HR & Management

Above all else, business culture must come first

6 min read

04 November 2016

Business culture is a key factor for any business, but how do you go about making and communicating changes at a company turning over more than £50m?

This diary series is about how we have managed real business issues. Business is all about people, and with people come imperfections. With this in mind, there will be a focus on learning from experiences and identifying opportunities to improve – two key elements of successful enterprises. On the topic of improving, I’ll be talking about business culture this time.

This month has been dominated by the need for Travel Counsellors to refine our senior management structure to align it more closely to the strategy of the business. The re-structure optimises the skills in the team, ensures we have real focus and bite to what we are doing, and provides a setup that supports the company’s growth for the next three to five years. The structure is a means to an end. When you’re into the nitty gritty of it, you’re very conscious you’re talking about people’s careers, emotions, feelings and self-esteem – so the communication of this across the business is key.

However, it is not the end in itself. The fundamental matter to be clear about is the strategy – identifying the three key objectives that will drive growth and then aligning the structure around these in a way that strengthens the team. Too often in business, we are encouraged to focus on people’s “development opportunities” (nee weaknesses), yet most studies show the route to optimum performance is to enable and empower people to play to their strengths and make further improvements in what they are naturally good at.

Once you’ve aligned the objectives to the skills and defined the structure, the paper exercise is then actualised in the way it is communicated. In the roll out of our new structure, it was important that we did it in the most personal way possible, and we used this opportunity to not only clarify the structure, but explain the “why” and the “benefits”. Of even more importance to me was that the communication process enabled me to re-inforce the single most important thing – our business culture.

When I was driving to work thinking about how to get it right, my self-talk and belief system said that culture beats everything else. So I centred all my messages around business culture and made it real by using examples of how our unique one encourages behaviours that drive benefit for our customers.

The most recent example is the financial collapse of a supplier we used, potentially threatening the loss of holidays for 1,500 people. To deal with it 70 of our team worked throughout the night and the weekend to ensure no customer suffered and all were able to go on holiday, and we paid out to protect holidays even when we didn’t need to. The team stepped in without being asked and without payment to do the right thing by each other and our customers.

It’s a business culture that cares that drives results. Therefore, I was at pains to point out that whilst we needed to have a clear structure, it was in fact a fluid structure. Everyone is the leader when owning and driving their part of the strategy and it is the role of the CEO to constantly remind the team why we exist – in our case it is to care more than anyone else, and to support and encourage the team to show that in their own behaviours.

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Once the message was clear, I had one-to-one chats with each senior person directly affected by the structure, and we then communicated that to the rest of the business. I did that face-to-face via presentations to managers in the business, over Skype for business with our overseas managers and then a live webcast using our in-house TV studio, TCTV. I also included that webcast link in the monthly written update I distribute to the whole company.

So we now have a much clearer organisational structure. It makes it clear who is responsible for what and who owns each key driver of growth. As Travel Counsellors is now a large business, we needed to do this for internal and external stakeholders. However, it is the culture that has sustained several years of record earnings and growth and it is the innovation in our model and processes that will ensure we are around in ten years’ time. Our business culture creates the opportunity for innovation and encourages talent to innovate, share ideas and grow.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.