What is culture though?
A Google search returned this definition – “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”.
Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time”.
So why does it matter?
It matters because; regardless of whether you are dealing with allegations of bullying and non-performance at the coalface, or a post mortem of failure to execute your strategy at the senior management or board level – culture is often the culprit.
I’m going to assume that if you are taking the time to read this article, then you have already heard the expression that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” or “culture trumps strategy” right?
As I reflect after a recent visit home to New Zealand for a family funeral, I have this insatiable need to record my thoughts on my learning of how culture (Samoan culture in this case) has taught me about leadership. I’m talking about leadership at all levels here, not just at the CEO level.
So here is part of my culture story…
As I grew up, I watched my parents struggle financially to conjure up their share of money as deemed by the head of our family (a chief), to contribute to an extended family event. These events range from weddings, birthdays (usually 21st and 50th), funerals and Church functions.
Some of these events are for people that I didn’t know personally, nor did I know how they were related to us. My then observations go something like this…
- An event happens – either planned or unplanned.
- A meeting of elders is called at my uncle’s house (he is the head of our family).
- An amount of money (and livestock and fine mats etc) to be donated to that particular event is agreed (but not before some discussion about upholding the honour of our family was thrown into the mix and that this should be reflected in the size of the gift).
- Each family contributes their equal share of that gift.
- Visits to the event host (usually the head of that family) take place and the gift is offered (this is usually done prior to the actual event taking place).
- The actual event then takes place – where speeches and further gifts are exchanged (something I saw as an unnecessary show of wealth and power).
- Then further visits to and from the event host take place and more gifts are exchanged.
I was always amazed at the absurdity, stupidity and the boastful behaviour of not only my own family, but that of other Samoan families within the community to offer more in gifts than what they could afford.
To put things into perspective, let me explain the context of the environment at the time.
I was 10 years old when my family migrated from Samoa to New Zealand in 1985 with the help of my uncle (head of our family in Wellington) who paid for our flights. As I write this, I’m not certain whether he had funded it himself or whether the extended family had contributed – I now suspect that it was a family effort. Nevertheless, it was a lot of money to bring over a family of seven (7) – two adults and five kids.
I remember that we lived with my aunty and we shared her three-bedroom townhouse. Aunty and her daughters shared a room, my parents and our baby sister Mia had one room and us four boys shared the third room. My older half-brother Apineru (different father) remained in Samoa and my baby brother James wasn’t yet born.
My father worked as a Customs Officer at a Naval base in Samoa, however when we arrived in NZ, he had to do further study in order to do that line of work. The cost at the time was prohibitive and he did not have the time to study whilst working full time. So he elected to do factory work earning minimal wage to feed and clothe us.
Eventually we moved into our own house in Porirua (some 30 minutes out of Wellington) provided by Community Housing NZ. Dad continued to work near Wellington airport that required train travel because we didn’t have a car, and mum managed the house.
The lens of youth
In summary, I grew up in a low-socio economic part of town and despite my parents efforts, I always felt poor and cheated. In Samoa we lived on our own lands and we ate food that we grew ourselves – and life was bliss in my eyes.
But now, we couldn’t afford to buy school lunch in the canteen, our clothes were hand me downs or from the flee-markets. I stole sports shoes and clothes from neighbours to wear to Physical Education class, I stole pens and pencils from shops as I was ashamed of not having what other kids had, and I ate KFC out of their bins (thrown out after closure) whilst we were collecting cans late at night to recycle for cash as eating take-aways was a luxury we could not afford.
The police caught me once shoplifting and my parents disciplined me the Samoan way (but that’s a story for another time). I often got into fights because kids teased us about wearing daggy clothes and not being able to speak English properly etc.
I was angry at the world and at the family events that contributed to me being poor. I was also angry at my parents for allowing this to happen – so I thought at the time.
In my late teens, I specifically remember speaking up (out of place of course) in a family elders meeting as they discussed a future event about how they were going to help. I was so angry that I didn’t care about getting physically disciplined. I was put in my place fairly quickly, but I was satisfied that I had said my piece.
When I finally left home to pave my own way in life, I disowned my culture and refused to send money home to my parents when they requested it to help with family events, unless it was for them personally or one of my siblings. There was even a period of time that I did not speak to my parents for a year because of an argument about cultural responsibility and my birthplace as the eldest son in relation to these gifts.
Time heals everything & wisdom eventually enters all
As I’ve had my own kids and gained experience in the school of life through the people that I have met on my journey, I realised that you cannot run away from who you are meant to become.
Since then, my father has become a high chief as his father was a high chief before him, whose father was a high chief before him and so on and so on. In other words – LEADERS.
As my parents explained in my recent trip home – leaders live to serve their families and communities. Communities are often extended families – it’s just that not all societies honour their bloodlines by reinforcing their personal connections through supporting each other through these types of events.
They also pointed out, that high chiefs and talking chiefs (senior and middle management if you like) are selected by the extended family based on how the family warm to that particular person (personal connections) and whether they have the means (credibility) and support to gather everyone else around them to provide the resources required (influence) for events/functions that they will help with.
What I saw in the past as a boastful show of wealth was instead, an extended family coming together to help lighten the load/burden of another family in their time of need.
A specific example she provided was that – when another family had provided ours with $1,000 as a gift, once the event had finished, our family bought $300 worth of non-perishable produce and visited them to repay their kindness (gratitude). It also provides reassurance that in their time of need, we would be there to support them (loyalty & trust). She added as a side point, we are still up $700 that we did not have before their gift.
There are many more examples that my parents provided to demonstrate how the Samoan culture works. They also provided examples of how equal reciprocity is not always possible. That you should not do things expecting – rather, hoping and having faith that the other party, will contribute what they can afford at the time (grace).
There are other examples but I’m mindful that this article is getting too long.
But what does that teach about culture in the workplace?
The workplace has a culture of its own and you need to understand how and why that culture works. Learn its story and change your perspective in order to see the community within it.
In hindsight, I also reflect on my own experience in having planned and executed a number of organisational restructures in the UK and here in Australia. There are certainly things that I could have done differently.
When providing coaching and mediation, use your own story to help someone in their transition during an organisational change journey – because eventually, wisdom come when the student is ready to hear.
Have fun on your own journey and take time to reflect!
If you’d like to chat or catch up with Sam to talk about Coaching, Organisational Development/Change or Restructures, Strategy Formulation and Execution – then book a meeting using his online calendar here.