Higher culture

To achieve solid, lasting success, business leaders must create a corporate culture that inspires and emboldens their workforces, argue Per-Ola Karlsson and James Thomas

The most successful companies – Google, GE, Toyota – proactively manage and protect distinctive corporate cultures. These companies are often led by colourful chief executives who understand the difference between changing strategies and business models, and altering corporate culture.

Corporate cultures don’t change very much or very fast. They need to be set up correctly and preserved at all costs.

Many corporate leaders have paid insufficient attention to their organisation’s culture, allowing it to evolve organically or meander over time. Many of these leaders now find that the culture they have is not the one they need. Part of the problem seems to be that executives see culture work as vague and intimidating in contrast to instantly gratifying tasks such as restructuring organisation charts, optimising business processes or implementing IT systems.

Far from being warm and fuzzy, culture change requires that leaders take a series of specific steps to understand their cultural starting point and to stimulate cultural change. Leaders need a solid understanding of their organisation’s current culture and its positive and negative influences on daily behaviours, so they can make the most of the strengths of that culture while avoiding its weaknesses.

Next, organisations should then identify a few behaviours that – if more people exhibited them more often – would enable the company to better achieve its goals. These are typically supervisory behaviours that describe how leaders in the organisation should engage with their teams and one another.

Executives see culture work as vague and intimidating, in contrast to instantly gratifying tasks such as optimising business processes or implementing IT systems

These behaviours could involve leaders recognising their team’s achievements. Or they can slacken the reins, trusting people with more responsibilities and without incessant oversight. Once the critical few behaviours have been identified, the company must then get more employees to exhibit these behaviours more often.

Leaders should use a combination of three mechanisms simultaneously. Interactive mechanisms start the cultural change by engaging employees with those few critical behaviours, making them so excited about them that they adopt them. One means of achieving this can include role modelling by senior leaders. Peer influence can also be effective – enlisting employees who already exhibit the behaviours in the dissemination process, and launching pilot projects to create momentum.

Sustaining mechanisms reinforce the behaviours and help embed them. These include measurement and feedback systems, ongoing communications and robust programme-management systems and skills. So-called programmatic mechanisms create a formal infrastructure that supports the behaviours.

These mechanisms include incorporating positive behaviours into performance assessments, processes, policies and training, ensuring the long-term institutionalisation of the cultural shift.

These mechanisms can create ripples of positive behavioural change that flow through a company, unleashing creativity, motivating staff and unlocking peak performance.