I traveled to the Dakar Senegal, West Africa years ago and took this picture alongside a barbershop located on a busy street. When you visit a barbershop here in the states, you often see these posters on the wall, presenting the menu of all the innovative and trendy haircuts available. What caught my attention was that The Boys of America popular culture had made it across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. They aspired to look like us.

Yesterday, I had the great fortune to listen to Ila Gandhi, a senior consultant with Berlitz GLT, deliver a very captivating talk on Culturally Integrated Organizations.



It reinforced my position that understanding and navigating culture is complex, yet can be extremely rewarding – personally, professionally and organizationally – when you integrate that awareness into your business.

What is Culture?

There are numerous definitions. What Ila shared stuck with me, “The complex pattern of ideas, emotions and observable manifestations (even symbols and images) that tend to be expected, reinforced and rewarded by and within a particular group.”

So just think about how that may occur in your organization. What is expected and reinforced? What’s the creed or motto within a group that you have belonged to?

These exhortations come to mind from my past and present:

  • “Do something, even if it is wrong.”
  • “Always wear the white hat.”
  • “Measure twice, cut once.”
  • “Ready, shoot, aim, then correct.”
  • “If you don’t know something, say you don’t know.”
  • “Never tell the customer no.”
  • “Always say please and thank you, when someone gives you something. If you don’t like it, you can discard it when you get home.”
  • “Enthusiasm, my brother! Enthusiasm!”

Business, civic, social, fraternal organizations and especially families – all have some expressions that reinforce belonging and being a part of the unit. Some are action oriented and a lot are value based.

What Ila really magnified for me was that businesses could really benefit from addressing culture before jumping into processes. Consider a merger and acquisition. What could be gained by assessing the culture of Company A and Company B separately before starting to craft strategies and mash systems, processes and organizational structures together?

Do you think a lot of time, money and legal fees could be saved?

An article I read on the success of mergers and acquisitions by Tom Herd, managing director for M&A within Accenture, on Bloomberg BusinessWeek (June 2010) http://buswk.co/axHCfS, states that we are getting a little better. At the time of the article, clients reported to Accenture that 50% of M&A’s showed marginal returns as opposed to a decade ago where nearly 75% of M&A’s “destroyed shareholder value measured two years after the merger announcement.”

All I can say is really? That’s as good as it gets?

Back to my Senegalese cultural experience. While I was there, I had all kinds of ideas about exporting products back to the states. In particular, there was an abundance of high quality natural organic shea butter in the open marketplace. Organic shea butter is now in so many personal care products, you can even buy it direct on Amazon. Yes, Amazon. By the way, there are very exotic blends on Carol’s Daughter http://bit.ly/QoCQjy, which has been highlighted on Oprah a number of times.

As I think back, I would have been on-target with my top two intentions for this Senegalese venture:

  1. Learn a lot more French and learn to speak Wolof, the dominant language
  2. Find a local partner that I could work with

The part that I would have had to spend much more time doing, in hindsight, would have been to allow time in the business discovery and due diligence process to understand the culture and build TRUST. As an American, this could have been the challenge. I was very eager to create a potentially rewarding financial opportunity – quickly.

Could this be where our business culture continues to stumble frequently?