Join the culture club

When leaders are not actively engaged, culture transformations run the risk of abysmal failure. Daniel Strode lists five things managers need to know to help them change their company for the better

For many years I have studied the most innovative companies and their cultures, as well as those companies with poor cultures and whose businesses have suffered. So, as a company leader or people manager, here are some pointers to ensure that your contribution to creating and sustaining an innovative culture is truly effective.

  • Changing culture is hard

You need to be consistent in your application of culture, as this isn’t a quick fix. We all know that for humans, brushing your teeth is good for you and so is building a thriving company culture. We need to take the same approach. Brushing your teeth twice a day for two minutes, with a level of absolute consistency, will leave you with sparkling white teeth, whereas brushing your teeth for an hour once a week simple won’t cut it.

Culture is the same. It takes time and sustained effort. Many leaders and managers get frustrated by this but knowing up front that this is the case will give you the chance to stay the course and battle through the daily frustrations. Changing a culture will be one of the most difficult, but rewarding challenges of your career.

  • It takes a leader

When you outsource culture to someone else, it is bound to fail. I have seen countless leaders and managers outsource responsibility for culture to a mixture of human resources teams, communications or even operations teams. And in each case, the cultural transformation in those companies has failed. You should be asking yourself: “Is building a culture really a priority for me?” and then review how much time you have spent on culture-related activities in the past months.

The most successful leaders and managers are making culture their priority. They know there is no business transformation without cultural transformation, so they setup steering committees, and provide regular updates to the board, as well as spending time on the front lines with employees getting to know the day-to-day realities.

  • Setting an example

Leaders and managers must be role models and live the culture each day – without fail. Leading others is about influencing others, so that they do their best to achieve a common goal. In business, this means we need to lead by example, rather than by authority or diktat if we really want to influence. You must be aware that your every move is being watched and replicated throughout the company.

Each step you take quickly filters through to the front line and people are looking to leaders for indications about the company culture. This means you must live the culture you want, each day. It is not enough to just paint the values of a company on to the office walls; you must display the culture through actions because, as we all know, “actions speak louder than words”.

  • Why actions you don’t take are just as important

As important as the actions you take, are the ones you don’t. It is often said that “what we get, is what we settle for”, so if you let a bad behaviour go unchecked you are settling for a poor culture by default. People will, again, be watching and if someone with poor behaviours is promoted or rewarded, they will take that social cue and replicate it themselves.

Try to think about the behaviours you see in the day-to-day, be that shouting in meetings, or banging tables, or even walking past litter on the floor – and consider, what should your response be in those situations.

  • Understand it’s not about you

Often leaders and managers have got to lofty positions within an organisation because of the behaviours they have displayed and the results these have achieved. But we are living in a world where the pace of change is startingly fast and employee (and customer) expectations are changing.

You should be looking to constantly develop your skills and adapt your culture over time – what made you successful previously may not make you successful in the future. One such example is that, historically, leaders have been appointed thanks to their business results, such as sales performance or cost-cutting measures, but now they are being appointed thanks to their social skills, such as empathy and team building.

As such, it is critical that as a leader you understand it is not about you personally, but rather your role is to create a place where people go to work every day and know they can make a contribution to something bigger than themselves. A place where they learn something new, feel safe and are set free – ultimately going home happy. Your job is to build a great culture, the results will follow.

Daniel Strode is global director of culture and strategy at Santander and the author of The Culture Advantage (Kogan Page, £19.99)

You may also like...

School rankings

France dominates FT’s MiM rankings

With 21 entries, French business schools comprise a fifth of all institutions in the 2023 Financial Times master’s in management (MiM) ranking, ahead of 10 from the UK led by London Business School, which claimed third place

Read More »