150,000 little things: defining and sustaining a strong corporate culture

Culture is an elusive entity, deeply rooted in a system of beliefs, values and norms. Joanna Swash, suggests that a properly managed strong culture, however, can be the key to creating a stable, sustainable organisation that will stand the test of time

Company culture is defined as the shared values, attributes and characteristics of an organisation. That was simple enough. Go beyond the definition however and the waters begin to muddy as you look to define the attitudes and behaviours of a company and its people, the way they interact, their values and the choices they make.

It is thousands of little things, cemented in unspoken mindsets and social patterns. It can be so complex to comprehend that leader – even the very best – relegate it to a secondary business concern. Taking the hard road in business, as well as life, can be uncomfortable and time-consuming but persevere and you will open up to extraordinary things. It is effortless to take the easy way out and hand company culture over to the HR department, for example.

Culture and leadership are inextricably linked and should be treated as such. Yes, it is complex, but culture is not just about printing out a mission statement and posting it in the canteen. It is the expressed stated culture symbiotically working alongside the actual culture, how people really interact within the organisation.

Get it right and the result is a strong, resilient culture, one where all people are in tune with the values and goals, and they are reinforced in every action that is taken. Get it wrong and you create a disconnect due to lack of understanding and buy-in, resulting a weak culture.

But why is a strong company culture so important?

Because it impacts the overall health of your organisation, your people and your customers. A strong company culture increases employee engagement, decreases employee turnover, and can improve recruitment, all factors which work together to provide happy, satisfied employees which in turn are more motivated, work harder and will improve organisational productivity and performance. It is good business, and it is good for business on all levels.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a strong culture cannot be created with the wave of a hand. It is a huge task, especially if your organisation has lost its way over the years and you need to re-align, but in dedicating the time and effort to prioritise company culture which is true and real will drive your organisation forwards for all the right reasons.

Attitude versus aptitude

People are an organisation’s biggest asset and the biggest influencers on your company culture. The impact the right – or wrong – person can have on your company is tremendous, believe me. As an entrepreneur, you can create the most inspiring company in the world, but if your team doesn’t share those same values this ethos (culture) will soon disappear.

Instead of focusing purely on aptitude, it is important to switch attention to attitude, in line with your organisation values and beliefs. Prioritise the attributes that are most important to you, and to your business. If you don’t shape your company culture, it will inevitably shape itself – and you might not like what you end up with.

I was one of Moneypenny’s first employees, now I am Group CEO. The founders gave me the respect and flexibility to grow to where I am today. I remember at interview stage that it blew my mind what they were telling me about their people-centered business model and that it wasn’t just a sales pitch, it was actually true. It made me want to be a part of it. That is what I am talking about.

What are the essentials for nurturing a strong company culture?

1Communicate

There is a lot to be said for true listening, and learning. Not simply hearing what a team member is saying but taking notice and acting on what they are saying. Being honest and open is key for a leader as is being authentic and delivering on your promises. Strong cultures that have been nurtured allow the creation and delivery of effective solutions. The business world acknowledges agility as a key success factor for the future, only by empowering, listening, and then quickly adapting to your people and the outside world will organisations be able to achieve this.

Being open and honest in any organisation is important. As is being authentic. As a leader you should be able to share how you are feeling and how things are going clearly and without fear. You do not always have to have the answers, being an effective leader doesn’t mean that, or that you can’t share how you feel. What communicating with transparency does mean is being clear about what you know, what you are planning and what it means for people, in a way that your audience will understand.

2Empower your people and take a step back

Your brilliant business is only brilliant because of your brilliant people. That’s my mantra and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned. 

If you empower teams to make mistakes, be brave and put aside anything that would hold them back, you are creating the perfect environment for them to come up with powerful ideas that could change the way you do business better. People naturally want to feel empowered so all you have to do is give them the platform. It is about responsibility, trust, listening, purpose and self-improvement. And it can create a more connected culture.

3Look after mental wellness

Being a good leader isn’t just about creating a safe work environment for your teams, it is about creating a safe environment. Full stop. People naturally respond anxiously to uncertainty however well prepared they may feel that they are. Furthermore, with remote working looking like it will be a strategic business opportunity in the future, recreating the office environment and those watercooler moments will be essential.

If you work at Ferrari pace, then you should also have Ferrari brakes. By that I mean, know when to stop and when to have some fun. As adults we spend over half our lives at the office, so making work a place people actually want to go is a no-brainer.

Without your good mental health, you cannot lead and without your team’s wellbeing they cannot support you.

4Be Optimistic

Effective leaders have a certain and unfaltering optimism. Thinking outside of the box for a unique solution or seeing a new business opportunity in the midst of a crisis, for example, is what makes you an effective leader. But don’t be blinded by the optimism. Yes, your team and your co-leaders need to buy into your path for the business, your belief but it needs to remain realistic, agile and open, acknowledging bumps along the way and learning every step of the way.

Company culture is the sum total of an organisation’s attitudes, values and characteristics. But capturing it in a neatly wrapped up box is harder to do. Ask your people and it will mean different things to each of them. It is the thousands of little things that make it unique, from the wow moments to the handwritten notes from your CEO, from the free socks to Zoom calls with a goat and amazing parties (virtual and live!) and turkeys and nut roasts at Christmas.

There is no one size fits all solution, but a strong culture is an acknowledgement that people are an organisation’s most important asset, guiding your culture and business to success for years to come.

Joanna Swash is Group CEO of Moneypenny, a business which employs 1,000 people globally and supports over 21,000 clients through telephone answering, live chat, switchboard and multi-channel services.

Joanna is known for her commercial acumen and hands-on leadership style and she is passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation.

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