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Creating a Winning Culture with Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg
Contributor: Michael Rosenberg
Posted: 09/16/2008
"I define culture as both the written and unwritten norms that people in an organization work in. It’s like a code of behavior within an organization," said Michael Rosenberg, principal of OYG, Inc. and an expert on office culture. e-BIM speaks with Rosenberg about the importance of culture, the effects it has in an organization and the experiences that have influenced Rosenberg to provide training on this topic.

What contributes to creating a positive culture within an organization?

Leadership. I like to focus on attitudes and behavior. Our processes have a significant impact on an organization, leadership, obviously, and rewards. Rewards have the biggest impact because if you change a rewards structure, you change the culture very rapidly. People focus on what they are rewarded or punished on. I talk a lot about collaboration. If I say to my sales people, "You get your bonus based on the targets you hit," do you think that they care about the collaboration? No, they focus on the numbers.

What would you say are the main reasons a negative culture may exist within an organization?

There are a lot of reasons. There is a disconnect with leadership. Ethics becomes an issue. Leadership that doesn’t walk the talk. Rewards structures that promote negative behaviors. For instance, the person who is most ruthless gets ahead. Or the person who keeps his head down, plays politics or plays "the game" [gets ahead]. That creates a negative culture. Another thing is beauracratic processes or chaotic processes could cause negative cultures. Conformity—the idea that there is no tolerance for real diversity or people who think different.

Is there a difference between a corporate culture and a culture created on the floor?

You can have separate cultures within organization. What happens is leadership now becomes important. How did the "head of the pod" get there? Did he get there through nepotism? Or did he get there because he believes in the organization and produces results? They are going to rub that off on their team [thus creating a culture within a culture].

When organizations come to you seeking solutions, what is their number one pain point?

Working together. They come to me because they need to shake things up and they come to me to get people working together to focus on problem solutions, not problem creation. Their old ways are not working. I find tools to address that issue. Usually they point out there is a lot of conflict in the workplace, or on the flip side, they relay that the culture is not innovative and they are getting hammered by their competitors.

Another pain point is culture during mergers. In a merger and acquisition, how do you find a culture that you can build together?

How has the recession and current economy influenced corporate culture?

I think what you see is that more millionaires have been made during the bad times than good. Highly negative cultures are finding it harder to compete. Positive cultures are and will be able to adapt to the new economic reality and become stronger because they are utilizing their people more effectively. Their people are behind them. People are more engaged and working together to solve problems. [Negative cultures are] like a dysfunctional family—when bad times occur they point fingers, and what happens they implode. And a good family—they come together during bad times.

What is it that you hope to bring to every business relationship you create?

I think the idea is that I want to bring a positive measurable outcome to each of my clients. Culture is the difference between success and failure. If you look at two organizations in the same field, why is one doing better than the other? That has to do with culture. The first thing I want to do is understand my clients’ needs. Each organization has a unique need. I want to bring something positive from the bottom-line point of view to a business point of view and have an impact.

What is it about your job that you are passionate about?

People, without a doubt. [It's great] when you have an impact on a person’s life. People spend a lot of time at work. Making the place they work at better, make their lives better and make the organization better, that’s what I love about it. It’s an incredible feeling. I say you can sum it up in one word: impact.

What was your first job and how has it influenced your current career?

The first job I had was working at ADP as the night service representative for the Brokerage Services Division in New York City. Because of my financial situation, I had to work full-time while I went to NYU full-time. I took away two lessons from that experience: People want to do the best they can and take pride in their work. In addition, I learned that the things that stop them and others are the very things they create—either collectively or individually. In some ways, I had a rather schizophrenic life. I worked for a corporation on Wall Street while going to school and socializing amongst artists in Greenwich Village. It was here that I realized that people have a very powerful need to "belong" and be accepted by their peers, and they will conform to the environment to be accepted. It was literally like living in two separate countries with very distinct cultures. I remember asking one guy I knew why he had a green Mohawk hairdo. His answer was "to express my individuality." The reality was that he was "expressing his individuality" by being just like everybody else in the Village (there were a lot of green Mohawk hairdos back then). In addition, I realized that people who worked for large organizations weren’t "robots." They were artists as well—creative and unique. They wanted to express themselves at work and make a difference. That is why I agree with the great line by John Lennon who said, "Everyone has an artist within them." People fundamentally want to do their best. The thing that can stop them is the culture because they want to belong, which is created more often than not from people’s insecurities—fear, ego, preconceived ideas or complacency.

If you had the ability to sit down with one person whom you normally wouldn’t have the chance to and talk culture, who would that be and what would you say?

I admit that I am a political junkie. I grew up in a very political and opinionated household where we discussed politics quite freely (and animatedly, I might add). This election is very unique in that each of the major candidates for president and vice president (including Hillary Clinton) come from very different cultures that have affected both how they lead and their outlook on the world. I would love to sit and talk culture with all of them and how much it has shaped their perceptions of the world, who they believe in and who their friends are. In the case of Senator Obama, his mother was an anthropologist and I would love to know how that has affected the way he looks at the voters and Americans in general. It’s literally Hawaii versus Alaska. Two states whose differences go well beyond weather. Then there’s the military background and Clinton who grew up in suburban Chicago. Annapolis versus Harvard, Idaho versus Yale. Lawyer versus solider. I’d like to sit down and talk to all of them and find out how culture had affected their decision making. The only problem is the timing. In order to really get at it in a meaningful (i.e. non-political) way would be to do so in a safe environment (after the election).

Who is your role model and why?

My hero is Victor Frankl. Frankl was the creator of logotherapy and his most famous book is Man’s Search for Meaning. He talks about how he was stripped of everything [at Auschwitz]. He realized in this moment that no matter what they do [to him] they can’t touch part of him [inside]. And he still takes a negative situation and comes out positive. When I get into situations that are difficult, I think about the things that are really important to me. What makes you love this job? What wakes you up in the morning? Why do you do this job? Then you connect with people’s passions. Then there’s something. Frankl had the idea of finding the things you believe in and building on it. No matter what goes on in the world, no matter how awful things are and still be able to realize there is something that no one can touch within you. That is more than everything else. At the end of the day I go back to Frankl—what he did was phenomenal. Think about the power of being able to connect people’s passions to their work and then creating a culture that accepts diversity and innovation. Wow! That is an organization that will be able to adapt to any external changes. As Frankl says, it is that special thing that we all have inside us that gives us the power to overcome any external factor (no matter how horrible) that is thrown our way.

Interview by Katherine Mehr, editor
Michael Rosenberg
Contributor: Michael Rosenberg
Posted: 09/16/2008