Overcoming Cultural Conflict

During my years in the commercial flooring business, my company acquired one of our competitors with a very different culture than ours.  My organization was predominately women and we marketed to the architectural and design community; the company we acquired was a typical construction firm…all male.   

There was such a huge difference in cultures that we jokingly referred to the acquisition as “the wine and cheese ladies meet the beer and pretzel guys”. 

Big differences, no question about it!  But we decided to forge ahead anyway, firmly believing that we could blend the two cultures and be more successful together than we could be separately.

Some of the “culture wars” were humorous.  The first time we had a joint company meeting, we supplied our usual fresh fruit and granola breakfast.  By popular demand, subsequent meetings also featured an enormous box of donuts and pastries (delicious, I have to admit!).

Other differences, however, were more significant.  For example, our definition of a business contract was a signed, legal document; their definition was a scribbled note on a cocktail napkin and a handshake over a beer. 

The company had been a success despite some of their unorthodox operating practices, so we kept what worked but also instituted some important changes.

Working with managers, individuals, and cross-departmental focus groups, we moved slowly to blend cultures, share our respective company’s best practices, and create a collective vision for the future of our new business. 

By integrating our two vastly different cultures, we actually did become stronger together and our new company moved forward successfully.

In other words, we learned that wine and pretzels was indeed a very good combination. 

Whether you want to create a positive culture between diverse individuals on your board or team, break down silos between departments in your organization, or orchestrate a successful merger here are three keys critical to success:

1.    Focus on people and understand that they are the most crucial factor to your success.  Have strategic conversations with individuals and seek to understand them.

2.    Communicate early and often and instead of lecturing, ask questions. Involve and invite contributions from individuals and the group, and make sure everyone gets an opportunity to participate.

3.    Develop a shared vision of the future and strategies to achieve that vision.  Don’t impose a new vision from the top…a shared vision is more important than your vision.  Create energy, focus efforts, and connect people to the vision and goals by giving them a voice in the process.

As a business owner I used these principles to blend two very different cultures and move my company forward.  As mayor, I used the same approach to create a cohesive Board and to move our community forward.

Today, I work as a consultant who applies lessons learned to help municipalities, nonprofits and for-profit businesses build stronger teams that accomplish more with less conflict and discord.

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