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Company culture: Toxic waste or growth fertiliser?

When your employees returned to work after the Christmas break, did you wonder what proportion of them were delighted and energised to be back” How many would be looking for new jobs this year, and which ones would just plod along as before Whatever grand plans and strategies you have for the year ahead, I think that we all recognise our business growth will depend largely on this answer. The key question being, what can we do to maximise the engagement and potential capacity of our workforce, and what should we stop doing that is having the opposite effect?

Some years back, a mentor of mine pointed out that you can tell the culture of a business the moment you walk into the reception area. It’s a good test try asking visitors for their first impressions. It’s also worth asking your employees, from time to time, what change they would make if they were the boss for the day. One friend of mine tried this after acquiring another business, and the cleaner told him the sales director should be fired. You know what,” he said, ‘she was right!?

Employee surveys can be incredibly informative, particularly those that enable benchmarking with your peers. I particularly like bestcompanies who have identified the eight common factors which improve employee engagement. They also researched the close correlation between engagement, superior service and business success.

Here are five areas of focus that I’ve found to be most effective in practice:

1. Leaders vs managers

The first business I became a director of was in charge of cleaning telephone kiosks. The MD used to say: “There’s no such thing as a bad cleaner, just bad supervisors. Most people don’t come to work wanting to do a bad job, but the organisation and, in particular, their immediate boss can dramatically affect their performance both positively and negatively. The more people in the organisation that see themselves as leaders (for example, rolemodels that people want to emulate/follow) rather than managers who tell you what to do, the better. Leadership skills can be developed.

2. Social cohesion

When running the UK’s first 24/7 Medical Communications Centre, I was faced with sky high employee turnover, which we first thought was because of the shift patterns – nights and week-ends. It made the business hard to manage as not only were we being killed by recruitment but costs as well. The local skilled labour pool was being exhausted too. One of my leadership teams had the bright idea of arranging social events where our employees could share their talents with their colleagues. Our IT Manager was a magician (particularly useful when the network was down), the pharmacist was a wine buff and one of the nurses ran quizzes outside work. Within no time, employee turnover was negligible because our people realised that they were working with friends. The costs to the business were negligible but the benefits were huge.

3.  Performance incentives

I?m a massive fan of performance based incentives for everybody. Employee share schemes are much easier to put in place than people imagine. Giving employees a share in the business this way, or via a performance related bonus, keeps everybody aligned, thinking like ‘owners’ and goal oriented. Linking performance to Net Promoter Scoring (NPS) where your customers rate you, is also a great leveller as it is something everybody can impact.

4. Personal development

People seem to fall into three main categories in this area: those that want to develop skills as a means of promotion, those that want to learn in order to do their job better and those that aren?t interested at all. Sending people on training courses without understanding their personal needs is generally both a waste of time and money. So much more can effectively be achieved by discussing (at least once a year) personal development needs and running a set of actions to address them individually. For many people, working in another department for a day, meeting customers (if they work in a back office), having a talk at lunchtime from an in-house or external expert can all contribute to their development. Budget cuts shouldn?t mean this area gets neglected.

5. Personal recognition

Commonplace in sales teams but less so in other functions, one of the easiest ways to recognise best practice and a demonstration of the company’s values, is to identify those people that are making a real difference. It’s a great way of demonstrating to front line staff how important the role is of those behind the scenes.

We all know how damaging internal politics can be and whilst it is na ve to think it can be banned completely, a strong set of values, clear consistent communication and teamwork can, at least, keep it to a minimum.

So with the new year now underway, before your most valuable assets walk out the door (at night or forever), it’s worth thinking about how your growth can be enhanced by a better culture. Ask yourself that difficult question: ?What’s it like to be led by me ?

Martin Leuw is a serial entrepreneur and former CEO of IRIS, the UK’s largest private software house. 



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