[Life Back West] February 2012 – “Back to the Future”

Dolores Park, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's Dolores Park

Our 20 week-old Terrier-mix pup Porter’s maiden trip to Dolores Park brought back memories of the countless mornings and evenings spent with our much beloved, now-deceased, mutt Roady playing chase, kong fetch, and rolling on his back (Roady, not me) playing “sharky.”

It may turn out that you can go back, but will you find your former beliefs and behaviors in the future?

While some of the people walking dogs are familiar, many are strangers; they are all mostly people who live or work around the Mission who have a gift of time, the luck of having a dog, and a commitment to combine them into spending it at the second largest park in the City. These sets of dog owners form their own culture – that amalgam of beliefs and behaviors that inform how things happen.

Just like in organizations, this “dog park” culture shapes a host of experiences and expectations. While culture can vary by the time of day at this park – and even the day of the week – the early morning crew that I catch still has the essence of a culture that has lasted at least 15 years. Fail to pick up your dog’s poop? A park regular will wander over, offer you a clean poop bag, and say “Here, you can use this to pick up your dog’s poop that’s right behind the tree 20 yards away.” Have a dog that plays a little too rough and not so nice with the other dogs? Somebody will offer the name of a dog course or a trainer who “does wonders with bumpy canines.”

And as in any formal organization, the informal Dolores Park dog culture is made up of both a “do as I say” and “do as I do” element. As the head of my son’s grade school Lucinda Lee Katz might say, it’s not an “either” “or” but a “both” “and.

You can assess culture the same way you assess individuals, teams, or organizations, and that’s by observing and noting the beliefs and behaviors that people have and do, what they say, and any disconnects, differences and affirmations between those beliefs and behaviors.

The business that touts “customers are our most important  asset” and leaves you on hold, or never follows up, is simply telling you that customers are not their most important business. The retailer that drops by your home in the 94110 zip code to hand deliver a package – as the guy from Mission Cycling‘s online store did before the Christmas holidays – is telling you that taking care of locals whenever they can is a priority. The “quality” person who turns out error-ridden product or the staffer who extolls diversity and inclusion and then excludes and focuses narrowly on a small subset of people are telling you that they are not exactly what they say they are. The person who makes it easy for just about anyone to participate in a variety of ways and forums – as Bi-Rite’s owner Sam Mogannam has done with his Dolores Park area non-profit 18 Reasons – is telling you that they highly value both – community and participation.

Words and behaviors; behaviors and words.

As someone who spends his work life assessing people and organizations, I watch first for the behaviors before I take any words at face value. And if I have to make a choice, I’ll choose the behaviors of people as the real standards for culture before I believe any “mission culture statements” that are expressed.

From my in-house corporate days, one of my favorite (and high performing) managers Elmo Angel never mentioned much about gender equality in the workplace, or the importance of employee involvement; his management staffs, though, always had a fair number of talented women, most who were promoted, and his site’s employees were some of the best in terms of knowing the business of the business because transparency in Elmo’s operation was high and employees got engaged in a variety of ways. In Elmo’s case the “what he did” spoke volumes about what he believed, though he never really mentioned it.

So as I rediscover the dog people culture by spending time with Porter at Dolores Park, I’ll listen to what people say when they describe “they way we do things around here.”

More importantly I’ll watch what they do.

Why? Because I know that while you can go back to the future, I don’t assume that the culture you left will be waiting for you in the present.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

Enhanced by Zemanta