extended to customers. As Simon Sinek articulated in Start with Why, customers care just as much about why a company does something as what they do. They care deeply about the culture and values a company embraces. That’s been evidenced time and again as customers show loyalty to organizations that seem to embrace an ethos they share — whether that company produces coffee, electric cars, shoes, or computers. But how can leaders engage customers with curiosity in shaping their cultures?
One way is to survey customers, not just about your products and services but about “why” your customers love your organization. But you should also find ways for all the people within your organization to get direct exposure to the people you serve, so they can ask them questions, hear their concerns, see the way they shop and live, and hear first-hand the things they value. That direct exposure allows for a depth of curiosity that mere thought experiments and surveys do not.
This includes leaders. I once had the privilege of grabbing breakfast at a Waffle House with then CEO Joe Rogers, Jr., for example. When I sat at my table, Joe came over wearing his full server outfit and name badge with “trainee” stamped on it. It turns out, he spent weeks every year waiting tables in his diners to stay close to his customers and people. The CEOs of Uber and Starbucks recently implemented a similar practice of taking front line roles. And Home Depot has a policy that requires new leaders to spend time working in stores.
Curiosity about roles
Leaders must reflect with open-mindedness and curiosity on their own roles. As cultures evolve, so do leaders’ roles within them. This can take on different forms. As a leader progresses through the ranks, for example, they may play an increasingly important role in an organization or shift from a challenger — someone who has traditionally pushed the company’s leadership — to someone who must accept the challenges of others.
Similarly, a founder may have to give away responsibility to others who are more capable of carrying the torch of culture, as Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates did at Microsoft, or Jeff Bezos recently did at Amazon. Those working in start-up environments may have to accept the formation of more structured cultures by senior executives, even as they retain control of the vision — something Mark Zuckerberg did with Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.
The key is for leaders to be at once comfortable in their own skin and current positions, and curious as to how their unique strengths, weaknesses, and histories fit with the evolving culture of an organization. Each person’s path is different, but it’s only curiosity, humility, and self-knowledge that allow them to evolve.
Curiosity about change
Finally, great leaders don’t just shape culture once. They stay curious about the changing nature of their companies and contexts over time. No company, nonprofit, or other institution is static; neither are the contexts in which those institutions operate, something firms like Blockbuster and Circuit City learned the hard way.
Companies must embrace change and reinvention at key moments in their organizational lives. “Move fast and break things” was an excellent mantra for Facebook (now Meta) as it grew, but is less apt now that it is a global behemoth, with all the risks and infrastructure that entails. John Mackey designed the first “Declaration of Interdependence” with his associates’ input in 1985 but then revisited it regularly as the organization grew. Curiosity is essential to change as any institution navigates changes to itself and its circumstances. In my most recent book, I suggest that mission, vision, and values be revisited at regular intervals (e.g., every five years) or in periods of unique change (e.g., a merger, new CEO, or substantive change to working norms like impacted many companies during the 2020 pandemic).
There’s no one right answer for how or how often to consciously revisit an organization’s key cultural artifacts, like its mission, vision, and values, but culture is always and at all times shifting. Great leaders learn to be thoughtfully attuned to those shifts, curious about the reason and the results of such changes, and open-minded about the need to evolve themselves or their organizations in more substantive ways.
Great organizations and leaders are constantly changing. And cultivating the kind of culture that can adapt to those changes and create both outperformance and employee flourishing requires a deep commitment to curiosity. It’s only through constant questioning that high performance cultures can keep their competitive edge.