THOUGHT LEADER : Why Culture Is King

Here is an important question for you: “How important do you consider company culture is in influencing both the short, medium and longer-term future of your organisation?” If you answered this question with anything along the lines of “extremely” or “critically important”, you are not alone.
I have recently spoken to senior leaders in more than 50 organisations and asked them how important they consider company culture to be, for both the short and long-term future of their business. Every single leader responded with the word “critical” or “more now than ever”. As one chief executive put it: “Whichever way you cut it, company culture has revealed itself to be front and centre of nearly every aspect of our organisation’s future.”
A managing director said: “In these tough times it’s the company culture that is setting the standard of performance quality, initiative and discretionary effort.”
In another conversation, client and I discussed her recent experience at prestigious Harvard leadership development programme. “You would have loved it,” she gushed. “The professor kept hammering the point that without strong and sustainable workplace culture we can all kiss goodbye to our business strategies. He also said that although the recession offered many well-placed organisations the opportunity to take advantage of attractive merger and acquisition options, many mergers will fail as organisations consistently neglect to take culture fit into account as part of their due diligence processes.”
Although these may be tough times for business, it’s perfect time to commit to reinvigorating your organisational culture. Today almost any effort and attention paid to strengthening and aligning your business culture will pay dividends.
In tougher times people respond well to increased clarity, defined meaning, sense of purpose and, of course, sense of belonging. Reinvigorating the culture of your business offers reassurance to people, signals belief in the future, boosts morale and energises individuals as they continue to front up with your customers.
So what are three simple yet powerful things company can focus on to strengthen and align or reinvigorate its culture? Unquestionably the biggest leverage of culture is senior leadership communication.

Leadership visibility
Employees in too many organisations say they never see enough of their leadership teams. You lead business, but you weave culture. This means get out of your office and tour your business. Speak with people one-on-one. Ask them how they are getting on, what additional support or resources they need, what problems they face and what ideas they have for addressing and solving them.
Tell them how proud you are of their efforts and encourage them to keep up, or lift their performance. This simple step of leaders repeatedly walking the business and talking to people shows up directly in marked improvements in performance and staff engagement.

Communication carries the very essence of culture… language. Language is the lifeblood of your culture. Where language goes, thinking and action follow. As leaders we should constantly assume we haven’t communicated enough to our people, because in most cases that’s true. Leaders should communicate face-to-face or electronically by ezine, twitter and even blog about their daily thoughts on the business, its people and its challenges.
Specifically, leaders should keep their people informed of the current thinking and changes being considered within the organisation. They should also reinforce belief in the company vision, purpose and mission.
Leaders should always, or whenever possible, refer to the company values whenever they are praising or encouraging staff. For example, simple compliment to an individual such as “nice work on project X Janet” adds more value to the culture as whole when it is followed by the words: “This is wonderful example of our company values of collaboration and service. Keep up the good work.”
Likewise, if Janet had performed poorly the performance could be highlighted as lack of embodiment of the company values. Values direct attention in culture and are powerful source of collective meaning and motivation when used often and deliberately in company and face-to-face communication.

All too often, companies find excuses to reduce or even cancel the celebrating of success and high performance during tougher times. Don’t! Celebrating success and high performance is more important in tougher times than when the going is relatively easy. It reminds everyone what’s possible, despite the challenges. It signals that leaders are personally supportive during tough times. Finally, celebrating builds confidence, instils pride and provides people with hope.

Michael Henderson is an Auckland-based corporate anthropologist. [email protected]

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