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What makes you mad in business: Company culture

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Culture change is overused and abused by leaders who change too frequently 

The average life expectancy of a CEO these days is, according to the CIPD, approximately 4.5 years. Most CEOs are gone before a five year plan bears any fruit, so, is the incessant change a result of business necessity or just the whims of an incoming CEO with a new broom? The truth, in our experience, is the latter. Without strong sponsorship borne from a single purpose and clear continuity, culture change never happens. 

Culture change strategy starts with why? Why does your company exist? 

It could be to create the cure for cancer or just to make the CEO a billionaire, but if you don’t answer ‘WHY?’ then your cultural strategy is doomed. Most organisations have no WHY beyond the furnishing of an elite band of middle aged white males whose sole goal is to cash in their entitlement for working hard at the right grammar school, red brick university and, ultimately, corporate gamesmanship. Truly great organisations make millions but not because that’s their WHY. 

Steve Jobs famously said: “I have no interest in being the richest man in the graveyard, I just want to go to bed at night knowing I did something wonderful today.” Ironically, by staying true to his WHY (build insanely great products), he ended up being, prematurely, the richest man in any graveyard but it wasn’t his WHY. 

ENRON, MCI WorldCom, Barclays Bank and other disgraced institutions had no WHY beyond greed. Barclays Bank’s independent report into their culture stated: “We believe that the business practices for which Barclays has rightly been criticised were shaped predominantly by its cultures, which rested on uncertain foundations. There was no sense of common purpose.” In other words, there was no WHY.

Start with WHY. Then follow your WHY with HOW. How do your people need to behave to sustain and build on your WHY… then let your guiding principle (WHY) define WHAT. WHAT is it you do? The point is that culture is merely the collective behaviour of your employees. So, set your WHY, hire people who believe it, let them do HOW and WHAT, guided by WHY, and you will have a great corporate culture. Remember, I didn’t stipulate what your WHY needed to be. If you wanted WHY to be “make me, the CEO, and my mates rich” then that’s your WHY, your HOW and WHAT to follow. 

If you are a leader driving cultural change you are doing it wrong. 

Leaders create an environment for cultural change to occur – they may initialise through their own behaviour and they definitely sustain it through their role modelling of appropriate behaviour. At Chemistry, my job as the CEO is to set out the WHY, to set the playground out and let my amazing people do great work for clients who love them. We have been clear what is appropriate behaviour in our culture and what isn’t and follow three values; Human, Passionate and Brave. A great culture’s true test is its longevity beyond the CEO who may have set its course. A great culture is great when the CEO and leadership is not present.

People are not engaged by what you are doing, so ‘we are doing cultural change’ is not engaging, it’s a WHAT

One of the best examples I have ever been part of was the turnaround of Energis Communications, a bankrupt telecommunications company. Now Chairman, Archie Norman and CEO John Pluthero could have taken over the business and said “what we are going to do is turnaround this business and flog it for a song, making all of us fortune”… but they didn’t. 

They engaged people in the workforce they wanted by saying: “our purpose is to change service in the telecommunications industry forever as we don’t think the way customers are served is good enough. HOW we will do this is by employing and developing the top ten per cent of talent in business today in every position. So, you have to be good enough to change an industry to work here. WHAT that means is challenging everything you know, putting your customers before yourself and working harder than you have ever worked in your life… want a job?”

Given this description, what do you think the culture of this company looked like? Does it sound engaging? If your answer is “yes”, then you’d be a great cultural fit, if it’s “no”, you wouldn’t. Great cultures are like that, they polarise, they engage the individuals they need and reject those they don’t. Energis re-engaged those employees they wanted and they knew would ignite the culture, they hired those that would sustain it and brutally rejected those that wouldn’t.

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