Corporate Culture - the Topic Everyone Is Talking About

Written by Lucy Bielby on Apr 18, 2018

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Corporate Culture - it seems to be the thing that everyone is talking about these days. But what is it, and why should we care?

Corporate culture is both essential for the functionality/ performance of teams within an organisation and the satisfaction of individual employees. 

At EO Executives, we pride ourselves on the successful placement of candidates into organisations based not only on skill-set but also their cultural and behavioural fit. Therefore, as a business we understand the need for an organisation to establish a culture and values to which every employee within their organisation will (hopefully) be aligned to. 

So, to unravel the importance of how to establish a strong culture, we partnered with John Bell,  a Change Expert specialising in business and people strategy development. 

With experience working with brands such as Tesco Bank, Three and Sopra Steria to define their cultural engagement, John was an obvious choice to speak with on the matter.

John, what are your views on organisational culture?

Focusing on Culture is the next natural progression beyond the realms of organisational commitment, employee satisfaction, corporate citizenship behaviours and employee engagement that have had so much attention over the last 20 years or so.

Organisations are becoming more mature in their understanding of how people contribute to performance and Corporate Culture is the next iteration on that journey.

Unsurprisingly, I think there’s a fundamental difference between focusing on Culture and on something else like commitment or engagement.

What is that difference then John?

It creates a unifying and consistent link between the business strategy and what the organisation needs from its people.  Focusing on Culture gives an organisation a framework to really challenge itself and realign all of its people-practices, not just one component part.

The fundamental difference with Culture is that we first need to start with a deep understanding of how the business creates value and is successful in its market.  In my experience this can create a blurry line for organisations – it’s not often that HR professionals are digging into and challenging the core strategy of a business.

From there defining a Culture helps organisations better define how their people contribute to the success of the organisation, the experience they want their people to have and to clearly set the expectations they have from their employees.  Focusing on Culture moves beyond high-level aspirations of having people be ‘more engaged’ or creating a ‘great place to work’.

So, how would you actually define ‘culture’?

The most common response I hear is “it’s the way we do things around here". And at it’s core, that’s exactly it – the norms, policies, behaviours and artefacts that all make up how a business operates (and yes, those at the top have a huge part to play in setting the tone).

When you initially meet with clients, where do you start?

The first port of call is always rooted in the purpose and strategy of the organisation.  In my experience most C-suite executives will be able to very succinctly articulate how their business creates value, how they will out-manoeuvre their competitors and what the longer-term strategy is.

Typically, the next step in the puzzle is to understand why an organisations culture is the way it is.  When I ask that question directly to people this is when things get a little more interesting. More often than not, the response is a shrug of the shoulders, or at best "it’s the way we’ve always done things around here". That is culture by osmosis, and left unchecked that’s a dangerous place to be in. Not because the results of the next employee survey might take a dip, not because employee turnover might go up.  It’s dangerous because your company will lose value.

How can we better understand this?

Let me give you an example.

If you walk into any fast-food chain restaurant and ask for their signature dish, that dish will be the same the world over. Global fast-food businesses are based upon repetition and scalability. Consistency, rules and processes are king.

Imagine, however, if your signature dish came served with a new secret sauce that the store manager had whipped up themselves (regardless of how good it was). Guess what – it’s no longer the signature dish that you wanted. It’s no longer the product that made them famous.  Do that too many times and loyal customers will start to go elsewhere.

So, that little bit of well-intentioned, counter-culture innovation has potentially just eroded a small part of how that business creates value in their market place. And that is a very bad plan.

Where does an organisation start?

An organisations culture needs to be directly related to how the business is going to be successful, and not linked to some undefined aspiration. I’ve heard people talk about creating cultures of ‘equality’, ‘knowledge’, ‘growth’. Unless your business is in the market of selling knowledge then having a knowledge culture is most probably just addressing a gap in basic management principles.

Think of it like this: imagine you have a box of Lego with no instructions.  You could probably build something, and it might be okay.  But it’s unlikely to be either what you intended or what you need.

Now imagine someone gives you a set of instructions.  All of a sudden, those random bits of Lego all connect and you end up with something purposeful and useful.

How can businesses identify and establish their internal culture?

At the heart of managing a culture lies an exceptionally basic expression of logic:

“Our business will be successful over the next five years by [doing this], therefore our culture needs to be focused on [doing this].”

Okay, so that’s a highly simplified version of what can be an exceptionally difficult path to navigate, but the logic holds true. There will be many competing priorities to work through. Many different perspectives on what success will look like, and in my experience, this is the core work of a highly effective executive team. For it is only they that are responsible for setting the future direction for the business – it is why they have the positions at the top of the tree.

So, what's next?

Ultimately, once you can express that deceptively complex logic in a highly simple way, you have a clear cultural blueprint to work from. You have a framework to start challenging those decade old norms that exist ‘just because’. Every people related policy, process or behaviour can be assessed, objectively reviewed and justified.

You have moved from having all the right bits (of Lego) in a jumbled-up box, to a clear articulation of what you want to build.

The instructions are clear. You have moved from culture by osmosis to culture by design.

Is it time to get to work on your culture? If you are keen to talk to John or wish to understand how EO Executives can support you with critical hires, based on experience, behaviours and cultural alignment - contact Lucy Bielby on lucy.bielby@eoexecutives.com.

Connect with John, here.

John BellJohn has a proven track record working with C-suite executive teams, specialising in the design and delivery of strategic Human Resource programmes involving complex stakeholder and change management, with substantial global experience in FTSE 100 and public sector organisations - Financial Services, Central Government, Telecoms, Consulting, IT Services. Specialities include: business and people strategy development, culture change, employee engagement, leadership development and developing employer brands.

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