No the manager was cool, it was just that I could not survive in that culture. I had to get out.

We have all heard the phrase that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Well, hearing that had me thinking.

Yes, this makes sense. I quit Martha Stewart because the culture had changed dramatically. I loved the people, but the toxicity at that time was a bit much. I walked out with a job in sight.

It has become more and more apparent that the key conversation in the executive conference room needs to be about the culture of the company. In some of my recent meetings, I talked to senior leaders who are focused on getting the people thing right. I would advise any organization that you ignore this at your companies risk.

Strategic thinking is more than the business

You spend time worrying about your strategy, new markets, innovation, succession, etc., but you have no discussion about the life blood of the organization.

I recently got to see what a good culture looks like and how it is permeated throughout down to the lowest rung of the org chart.

My recent move from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Dubai did not go as smoothly as my first venture into the Middle East. I arrived at the end of a national holiday week called EID. As a result, all governmental offices, even the American embassies, were on slowdown.

This affected getting my visa, which normally would take a week. Without a residency visa, you cannot transact any business. That necessited me staying in a hotel for about five (5) weeks.

This hotel that I stayed in for the duration of this time became home. The staff was phenomenal. From the drivers of the shuttle, waitresses, the maître d’ to the hotel manager, you could tell that they loved their job.

This company did a great job in talent selection because the employees were all engaging and always smiling. When I checked out this past week, I was a little sad as we all said our goodbyes. During my stay I got to know everyone there. At the end, they all gathered around and we said our goodbyes.

Culture is about the small things

However the pièce de résistance was on my birthday. Arriving at the end of the day, I was asked whether I need my daily bucket of ice. When I got to my room, I received a call from the front desk asking me whether I could come down. Getting set up for a conference call, I asked why. “Mr. Ron, we want to wish you a happy birthday.” What?

I have no idea as to how they found that out, but the next day when I arrived, they presented me with the most beautiful chocolate cake.

That, my friends, is something you can’t teach — but you could mandate. However if you try that, the effects would seem contrived.

As one of the workers told me one day, “we have so much fun at work that it does not feel like work. Everybody likes everybody here. We all keep something going.” I listened and watched the hotel lobby and how they integrated with different guests, grabbing the door, taking the extra bags they are struggling with. The lobby was always a buzz of activity.

When you look at companies today, you see some that continually thrive, but then you see others that gradually fall out of contention. The old thinking was that you hire the best and things will work out since you have the best talent.

That does not hold true today, because lots of companies have great talent but they have not developed that culture that allows them to thrive. The demographics of talent has changed because people get restless, and this has caused a seismic shift in the organizational landscape. It is a new day and the ball game has changed.

Battling for cultural innovation

Blackberry had talented technologists. Eastman Kodak also had talent, but their organization may not have provided a cultural environment that is conducive for success and innovation. But when you contrast that to an Apple or say, a Nikon, they are playing a different game than the others.

Things have shifted again. Today, the battleground is cultural innovation.

Culture is king. If you can get your company culture right, you will maintain a competitive edge. Culture is what gives rise, on a sustainable basis, to the best technologies and business models.

Other companies might copy your gadgets and practices, but by the time they figure those out, you are already on to the next big thing.

Companies today have to strive to build what I call a culture incubator, where this fertile ground will allow for sustainable growth, an innovative mindset, and a laser focus on the business.

Getting your employees aligned

Through my work, I regularly interact with numerous organizations and governments, and one thing is paramount — culture and competitiveness are intertwined. So the new strategic level is getting the culture firmly entrenched in your organization so that each of your employees are aligned.

Get the culture right, with the right talent mix, and the rest will take care of itself.