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  • Darren Gold

Black Licorice Cultures

Great cultures are ones that are distinctive, meaning they should be right for certain employees and not for others.

In a week dominated by news of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, growing worries over inflation, and a continued slump in the financial markets, most people may have missed the resignation of Eric Lander, President Biden’s top science advisor. Lander announced his departure with an apology for his “disrespectful and demeaning” behavior to colleagues, particularly women. It occurred after mounting pressure from critics who tried to reconcile Lander’s behavior with the President’s zero-tolerance edict issued on the day of his inauguration. “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” Mr. Biden told a group of appointees. “Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That’s been missing in a big way for the last four years.”

I recently wrote about Netflix’s controversial decision to fire an employee who had organized a boycott following the company’s decision to air comedian Dave Chappelle’s controversial standup show. The employee had leaked a confidential memo to the press in clear violation of the company’s value of transparency and its corresponding promise to fire anyone who failed to honor a commitment to absolute confidentiality. I argued that extraordinary cultures are ones that are clear about their values and uphold them even (and particularly) in the most difficult of circumstances. In this case, the employee happened to be a Black woman who was pregnant, and the company’s motives behind its decision were thus at great risk of being misunderstood.

The Lander resignation offers similar lessons about organizational culture. First, great cultures make their values clear. In this case, Biden’s zero-tolerance policy around disrespectful behavior is an example of a clear value. I’m not arguing that the policy itself is the right one, although I personally agree with it, and I commend the President for his commitment to a value that is missing not only in government but in society more broadly. What I am saying is that great cultures are ones that are distinctive, meaning they should be right for certain employees and not for others. Last week I was speaking to a senior leader who described her company culture as “black licorice” – not for everyone but clearly right for some. I think all cultures should follow this example. And Biden’s promise to fire anyone for being disrespectful qualifies.

Second, organizations with great cultures are led by people who are willing to make difficult choices when the company’s values are at stake. Here is where Biden fell short. It took mounting external pressure and a well-known history of abusive behavior before Lander was forced to resign. If you want to build a culture with an intentionally distinctive value like the immediate termination of employees who engage in disrespectful behavior, then have the courage to make the tough choices when those values are threatened. Otherwise, don’t pretend to have the value.

Most of the great organizations have distinctive cultures. And they are led by people who are unyielding in upholding the organization’s values. This is true for the CEO of a company, the parent of a family, or an individual leading their own life. And it’s certainly the case for the leader of a nation. Extraordinary individuals live and lead in integrity with their values. They uphold their values even when doing so is difficult or unpopular.

Tuesday Tips

  1. Ezra Klein’s recent New York Times opinion is worth reading. He argues that our great failure as a country in the pandemic was a failure of trust.

  2. This animated presentation of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ filmmaking process is remarkable. It is a fascinating window into the making of Encanto.

  3. Paul Graham’s recent essay on writing reveals how the act of writing itself brings the full richness of an idea to life. Anyone who ever writes anything will relate to what Graham shares.

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