8 Key Questions to help define the culture you need to accelerate Post Covid business recovery

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Part 2 of a 4 part blog to help you shape the culture you need to accelerate your Post Covid recovery.

By Alistair Brown, Principal Associate Consultant

Your Culture…..A powerful force for change, but often misunderstood?

Too often intentionally shaping your culture (the environment your strategy lives or dies in!) to align with strategy has been an opportunity over looked, down played or superficially addressed. Culture is often misunderstood and given a cautious reception in the Boardroom due to its “perceived” subjective nature, diverse opinions and challenges in connecting culture shifts clearly to improving the bottom line…..and a resultant but rarely acknowledged “Fear of failure” below the surface.

Fortunately today’s culture change debate is much more mainstream and supported by a growing body of knowledge and evidence around approaches and impact on performance. For many organisations like Amazon, Google, South West Airlines and Zappo to name a few “Culture is strategy” and “Inseparable sides of the same coin”. In my experience organisations rarely get the strategy badly wrong, in performance post mortems its strategy execution (Culture?) that comes under fire more often. In some cases the strategy gets the blame and is dropped, only for the new strategy to suffer the same fate, when the real Achilles heel is the prevailing culture.

In the first part of this 4 part “Culture Matters” series of blogs we explored

Shaping the Cultural conversation in the leadership team

In this article we would like to dive deeper into shaping the conversation around the top table. Ironically the majority of senior managers I meet, intuitively agree it’s a powerful force for change…..that does frequently “Eat strategy for breakfast”. For some it can be the cause of every failure and the solution to a multiple of organisational challenges. However harnessing and leveraging the power of culture today is much higher up the list of what keeps CEO’s awake at night, given the potential for culture to slow you down if the direction of travel pivots significantly. Agility, resilience, innovation, adaptability….today’s “Go to” winning hand all require a significant and persistent focus on shaping culture.

You’re already unconsciously shaping your culture?

Culture does not improve by chance… it gets better by choice, choices you make daily. Some would say tackling culture is hard, expensive, risky …and takes forever? However, while it’s not getting any easier, I firmly believe the right leadership approach, reframing the challenge and a clear focus on culture can achieve great things with early results and modest investments. Failing to nurture and shape your culture is more expensive. E.g. Volkswagen (Emissions) Tesco (Financial integrity) Enron (Integrity full stop!) and many others evidence this. The research supports the business case for cultural alignment more and more. Watch this space for how Best Western and Weatherspoon’s shares perform Post Covid after there financially motivated early responses to the crisis.

If you think about culture change as not “something you do, but something you get”, the reality is you’re already doing stuff every day, strategic and tactical, and behaving in a way that impacts your culture ….. You can’t not be! However, every day you are unconsciously rather than intentionally impacting culture, through the many leadership decisions you take every day and the behaviours you and your leadership team display that are not filtered through the lens of a Culture vision.

Work back from a clear Vision of the culture you need?

So why not clearly define the culture you need to execute your strategy faster and assess your strategic choices in that light. After all you wouldn’t invest significant time and effort in something that didn’t help you achieve your Vision and strategy. So why not also asses these decision through a lens of impact on and fit with your desired culture vision. Perhaps 2 or 3 simple but compelling statements of intent that can act like guiding beacons steering you to a future state culture.

So culture change doesn’t necessarily require a significant additional investment, its more about re-framing existing investment choices to support a clear future vision of the culture you need. I.e. How we need to work around here to be more agile, innovative, customer focused” etc. Who we hire, how we develop, how we reward, how we learn etc. can all be more closely tied to your vision of culture

Culture change has to start with honest and open dialogue in the boardroom

While culture change needs to be shaped from the top and linked to Purpose, Vision and strategy it’s most successful when built from the bottom up. Shaping and facilitating culture change with a clear purpose and identity at its core is more effective when all employees have a voice and a role in “How the work gets done around here” at all levels. Culture changes one person at a time and the old adage…”People commit to what they help create”, shines brightly in culture change journeys.

However the process of intentionally shaping your culture starts in the boardroom with an open and honest dialogue to reach consensus around answers to a few simple, fairly obvious, but rarely easy to answer questions. Here are 8 I use frequently ……

1. How would you define culture and its relationship to strategy and why is it important now? A common language, terms of reference and a compelling business case for cultural change will need to be developed by the top team and the process used to build a common understanding, sufficient priority, realistic resourcing and personal commitment to engaging fully in reaching consensus around the questions that follow. There are many definitions of culture in play, choose the one that unites your team in common understanding….and while you’re at it a common understanding of Vision, Mission and Strategy is worth checking for too?

2. How would you describe the kind of culture we have now and why? It helps to have a validated culture model/framework that points to key characteristics/drivers of cultural change to inform this discussion and use this to debate the “As is” position.

3. How would you describe the kind of culture we need to shape to accelerate the roll out of our Post Covid strategy? The more radically your strategy is changing, the more likely the answers to question 3, the “To be” position will differ from question 2 and the bigger the challenge of re aligning your culture (and uniting the leadership team) is likely to be. Failure to “Mind the culture gap” will slow down strategy execution and financial performance

4. Where are the key strategy execution bottlenecks and challenges that we can examine to deepen our understanding of cultural barriers and enablers (The beliefs and behaviours holding us back)? This helps to ground the culture conversation in familiar territory, operational challenges, most execution challenges have a collective behavioural dimension that helps describe the cultural challenges. E.g. Low engagement, Communication barriers, Collaboration challenges, Bureaucratic decision making, Lack of customer feedback, Top down slow change management, Waiting for permission to act, Lack of trust etc.

5. How have our stated Values helped us make the right strategic decisions recently and do they need adapting to serve a different future?

Values serve to guide you through set backs and difficult choices and describe the key pillars of your culture in simple terms. However they are only effective if they represent reality and are clearly enough defined to be consistently interpreted, guide difficult choices and inform consistent behaviour. The annual report, HR booklet or boardroom posters are probably not the best guide to your true values.

6. Do we agree on what it means to consistently live these values? Do we consistently interpret them or are they too vaguely defined such that “Living our values” means different things to different people, leading to confusion and conflict. Sometimes an organisation’s values just live on the wall, in keynote speeches and in the annual report and have a limited impact on defining and shaping your culture. Meaningful, relevant values that align with strategy are a key component of successful cultural change.

7. How do we need to adapt own behaviour as leaders and as a leadership team to lead by example? Do our leadership behaviours stand up to scrutiny, especially under pressure. Are we displaying the behaviours we want to see in others that demonstrate our authentic commitment to truly “Living the values”. If the values need to change or be more clearly defined, then openly naming the behaviours you need to “Stop, start and continue” to lead the way with integrity, is a good place to start. Its likely senior leaders will have to “Let go” of some controlling behaviours to enable a more agile post Covid response where trust, creativity and personal accountability will accelerate recovery. Its also worth remembering its not just how leaders behave that matters, it’s also the behaviour they accept in others that define the prevailing culture.

8. What organisational habits/collective behaviours do we need to change to accelerate the pace of change? changes stick? Clear answers to this question will help define the Values that are most important to success and the behaviours that characterize truly “Living those values”. It’s very unlikely that a radical change in your direction of travel will go smoothly without clearly defined behaviour patterns changing.

Often it takes a crisis or significant drop in performance for organisations to realize their current culture and communicated values are no longer “Fit for purpose” or “Future proof” and may not have been serving them well before the crisis hit. Often quickly followed by the recognition that embarking on a radically different strategic path will be much harder, if they don’t focus significant attention on re shaping and aligning their culture and values at the same time.

Senior team unity is fundamental to culture change

Time invested in exploring and reaching a clear consensus around a collective view on honest answers to these questions is a critical foundation to effectively leading a cultural change effort. A lack of clarity or agreement around the answers to these questions will seriously undermine how effectively and consistently the leadership team will be able to deliver cultural change. Sticking with the discomfort and messiness of different views is a key part of the learning process and may even require a restructuring of the team before engaging with the wider organisation.

Consensus and a united front at the top is particularly important given that leadership behaviour is a key lever for change, without it the job becomes significantly harder and longer. In the 3rd Blog in this series I will share some of the key habits of successful cultural change leaders.

While the views and unity of the senior team are important, the views of the entire work force should also be canvassed through a culture survey and an open dialogue at all levels around the interpretation of the findings. (The really powerful commitment building data is in the dialogue, not the colourful charts).This survey led engagement approach also brings measurement into the equation, another powerful lever and this will be explored fully in a future blog.

What next…… Let’s Talk Culture…..

Why not join one of our free one hour facilitated “Let’s Talk…..Culture Matters” sessions in a safe, supportive and inspiring environment where. On Thursday 4th June at 4pm we will be exploring -

  • Why culture is often misunderstood and overlooked as a key performance driver?

  • Why culture could be critical to accelerating your Post Covid recovery plans?

  • 8 simple Questions to “Kick start” the process of culture change in the boardroom?

What you can expect:

  • A space to share your own experiences, test ideas and learn from leaders in other organisations and industries

  • A chance to explore the key questions above and how relevant they are to your organisation.

  • Insight, guidance and coaching from Taylor Clarke facilitators who are experts in aligning culture and strategy.

  • An opportunity to ask the questions that are important to you in shaping your culture for your post Covid strategy.

This is a free one hour live, facilitated discussion and learning session. Places are limited to 12 on each session. The session will not be recorded.

Alistair Brown is an experienced multi sector Business leader having worked in leadership positions in global organisations for over 20 years before moving into consulting roles for the last 15 years. My corporate experience was with Johnson and Johnson, Smith & Nephew, Nestle and Hallmark Cards, which included 3 CEO roles and 10 years at board level and cutting my teeth in post M&A integration and cultural change.

His passion lies in understanding the complex interface between strategy, change leadership, culture and values. Developing a common language, defining the current culture, deeply understanding the key barriers to agile strategy execution and embedding meaningful values are the start point for an end to end process of co-creating a Vision and Road map for enduring cultural change that unites the senior leaders and engages the entire workforce.

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