When organizations merge and the cultures clash, what do you do? I just returned from the 2009 MiL Days International Conference conference in Sweden, at our CCL partner MiL Institute, with a side trip to Gothenburg, where I spent time talking with leaders at the Volvo Car Company. Volvo Car you may remember was acquired by the Ford Motor Company in 1999 when Ford was the world’s most profitable carmaker.
Big culture clash: Ford is about the values of efficient operations and production discipline. Volvo is about community and the values of respect and trust. Ford was the buyer, so Volvo had to take it on the chin. They had to make some dramatic adjustments. Among these was removal of slack in the production process. Volvo had always encouraged ongoing experimentation with the manufacturing process. Workers were encourage to find and implement solutions to problems locally and then spread the knowledge. Ford on the other hand solved problems through centralized expertise, comprehensive analysis and standardization. Under Ford’s ownership, the world at Volvo got colder and more impersonal, and less like the Swedish national culture that gave birth to Volvo.
Now, Ford may sell Volvo Car. Where would that leave Volvo? Some of those I spoke with think that Volvo can come out of this with a stronger culture. Two developments are especially interesting. First is that Volvo got a fresh influx of cultural DNA from Ford. Volvo has learned some important lessons about accountability and efficiency. Even more importantly, Volvo learned that its culture can change without breaking, and some of that change can be for the better.
Volvo Car is now creating leadership development in which “the culture goes to school.” In other words, leadership development at Volvo is focused beyond just individuals and teams, deliberately developing shared beliefs and behaviors that fit the changing strategic direction of the company.
This is a lesson of merit for almost any organization: Take your culture to school and shape it to fit your strategy.