Winning Through Culture - Carolyn Taylor -

Culture is emerging as the newest management discipline, and one which has caught the attention of company directors and executives following recent corporate failures such as Enron, and Shell’s problems with overstating oil reserves. Building a culture for success can be achieved by any leader prepared to focus efforts to this goal, and willing to face the fact that changing culture also requires changing oneself.

Culture is different from climate or change management. Climate refers to the mood of an organization or how your people feel. Change management is about bringing people with you through a complex series of changes such as process or technology, and ensuring they are engaged and committed. Culture, on the other hand, is the values of the organization – what is really valued, which might turn out to be quite different to what is written in the organization’s value statement or appearing on plaques on the wall. These unwritten rules about “how we do things around here” guide the behaviour of employees, who find that in order to fit in they need to adjust their behaviour to the norms they see around them.

In some organizations, for example, people do not challenge each other during meetings; they nod their heads and keep their doubts to themselves, or deal with them one to one in private meetings. In others, people are expected to ‘speak now or forever hold their peace’. Employees find that going against the grain wins them no friends - they may indeed be ejected and branded disloyal.

In recent years, some organizations have realized that build- ing the right culture is essential to support their chosen strategy. This requires describing the culture required. An organization where costs savings and revenue lift can only be achieved through collaboration between divisions will require a One-Team culture where individual fiefdoms are broken down and people think for the whole and support each others’ success. The gap between the target culture and the current reality can be established through undertaking a culture diagnostic.

Closing this gap requires discipline, commitment and a culture development plan which covers a 2-3 year period. At its core will be a plan to change the mind-sets and behaviour of people, in particular leaders. Leaders cast a long shadow, and their behaviour sets the standards to which others comply. Culture change requires leaders who can “walk the talk”. Others have to see that if a leader is demanding a performance culture, that he or she is themselves holding the line on performance expectations, and exiting those individuals who consistently do not deliver. To stand up and proclaim a value of performance, but then tolerate mediocrity in a group of managers who are old cronies, creates cynicism and will ensure that no change in culture occurs.

Whilst a challenging process, changing culture delivers considerable benefits, and it is for this reason that the more enlightened companies are giving it priority. Once achieved, a great culture gives a competitive advantage that is hard to replicate, and such opportunities are rare in a world where product innovations and price changes can be copied almost overnight in many industries. In public service organizations, a good culture will result in greater efficiency and better service, as rework, duplication of effort, bureaucracy and slow decision making are stem from cultural traits. Far from being something that is done off to the side by the HR department, culture is created every day by the decisions that are made, the way time is spent, mistakes are handled, people are rewarded, projects are run. Small changes to the underlying values which guide these activities will result in major shifts in priorities and outcomes.

Perhaps culture has been avoided as a management discipline because it does involve holding up the mirror to oneself as a leader, and working out the messages you send about what is really valued through your own behaviour. We all have a reluctance to face into something this personal in the course of our business day. However, some organizations have established great cultures, and are starting to attract the best employees because they are such great places to work. As the reputation of these places increases, why would one choose to work somewhere else where politics is rampant, people stab each other in the back to get ahead, mediocrity is tolerated and you have to cover to colleagues who are not pulling their weight, and important decisions are avoided or lost in a mass of red tape?

As customers and shareholders, we will all experience the difference over the next decade as some companies tackle this most challenging management discipline, and create a differentiation which flows through to better service and enhanced performance. Leaders have the opportunity to make sure theirs is one of the organizations who takes on early, because it is not a change that happens overnight. If you are prepared to look in the mirror, and be a role model for change yourself, the ripple effect will be considerable. Mahatma Gandhi once proclaimed “Be the change you want to see in the world” – managers would be wise to follow the same advice.

Author: Carolyn Taylor, Founder of Walking the Talk

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