A few weeks ago I was hiking with a friend who is leading a large culture project for her organization. She’s in a high growth, successful retail operation with an established brand in the markets it serves. They believe that if they are to accomplish their lofty goals of expansion, their culture will be a key enabler to their success. Any time you’re in a service business, your culture is a direct manifestation of your brand. Duh, right? Not exactly. Many companies and many leaders still fail to see the direct correlation between strategy, culture and leadership. Culture is sometimes seen as a nice-to-have at best, and fluff at worst. The problem lies in how we define culture. It is shaped by values, but is quite simply the way people in your organization act and interact. It’s supported by people practices, and deeply rooted in underlying beliefs and assumptions that your workforce holds on themselves, each other and the company.
Now back to my friend and that high-growth company. My recommendation to her: Start with definition. What evidence would you expect to see if you created and amplified a culture that would fuel your strategy? Culture cannot be defined in isolation. Then, go to your people. Engage them. Find out why your people work for you. What do they want to achieve while they’re with you? What are their biggest aspirations for their careers? Then do the best you can to create the conditions where these people can do and be their best for the time they are with you. Culture in an established organization cannot and should not be defined by the top, or by a select few, unless the culture that you’re trying to create is autocratic and top-down. The act of defining culture should best represent the culture you want to create. Let the process model the outcome.
Once you determine and define the culture you need to fuel your strategy, then you can begin to take stock of your current state and create plans for closing gaps. The key lever to close the gaps is leadership. The quickest way to derail a culture initiative is to define your culture one way, and have your leaders behaving in ways that are counter-cultural. Watch for this behavior, especially from leaders at the top. We all know how well the “do as I say, not as I do” works. (Hint: it doesn’t). And on the topic of leadership, while engaging the masses is a must, so too is ensuring top-level sponsorship. Off-the-side-of-the-desk projects never have the desired impact. To ensure a culture initiative is successful, run it like a project with a clear sponsor who has the power to make decisions and the authority to approve budgets.
If you’re starting a culture initiative in your organization, here are some quick tips:
- Start with definition. What is the culture you need to get the best results, in alignment with your strategy?
- Engage your people. Get their input. Consult early and often.
- Model the behaviour at the top. Leadership is a lever for results. Tap into it.
- Take stock of current state. Identify the things that must be protected in your culture, and identify the things that need to evolve. Again, engage others. Your people know best.
- Create plans. Start closing gaps. Chart your course. Identify what people-practices and processes need to change or evolve to support the culture you want and need. Ask about everything: “How does this align with our culture and strategy?”. If it doesn’t, change it.
- Reinforce and reward. Find your role models. Celebrate them. Connect with your people on an emotional level. Emotion drives behaviour (it’s true – check out some of Daniel Siegel’s work on the brain and behaviour).
Culture, leadership and strategy form the magic triangle that when married in an integrated way can be a strategic advantage. For my friend’s organization and yours, it means that you have the right people in your organization focused on the right work, and working together in a way that achieves remarkable results. Who can say no to that?