In his book, ‘Start with Why’, Simon Sinek quickly draws our attention to the fact that we gravitate towards the tangible things far more quickly than we are willing to wrestle with the intangible.
It’s obvious really, our tendency to want to shape what we can put our hands on is a natural response, particularly when demands are placed upon us in a work setting.
So what happens when you’re asked to develop the intangible into something that needs to be pervasive across and organisation and easily identified?
Establishing a culture that works for the organisation today, simply can’t be achieved by paying homage to ‘the way we’ve done things around here for years’. Culture should be the product of determined and intentional leadership action, not the by-product of passively accepted working practices. The world is too fast moving to use heritage as the only influencer of culture. An organisation’s culture must be more actively managed than allowing something to simply emerge.
So where do you start?
Think of your culture as having the same proportions to those of an iceberg – three quarters foundational (or submerged to follow our analogy) and just one quarter visible. Of course, without foundations there would be nothing to build upon. But when judging culture, it is the visible or tangible that people will base their opinions on. During the Senior Leaders Programme, Level 7, we consider the components that drive culture and those which are products of it.
What is noticeable, from our work with various organisations over the past ten years, is that the more consideration that is given to what ‘great looks like’, the better the chance the organisation/team has in achieving this.
Consider organisations like Google and other recently established corporate giants. They don’t put spiral slides and bean bags in their office buildings because they need a space to fill. They’re signposting strongly what it should feel like to be part of this team and what the working space should feel like.
For longer established workplaces, we can look through the telescope from the other end and also view a disparity of how the behaviours we see on a daily basis are in contrast to how we’d hope for. So regardless of our own employment situation, old or new, one thing is common – establishing a culture that works requires focused attention and sustained effort.
Here are our 5 key components to ensuring a consistent and desired culture.
- Identify what great looks like, establishing your culture is as ‘soft and fluffy’ as leadership gets. You’re calling out something that is far from tangible and in many cases you’re describing something that doesn’t exist. You only need to recall the Martin Luther King speech of “I have a dream”. From this you get a sense that leadership is about calling into being, something that doesn’t already exist. For most of us, our mandate might not be so far reaching as MLK but it’s no less important for shaping the working world we inhabit daily.
- Articulate it in a way that people get and is relevant to them: There is every danger that you’re going to create more corporate wall paper, so it needs to be delivered in a way that your audience can appreciate, understand and buy into.
- Demonstrate it: The organisation’s eyes are upon you in the leadership position. Are you a genuine torch bearer of the culture who lives and breathes the message you’re conveying or is it a party line that and a role you play and when the cameras are off, you can relax and ‘be yourself’ – be warned, the cameras are never off.
- Gather: Who are those ambassadors and enthusiasts you can rely on to catch hold of the message and run with it. In many ways, your internal influencers may do a better job of conveying the message than you can. Find those people and gather your early adopters to spread the word through their actions.
- Recognise it: Don’t miss a trick of celebrating what great looks like whenever it shows up. Despite our national reserve people love being acknowledged for doing good stuff. Malcolm Gladwell refers to creating the Tipping Point.
In other words, create sufficient momentum that once it’s in motion it becomes impossible to stop.
When you’ve set these wheels in motion, prioritise your culture daily to ensure it remains a key priority make it a talking point, encourage others to do the same. The realities of change is at work in all our lives and with that change, forces are at play can seek to derail or mis-shape our cultural intent.
Be the role model of the culture, call out what great looks like daily and address the shortfalls relentlessly. You might not notice your success immediately but pause, reflect and celebrate how far you’ve come.
As mentioned above, we discuss the components that drive culture on the CMI level 7 Senior Leadership Programme.
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Associate tutor of In Professional Development