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Three Core Questions That Define Organizational Culture
by Jim Clemmer

"I respect those who know their own wishes. The greatest part of all the mischief in the world arises from the fact that many do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Over the years we've been involved in too many "vernacular engineering" debates as management teams argue about whether the statement they've been crafting is a vision, a mission, a statement of values and goals, or the like. Often these philosophical labeling debates are like trying to pick the flyspecks out of the pepper. Unless we're lexicographers and our company is in the dictionary business, we shouldn't worry about the precise definition of vision, mission, values, or whatever we may be calling the words we're using to define who we are and where we're trying to go.

What does matter is that our teams have discussed, debated, and decided on the answers to these three questions (in no particular order): Where are we going (our vision or picture of our preferred future)? What do we believe in (our principles or values)? Why do we exist (our purpose or niche)? I call these the 3 Ps -- picture or preferred future, principles, and purpose. They are critically important questions. They are fundamental to leading others. This is the beginning point of effective leadership. These basic issues are the fabric with which we weave our Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose). If we're attempting to change our team or organization culture, our answers to these basic questions define the culture we're trying to create.

If we're going to further improve our leadership effectiveness, we need to have thought through and answered these questions on our own. If you have a spouse or life partner, you need to work on these questions together.

Whatever we call our answers to these questions doesn't matter. They can be termed vision, mission, values, strategic niche, aspirations, purpose, and so on. And how "snazzy", "different", or "original" our words are doesn't matter as much either. What does matter is: Can we give a unified answer to these questions? Is whatever we've developed clear and compelling? If we're a management team -- and especially a senior management team -- does everyone on our team passionately own what we've developed? Do we give these critical leadership issues a sharp focus and meaningful context for everyone? That can only be done through skilled, live communications and consistent management behavior.

There are no right answers to these questions. No consultant, expert, or anyone else can answer them for us. There is no one way to answer them. Each of us has our own style and approach.

I was in speaking at a quality improvement conference a few years ago. Following my presentation, I had the pleasure of hearing Bill Pollard, chairman of the hugely successful ServiceMaster Company, speak about the management principles and practices that took their organization to more than $3 billion in sales in a few decades. In his address he stressed the importance of clarifying and living the issues that were introduced in this chapter. He introduced all this by relating a recent experience he had with calling a friend and getting this message on his voice mail: ". . . this is not an answering machine, it's a questioning machine. There are really only two questions in life: Who are you and what do you what? Please leave your answer at the tone."

Jim Clemmer is an internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams, and personal growth. His web site is

Jim Clemmer may be contacted at


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