The need to proactively drive the culture of a business is a well-recognised priority for most business leaders I work with. How precisely to go about doing that however is something I observe many struggling with. Often I’m asked how much of an impact one person can really have on the culture of a team. May answer is always the same – massive! This is especially true of the person in charge; never underestimate how quickly a culture can shift in response to the way the business is led from the top.
At the most fundamental level the culture of an organisation is reflected in the ways in which people typically behave. Whenever you have a diverse group of people you can expect to observe a diverse range of attitude and behaviours. While this is true, typically it is possible to observe a thread of typical approaches running through the organisation. Nothing has as great an influence on these ways of going about things then the behaviour of the most senior person on the team.
Whether that is the CEO of a business or manager of a team, the person in charge sets the tone and has the most profound impact on what people perceive as being expected and accepted. While creating or shifting the culture can be challenging success is intimately related to the degree of real and visible ownership embraced from the top. To drive culture it is essential that the most senior person together with every other member of the leadership team represent the best example of the culture they are working to create. It is a non-negotiable priority for every leader to lead by example and to be a champion of the desired workplace culture.
Among the biggest mistakes I observe organisations make is appointing people to leadership roles despite their lack of cultural alignment. A few years ago I witnessed an organisation known for its respectful culture make their ill-fated decision of appointing a senior executive with a reputation for being ruthless and uncompressing. The consequences of this decision soon became apparent; within twelve months staff retention and engagement results had both moved in the wrong direction. Turnover reached an all time high and engagement scores plummeted. At the heart of the feedback received from the team was that they no longer trusted the organisation.
As I share in my second book The People Manager’s Toolkit “Developing an organisation’s culture requires that leaders showcase the behaviours that are expected from everyone, whether that means putting in effort, demonstrating a positive attitude, dealing with conflicts constructively or helping a colleague to get their job done. For behaviours to become entrenched, people need to see their leaders consistently display those behaviours.” The most important things any people manager must do to create a culture that enables success are:
- Take ownership and lead by example; be a visible champion through mindset and behaviour
- Clearly define cultural aspirations
- Understand and confront cultural reality: explore the full truth about how things really are
- Identify the values and behaviours that underpin the culture you want
- Expect every team member to conduct themselves in line with your values and behaviours
- Mandate, endorse and enforce agreed strategies, programs and policies
- Send clear and consistent messages, through words and actions, about what really matters
- Monitor, measure and assess behaviour for alignment
- Apply consequences: reward and recognise, or take remedial action.