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Culture trumps everything

In matters of choosing team members and keeping good people engaged, the most valuable lesson I have gleaned from 25 years of management is that organizational culture trumps everything else. Within organizations that are intentional about shaping culture, someone’s skills and experience are important, but they are not everything.

Culture is the invisible glue that not only holds an organization together, but allows it to thrive. It reflects norms like purpose, values, mission and approach . . . the stuff that is hard to codify, hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to measure and manage. Yet, it is the stuff that determines how things get done.

At Yolo Hospice culture also determines how patients are cared for, how families are treated, how staff and volunteers are valued, how the larger community is supported and how decisions are made.

Organizations can sometimes have a difficult time describing their culture. In fact, I once heard someone describe culture as “woo-woo stuff that doesn’t make any difference in the end.” This of course begs the question: Does culture matter?

In recent days, however, a series of unplanned conversations, timely events and educational exchanges have shone light on the importance of organizational culture and how it has evolved at Yolo Hospice for nearly 40 years.

At an April artist reception on our Davis campus, Kathleen Hendrix, a former Yolo Hospice employee and RN supervisor, told me that Yolo Hospice has always been known as the Birkenstocks and socks hospice -- even through its structured evolution to a Medicare certified agency that must comply with strict Federal and State regulations.

At that same reception, Alison Kent, the featured artist and a Yolo Hospice volunteer, reminded attendees that both people and organizations frequently reap unanticipated benefits when they put the community and the greater good above self.

Just days later, it was revealed at an onsite educational lunch with Dr. Jack Berger, a Yolo Hospice founder and its first medical director, that the growth and strength of our organization has always been driven by its responsiveness and a scruffy resilience fueled by a hopeless optimism.

During the lunch, Yolo Hospice board member, Madalon O'Rawe Amenta, reminded the audience that Yolo Hospice, as well as the entire hospice movement, grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement, whose larger vision was about changing and challenging the national culture. Amenta, an early American voice in the hospice movement, was the founding executive director of the Hospice & Palliative Nurses Association (HPNA). She also served as the director of education and research at Forbes Hospice and co-author of Nursing Care of the Terminally Ill, the first American textbook on hospice care.

Joan Randall, another longtime hospice volunteer, backed up Amenta’s comments by reminding the attendees that the hospice movement was forged by revolutionaries who were committed to building something meaningful without, and in spite of, traditional structures.

Coincidently, this recent series of enlightening exchanges was capped-off by Gustavo Grodnitzky, author of Culture Trumps Everything, who came to Yolo Hospice for a leadership training with staff and other regional CEOs from a cross-section of industries. His half-day session confirmed the reality that Yolo Hospice is not a classic capitalism organization, but a social capitalism organization. This means the agency is squarely focused on stakeholders and not shareholders. Stakeholders include patients, families, employees, volunteers, referral partners, vendors and the greater community.

In social capitalism organizations, people work harder for a cause than they do for cash. Employees are loyal because an organization cultivates a particular culture that values social norms. In the long game, these types of organizations are both more resilient and more financially stable. Grodnitzky also pointed out that while change is inevitable, learning is optional.

Organizational culture is very much like a garden – left unattended, a garden will grow all kinds of weeds and plants that can choke out the good stuff you want to grow. But if you spend time tending to your garden (i.e. culture) it becomes a lot easier to grow the flowers and other produce you actually want.

Culture needs to be cultivated. If employees within an organization show and foster competence, trust, respect for individuals, flexibility, innovation, teamwork and uncompromising integrity, it is because the culture demands it.

In Yolo Hospice’s founding documents the board of directors made a few things clear for future generations of leaders, staff and volunteers . . . that the organization they were giving birth to would be known for its willingness to challenge the status quo if it meant providing better and more person-centered care for patients and families. They understood, as we still do today, that culture trumps everything.


Gustavo Grodnitzky has a Ph.D. in clinical and school psychology and has extensive experience in interpersonal communications, strategic planning, change management and development of organizational culture. For well over a decade, he has been a consultant at numerous Fortune 500, mid-sized and smaller companies.

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