In the recent years, the number of articles and insights about company culture has increased significantly. This is not because there is more interest on this matter than the past, but because there is an increasing number of bad stories coming from the corporate world.
Not surprisingly, I have been invited, few weeks ago, to speak about culture at the Tech Leaders Summit in London with the objective to offer to the audience my perspective about building and sustaining a high-performing culture in growing organisations, key pitfalls to avoid and practical steps to get results.
Build a High-Performing Culture. Not Just a Culture
In a simplistic way, a culture is how we do stuff. It’s the way things happen underneath the surface. It goes beyond the formal procedures and processes.
To be more specific, a culture is a set of behaviors that are encouraged and accepted in an organisation. These behaviours are consistently reinforced by the leadership own behaviours and attitudes with the right structures and incentives in place. But it is also a set of behaviours that are discouraged and not tolerated.
By working with executives, I realised that leaders have a very different perspective about a company culture. Most of time it is very fluffy. Few times, unfortunately, culture is very specific with clear performance indicators to track results. This is what makes a culture based on high-performance.
When leaders say they want to have a more entrepreneurial or collaborative organisation, I struggle to understand what that really means. They shouldn’t stop at buzzwords to describe their desired culture. When I work with them, I push them to be specific and see the big picture. Why do they want to change the culture? What behaviors and habitsdo they want? How can they measure results?
My suggestion is to stay away from easy-fix solutions offered by experts. Culture is not a package to buy. Culture is not a copy and paste from books or success stories from other businesses. It’s not a menu to pick and choose. And it’s certainly not a table tennis at the office.
Leaders Go First
Building a high-performing culture works only when it starts from the top. There is no other way around. Telling employees to go first and “fix it” won’t produce any favourable outcome.
In fact, I have noticed many times that leaders have defined the new set of behaviours, maybe they have been very specific in setting performance metrics too. However, they fail to understand this initiative can’t be delegated.
They need to change first their own attitudes and behaviors to model and create the new culture. This takes time, consistency, support. It will include setting new habits, new routines, new ways to do business. It is a long way. Yes, but it is worth.
It doesn’t stop there. Leaders must show to their organisation that things are changing. They need to be the model and the message. Consistently across the organisation and across all touch points with employees.
After that and only they made the change, it’s time to engage with other executives and managers. New structures and rewarding systems will follow later.
As it becomes clear now, this isn’t a quick fix. If leaders are not ready to embark on a potentially long journey, it would be better not to start at all.
A typical dilemma that leaders face during these initiatives is what to do when employees don’t want to adapt to the new culture. This is frequent. It happens in all organisations.
If the new culture is vital for the leader and the organisation (as it should be), executives need to stop tolerating poor performance and non-conforming behaviors. What if the resistance comes from a top star in the organisation though? It may well be one of the best sales managers or someone who knows the organisation inside-out. It could be also a C-suite executive who might have a completely different view on culture than the CEO.
This is the dilemma. Will leaders tolerate and accept exceptions? My straight answer is NO. Irrespective of the quality, the skills and the past success of this employee, leaders can’t tolerate unaccepted behaviors. Firing is the last resort, but it’s the only option if things don’t change.
Tolerating will only lead to failure and all efforts become useless.
Dealing with Different Cultures during Mergers and Acquisitions
Merging or acquiring other businesses adds more complexity to the topic, as unfortunately most mergers fail because of culture.
A cultural fit between two organisations is often an underrated factor in the due diligence process primarily based on financial assessments, strategic and operational fits. It’s the basis but not enough considering that mergers fail due to lack of cultural fit.
We all remember one of the most advertised mergers between Amazon and Whole Foods. A lot of fanfare. Perfect fit from a strategic perspective. A fiasco from a cultural point of view that led many employees to cry and leave only one year after the merger.
Why? The two cultures were at the antipodes. Amazon, and its CEO Jeff Bezos, embraces independence and expects unwavering discipline from the employees in a very top-down structure. On the other hand, Whole Foods and its CEO John Mackey believe in collaboration, change and empowering their employees.
Cultural assessment before M&As is not only necessary to get the full value. It’s vital for sustaining business success.
A tough decision to make is what to do if the culture assessment doesn’t sound right. I would suggest stopping the process unless there is a strong, effective and strategic plan in place to build a bridge between the two cultures before the merger happens.
Sadly, organisations tend to think more about it when it’s too late. The reverse engineering doesn’t work in these circumstances.
If you are thinking to embrace a cultural change initiative for your organisation, get in touch. By applying a proven methodology and approach, I help leaders to define the way they want their culture to be in their organisations, and create a process that assures the highest levels of performance across the organisation.