Guillermo de la Puente

Letter to self: Read Tribal Leadership


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Dear myself some years ago,

You recently started hiring and managing people. I know you’re enjoying it a lot, despite some challenging periods of self-doubt. So many learnings. A position of leadership. A great amount of luck that your managers trusted you to do it and that some amazing software engineers joined your team.

If I could go back in time, I’d love to talk to you about organizational culture. You already have learned the formal definition and you know it’s important. At work, you’re all talking about the company mission and core values. Culture is all of that and so much more.

What you didn’t realize yet is that organizational culture not only unites people, but also divides them. There will be times in which you’ll feel everybody in the organization is united, connected, aligned and driven towards a noble mission, and that the behaviors that are valued are consistent across the board. The organizational culture will be strong. But it won’t always be like that. During your first management years, you’ll hear that there are groups within your department that put barriers with you and your team. It will hurt and make you feel disappointed, although you’ll eventually realize it isn’t personal, it’s just a subculture that has formed. Or maybe the subculture will be you and your team’s. Other times, you’ll see conflict on how things get done, with people embodying each their own values. The more you go up the management ladder, the more you’ll become aware of conflicts between departments and their leaders, each trying to prove they are doing a good job and throwing others under the bus. Again, nothing personal, it’ll be due to the context and organizational culture that has formed.

Sometimes it will feel like you aren’t in control. But the truth is that you will be able to take action to address cultural problems like those, and your actions will have consequences. Embody the company values and lead others by example. Go on with persistence and patience, even when you see other leaders spreading a different mission and their own opposite values. Your voice will give encouragement for others to act too. Even with strong headwinds, at minimum you’ll make it a bit better for people in your direct team and for your manager.

I’d love for you to read Tribal Leadership because you’ll learn to identify some cultural issues. The authors spent a lot of time researching, figuring out that it’s normal for organizations to go through a range of cultural stages. Each has different typical behaviors, type of language used internally, and levels of cooperation towards the objectives. They name 5 stages, from the first one where people say things like “life sucks and I have to do what is necessary to stay here” to the last one with “we are together making history and a better world.”

According to the authors, the higher the stage, the better the results. As a manager, your job involves getting results. So become a leader, learn to identify the culture around you and raise it. In fact, do it not only for better results, but also for feeling you understand better what’s happening around you and enjoying work more.

In your first years as a manager, it’s normal that you’re looking for recipes, frameworks and tools that you can apply. And you should. Apply them and learn. Tribal Leadership will provide you with a framework to categorize the culture around you depending on what people are saying. Also, it lists tactics to apply with people at each stage, to stabilize them where they are and move them up to the next level. Do it, observe and reflect.

A heads-up from the future: you’ll notice a lot of “I’m great” talk that also implicitly says “you are not / they are not”. This will feel frustrating to you, but know that it’s just another cultural stage. Everybody goes through it multiple times, and many never have the necessary realization to go beyond. According to the book, people in stage “I’m great” will respond well to the same type of talk, even if it feels confrontational. They could also respond well when presented with an outside enemy or competitor as the reason to join forces. Play the card of the competitor more often, to try to unite people against something outside the organization. Only after they are united against something else, then they can aspire to a greater mission of making the world a better place.

With that, I finish. Read the book. Good luck!

P.S. The world and you will become more sensitive to choices of words and their meanings. The company behind Tribal Leadership later decided to stop using the term “tribal” in their courses because of its additional meaning in different cultures.

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