Culturally challenged

23 Jan
January 23, 2018

Susy Roberts, 23rd January 2018

Some organisations are notoriously bad for their culture of customer service and employee engagement; others excel in both areas. Is this a deliberate strategy (naming no low-cost airlines) or simply bad management? And, if leaders recognized that change is necessary, where to start?

Can leaders change their leadership style?

When it comes to organisations, the word ‘culture’ goes against the usual intended meaning in that it is not a naturally-developed set of ideas, customs and social behaviour shared by a group of people. The culture of an organisation must be meticulously planned, monitored and updated in order to ensure that everyone within it understands what is expected of them and is performing accordingly.

It’s not enough to declare, ‘this is our ethos’ and expect every employee to adhere to it. A culture should be as rigidly enforced as a sales strategy or growth plan; there must be no ambiguity among the senior leadership team about the direction they are pursuing.

This doesn’t mean that employees must become clones of each other, rigidly sticking to a script and suppressing their own characteristics – quite the opposite. A correctly managed cultural strategy empowers each individual employee to pursue their own goals with the freedom to make decisions within agreed cultural parameters.

A good example of this is global technology company ABB, which has 140,000 employees. Their new senior leadership team identified a need to improve customer satisfaction, and developed a set of transformational leadership principles for encouraging greater responsibility, respect and determination among managers as a first step to more effective teamwork and, ultimately, improved performance against the desired business objectives. Focusing on principles rather than specific actions encouraged managers instinctively adopt and naturally live the cultural values. This approach measurably improve revenue, profitability and customer satisfaction as well as improving morale and teamwork.

For this approach to be successful, the board must clarify what its vision is for its culture and start with the end goal in mind. A strategy and actionable plan must then be developed that will allow the organisation to reach that end goal, taking into account the processes of each department, ensuring the cultural goals are realistically deliverable and identifying if and where coaching will be necessary.

It goes without saying that the desired behaviours must be exhibited by all leaders, from the very top down. Those who get excellent results but in doing so make their team miserable and anxious need to be coached or managed out – there is no room for exceptions. The HR director in particular must examine his or her own behaviour and be prepared for some uncomfortable insight into their approach – and if necessary, accept help to change it.

Leading by example must include an openness to investing in coaching across the board, not just for senior leaders. Expecting people to develop qualities they are not familiar with requires training, just as asking a finance expert to step into a production role would necessitate additional support. Of course, the level will vary – the one to one coaching c-suite leaders receive isn’t feasible for a 1000-strong sales force. This is why it’s essential that training needs are included in the action plan that will deliver the cultural strategy.

An inclusive approach is also essential – values must not be imposed on frontline staff, but rather developed in conjunction with their experiences. Communication at all levels is essential to ensure that diversity is embraced and impossible standards are not being demanded of time- or resource-poor employees.

Communicate, define, communicate, monitor, communicate again. A culture is not something that can be announced and forgotten about: there must be an equal balance between delivering business objectives and demonstrating the desired organisational behaviour. The c-suite, and the HR director in particular, are pivotal in steering this objective and communicating cultural change throughout the organisation.


If you would like to discuss enhancing the employee experience at your organisation, by clarifying your mission, moulding roles around people or adopting strengths-based performance measures, please call us on +44(0)1270 750232 or email


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