Letter Two: On Culture – The Honest Apothecary

My dear nephew Simon,

Thank you for your kind response to my last letter. From what you tell me, it sounds like you are already beginning to taste some of the saltwater sprays of management-life crashing over the sides of the leader-ship. Don’t worry; you will find your sea legs soon. The splashing may sting the eyes for a moment, but you need a few little storms to get your feet wet. As someone once said, calm seas don’t make skillful sailors. 

Since you have now petitioned me for some advice on the topic of people-management, and thus given me permission to speak freely, I will endeavor to share some things with you. But if you don’t mind, I will take them one topic at a time. The problem with much teaching and writing on management is that so much information is dumped on the new disciple so quickly, that she or he feels like they are drinking from a fire hydrant. The student ends up wet, but not refreshed. The medicine of management advice should be administered one spoonful at a time. Give each dose the chance to work. Like a drug, too much at once becomes harmful, not helpful.  

I would like to start with a part of your job description that your boss likely forgot to mention. In fact, I suspect it was not listed in your roles and responsibilities at all. But it is your job, nonetheless. What I am referring to is the duty to create the culture of your organization. As a manager, you are the primary culture-creator for your team. You have a great deal of control over what it feels like to come and work. Over time, it is your attitude, composure, demeanor and habits that will determine the general mood of those who report to you. 

I have seen work culture gone bad. Whenever I have walked into a department that is riddled with gossip, resentment, drama, disputes, and high turnover, the one thing I always know for sure…there has been bad management here. Managers set the tone; they create the culture. If you want to be a great manager, focus on culture first. 

How? From the moment you step onto the floor you are setting the tone and attitude for the group. Every word you speak is teaching culture. Every email you send (or don’t send!) is setting the tone. The expression on your face as you walk the halls, visit the pharmacy, exchange greetings with the staff, is telling a story about the culture you are expecting from the group. Your very presence, all that you say and do, is communicating to everyone around you what the standard of conduct will really be. To focus on culture means to focus on you. Simon, it’s that person looking back at you in the mirror that you need to manage first

If you are not quite convinced that creating culture is your job, allow me to defend this point just briefly. First, mark my words, if you don’t create the culture, someone else will. Your department will be at the mercy of the next strongest personality, and that may end up being toxic to the team. Second, it is my experience and conviction that nothing will promote the success of your team like a strong and positive culture. Training alone won’t do it. Benefits won’t do it. Great products won’t do it. A beautifully-written vision statement won’t do it. Culture does it. Every great teacher of management knows this. Peter Drucker probably put it best when he said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Simon, take these words to heart and give them some thought. Think about the culture you want to create. Then live it. That’s managing. That’s your job. I have no doubt you are doing great at this already. 

Your loving and affectionate Uncle Josh  

Photo by Husna Miskandar on Unsplash

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Last modified: February 5, 2023