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I'll remember 2018 as the year that organizations around the globe came to the realization that adopting an open culture is a critical business imperative.
Looking back, I realize I should have seen it coming. In November 2017, I experienced a career-first event: I was asked to participate in a series of sales conversations. As Red Hat’s chief people officer, I don’t often get recruited to sit down with customers—especially those on the other side of the world in the Nordic region. But there I was.
For several days, I engaged in illuminating conversations with Red Hat customers from a diverse set of industries, from government to finance to automotive to telecommunications. Each of them was so different, but their problems were exactly the same.
They'd specifically requested I meet with them because their challenges weren't purely technological. In fact, technologies were the least of their concerns. They were excited to use some new Red Hat solutions to help transform their businesses, but were encountering "people" issues. Their organizational cultures and team structures weren't allowing them to get the most out of the tools. Open tools, they realized, work best in the hands of collaborative, transparent and inclusive teams. They wanted me to explain how they could build teams that operated according to open principles.
Transforming—not only digitally, but also culturally—would be fundamental to their continued survival in 2018 and beyond, they said. Regardless of their respective industries, customers told me they feared being disrupted by more agile, digitally native competitors. They viewed adopting open practices as their best bet against disruption. Learning to be open was a business imperative for them, not just a technological one.
To call the experience "eye-opening" would be an understatement. I was observing, firsthand, a fascinating shift. Red Hat customers were increasingly asking to hear about our open perspective not only on how we develop technology but also how our culture works as a strategic differentiator for us.
Big changes were on the horizon.
That experience stuck with me throughout 2018, which was also a banner year for culture-focused projects inside Red Hat. Most notably, at the beginning of the year we unveiled our new purpose statement, a single-sentence explanation of Red Hat's North Star and the reason why we’re here. We developed that statement—"Open unlocks the world's potential"—through a collaborative process that involved collecting feedback from 10,000 Red Hat associates globally. It was a prime example of our culture in action.
My experience in the Nordics had already shown me how Red Hat could help others harness the power of openness to unlock new potential. It was also time to shift our focus inward and remind ourselves what makes Red Hat such a great place to work, learn and grow.
We pride ourselves on being a diverse and inclusive meritocracy, a place where the best ideas can win regardless of their origin, and in 2018 we wanted to be sure every Red Hatter benefited from that culture. After all, in a true meritocracy of ideas, the only way to continue being a meritocracy is to continually challenge yourself to be more meritocratic.
So we embarked on a yearlong journey to better understand the way different Red Hatters—people in different stages of their careers, people with different job functions, people in different geographic regions, people of different races and genders—experienced Red Hat's inclusive meritocracy. We conducted a "listening tour" that helped us hear from passionate Red Hatters eager to explain what life at Red Hat felt like to them. Our aim is to hear as many people as possible in order to more fully understand the day-to-day associate experience. The conversations were challenging, uplifting, insightful, and honest, and they created spaces where people could share their unfiltered stories and recommendations for creating more globally applicable diversity and inclusion efforts.
Of course, this approach involved more work than conventional methods of building employee programs do. My team could have brainstormed ideas on our own, perhaps gathered some feedback over the telephone from one or two global stakeholders, outlined a set of initiatives ourselves, presented our goals to Red Hat leadership, then set about driving those initiatives through the organization. We weren't invested in dictating immediate change as much as we were creating a pool of shared meaning we could use to better understand and describe a more complete picture of Red Hat's organizational culture.
The importance of managers
A common theme emerged from those conversations: the important role managers play in fostering and spreading Red Hat's open culture to every department, team, and individual Red Hatter. In the coming year, we will undertake another important challenge: investigating and defining "open management."
At Red Hat, we know the best managers are those that work according to open principles, but what does an "open manager" really look like? How do we know one when we see one? And, crucially, can we distill lessons and best practices from observing the best leaders at Red Hat and beyond?
We'll be working to create a strategy for enabling our managers who are new to Red Hat (or maybe even new to managing in general) to more rapidly and confidently grow into people who help others understand how open can unlock personal and professional potential. And then we'll share what we've learned with our customers and partners to help them on their transformation journeys.
I'm eager to see where another exciting year of open culture conversations will take us.
DeLisa Alexander is executive vice president and chief people officer at Red Hat.