It was in the late 90’s when I landed on an epiphany that would guide my career.
I was writing a paper for a cultural anthropology class and I was talking about the interaction of politics, policy and culture. My professor at the time, Toby Weist, looked me in the eye when I was working through the concept and said: “Culture is the lens, policy is a manifestation of the cultural values of the policy maker, almost everything we do is emergent from culture.”
This was a revelation that had significant bearing on my career and my entrepreneurial efforts in the decades to come.
Culture is a fluid idea; we all belong to many cultures and shift fluidly between them as we move through our daily existences. Culture shifts with the needs of the times, sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly. During a heat wave, being modestly dressed might become less of a value for some people, for instance.
The culture we bring to our home lives, how we raise our children and treat our elders and spouses, what we eat, what we do in our leisure time–it is all moved by our cultural values, the culture of the community that we grew up in, the culture of our parents and extended family, our religion and beliefs and our educational and professional background.
There is hardly a detail about our moment-to-moment existence that isn’t framed through our culture.
When we go to work or school or church, our culture shifts. The values that are important in one situation might not be as relevant in another. Mannerisms, language and time shifts with these values. We frequently move faster, talk faster and approach problems in different ways in these spaces. The culture of each space is the contribution of each individual as well as the environment and shifts with the addition or removal of individuals.
If there is one idea that I express to artists and creative entrepreneurs, it’s the saying from the father of modern management science: “Culture eats business plans for breakfast.”
I am perpetually surprised about how many people who run businesses and organizations have never thought about organizational culture, in any permutation.
Building a successful business or organization that people are enthusiastic to work for and the community wants to support means approaching organizational culture from a place of reflection and intention.
There are two ways that you can view your business through the lens of culture: internal and external. Taken together you encapsulate popular ideas such as branding. Yes, branding (what you do and how you do it) is a subset of culture!
First identify your own cultural framework. In what community were you raised? What do you think are some cultural values of this community and how might they differ from cultural values of other communities in your region? What values do you have around interpersonal interaction?
For example, do you come from a culture that values a strong handshake and a direct look into your conversation partner’s eyes? In many cultures (such as my own, Native American) strong handshakes and direct eye contact is considered extremely aggressive and would be generally considered offensive. Do you come from a culture that leans towards individual achievement or one that shares victories between your community? How do you express your cultural values through your language, policies, expectations or even what you eat?
This is a process, a journey and the intersectionality is manifold.
Internal culture speaks to:
● Where and when you work and your relationship to time. Have you embraced remote work? What does your collective work environment look/sound/feel like? How is that good and how is that a challenge? How do you structure your time?
● How you work: When you meet, what do you talk about? How do you work together and apart from each other? What does your work structure look like? Is there a hierarchy? Teams? Who can pick up from who?
● How you relate to your employees: How do you communicate? Can you say how your employees and co-workers prefer to learn?
● How have you made your employees' children and families and community feel welcome in your work culture? Recognizing that everything is interconnected–have you supported your employees and co-workers in their connection to their family and community at large? Are children welcome where you work? Are parents and those who take care of elders or people with disabilities supported?
● How do you celebrate success and confront (or don’t confront) challenges and a team? Have you created openness of communication? Is your team comfortable sharing mistakes and making them into learning opportunities?
As you ask yourself these questions, you will find that a picture starts emerging. You will find the opportunity to recognize solutions for challenges. You will also find ideas for how to create a more open and equitable work environment where everyone feels empowered in their work. Break off a couple of these questions to work on at first and work on them inclusively. You need everyone on board if you are going to affect a shift in culture for the good.
External relationship to culture speaks to:
● How do you communicate with your community? What does communication look like when trying to sell them things or services? What does your communication look like when you aren’t trying to sell or ask for anything? How do you express your appreciation to your community for their support?
● How your business responds to the needs of the communities you serve (You probably have more than one community you serve–and each probably has at least somewhat different culture.)
● As an artist or arts organization or business, what are your cultural roots? How do you speak to these cultural roots? How is your content, technique and voice relevant today?
● What have you done to connect to artists, organizations or businesses with cultural traditions that are not your own? If so, what does this connection look like?
Connecting with the culture of your community is what creates connection–ideas like loyalty, community investment, volunteers, interns and, ultimately, patronage and growth.
It isn’t enough to have a good ‘product’, to be competitive and relevant you have to work to understand your community. Having robust two-way communication with your community can help you be responsive and will tell you how you will need to adapt to changes that will inevitably be coming.
My connection with culture has been central to the development of my career. Art, after all, is a subset of culture and to find success at a career in the arts or through the creative industries, is incumbent upon you to understand culture.