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Management Cultural Values : Olympics 2008 Learnings?

Scott Berkin’s recent blog post on HBR How to Win by Studying Culture: An interview with Grant McCracken stimulated some out-of-the-box thinking about what we could learn about the people and environment we work in. This obviously assumes that the corporate environment will be influenced by external cultural factors and if we are not aware of them, we may be creating additional difficulties for ourselves.

U.S. Measures Success From Team Medals got me thinking about how the Chinese measure success which influences’ management values and techniques versus the US approach. It’s been my long held viewpoint that the Chinese tend toward the superman approach – it’s about the boss, the one leader, and they look to them to be endowed with extremely high qualities and abilities. Focusing on one super-star will naturally lead to certain types of results (see my post here).

So, it’s been written extensively that the Chinese view the gold medal count to be the key metric that counts in these Summer Olympics. Their investment into their potential talent is also illustrative – counting potential winning sports and then cultivating talent early on with a singular focus on winning the gold in the event. Success is embodied by a person and his/her achievements which then in turn brings credit to the collective group

The US, perhaps trying to spin a new message, views differently. US OC Chairman Jim Scherr says,

“We really measure our success on how well our team sports performed,” he said.

“We’re fascinated, and what country isn’t, with gold medals,” he said. “But what’s important is that our team sports do very well. That’s what gets our kids from their chairs, from their computers and out of obesity problems.”

Already, Steve Roush — the U.S.O.C.’s medals tally guru — is crunching numbers. His job is to figure out how to allocate funds so the U.S. team is even more successful in the 2012 London Games.

“Having a lot of teams in the top eight is quite an accomplishment,” he said. “Maybe the rest of the world sees gold medals as the only way to win, but we’re looking at things for down the road.”

From a management and leadership perspective, we spend a lot of time emphasizing teamwork – the ability to collaborate, work cross-functionally – in our corporate culture. So it becomes interesting the impact in a corporate organization when outside of it the same culture emphasizes the individual achievements over the collective organization, the team. Professional Henry Mintzberg, author of Managers Not MBAs, has railed against the same singular focus in corporation with developing leadership talent which he says undermines the organization (see Obsession with leadership undermining organisations**).

So where does this bring us? For those who have to be conversant in diverse cultural settings (that probably means most of us actually), understanding the success drivers and value system operating in such settings is critically important to creating an environment conducive to success.

**See Managers Not MBAs: Debating the Merits of Business Education from the MIT Leadership Center between Prof Mintzberg and Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco SA

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