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I run a 113-year-old co-op, but I'm not trying to "preserve" our culture

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When the latest changes knock on our doors—pandemics, Supreme Court rulings, inflation, a softening economy, endless technological advances—we business leaders are left wondering how or to allow We look to our culture for guidance. But perhaps it’s time for a change in how we think about ‘culture’ itself.

As CEO of the Tillamook County Creamery Association – a 113-year-old dairy cooperative with an incredible legacy When Market-leading recent growth record – My boss is a dairy farmer. Whenever I spoke to a particular farm boss, he would say,

We need to honor the past while honing the future. Only a fluid organizational culture can do both.

build a better boat

Dairy farmers, the early settlers of Tillamook County, found their business tenuous in a rugged and unforgiving place. Many were simply left defeated. Some faced one of the toughest challenges: getting a product to market in extreme terrain.

Eventually, someone came up with the idea of ​​building a boat sturdy enough to transport butter and other products to markets in and around Portland. They named it Morning Star. This was the turning point. The boat became a metaphor for the resilience of the settlers who remained, and the co-op they became, fifty years later.

Consider the dedication and character of the pioneers who risked everything to build a better ship. What is the role of culture in “building better ships”? And what is the leader’s role in that culture?

that is No The role of a leader in protecting culture. To keep is to petrify, and it opposes innovation, growth, and everything else we discuss in business. To me, the coolest part of the Morning Star story isn’t that its predecessor decided to build a better boat. That is, they gave room for the kind of people who would suggest it.

Fluid versus fixed culture

A fixed culture says, “This idea or person fit what we’ve been up to? A fluid culture asks: addition what do we want to be Fluid cultures recognize that excellence comes from amplifying what is good, not limiting what is different.

For example, inclusion and diversity efforts stall in a fixed culture. AdditiveIn fact, the Stanford Women’s Leadership Lab says that having managers ask themselves what each person adds to their team is one of the most powerful tools for increasing diversity and inclusion.

A fluid culture seeks to expand the possibilities of people and the organization itself. Doing this can be especially difficult for older organizations because time has a way of trapping habits in amber. When a new organization all Newly added. But when an organization has his 113-year history and is particularly successful, he needs to think carefully about the balance between legacy and change.

Inspiration, not instruction

Our legacy is gold, an endless lesson in hard work, but it’s not a Magic 8 Ball where you can give answers on command. What’s wrong with it is the rigid dedication to it. You need to understand the values ​​that have worked for you in the past, not just your actions.

So if the role of leaders isn’t to maintain culture, what is it? act together It leverages the organization’s existing strengths while leaving room for new strengths that have yet to be imagined.

A fluid culture doesn’t mean leaving everything behind, but it does mean choosing what to keep, what to keep, what to change a little, and what to change a lot. It means hanging a welcome sign for new ideas and perspectives.

Nurture both core and aspiration values

A few years ago, we were reinventing ourselves. I confidently make the statement ‘we play to win’. But the employee said, “That’s nice, but if this is supposed to be true today, no dice.”

Their reaction was a little harsh. ‘Playing to win’ was not a mistake. It still wasn’t true. Patrick Lencioni laid the groundwork for this fundamental shift in thinking 20 years ago in his pivotal Harvard Business Review article. We live better today (as we do today) because we cultivated both core values. When The values ​​we aim for (true tomorrow).

Define expectations, not outcomes

The “control urge” is so prevalent in leadership that when billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates recently wrote,[it’s] It’s important to put trust in the people and organizations we partner with and allow them to define success on their own terms,” ​​said the observer, who said she had “turned modern leadership upside down.” .

Leaders cannot master plan all outcomes. Instead, the expectation should be set that every decision hinges on whether it adds value. This is especially important in recruitment. “Culture fit” is not bound by the past. “Culture add” will lead you to the future.

listen and fix

Employees want to be heard, but it’s not clear that leaders are. Even if it’s hard, you have to create opportunities to hear people’s thoughts. But policies and practices take hold quickly, and action must be taken at all levels.

Even the most mundane-looking policies are reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Look for past decisions that currently limit innovation, exclude people, or are based on disproved assumptions.

Taking advantage of the past while embracing ambiguity is good for our business. That led to broader ideas that led to growth and innovation. An inclusive, diverse and fluid culture is good for employees who report a more fulfilling experience and an environment of mutual respect. And just as importantly, our fluid culture is good for the communities in which we make great cheese.

Patrick Criteser is President and CEO of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, a 113-year-old billion dollar dairy cooperative in Oregon.

Opinions expressed in commentary articles on are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of Fortune.

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