The word 'culture' may well be a 'soft' signifier, but the hard facts about its critical role in today's businesses cannot be ignored, according to panelists at this year's gold standard Comm Vision conference (8-10th November, Gleneagles).
Culture is best developed with consistency and authenticity, and the axiom that culture eats strategy for breakfast holds fast, believes Alex Tempest, Managing Director, BT Wholesale, who outlined the importance of authenticating cultural declarations with effective actions around inclusivity especially. "Prioritisation is key and that starts with inclusivity," she said. "If we're all the same, where are you getting that difference? Culture attracts strong talent and we need to inspire people through our purpose."
Competitive advantage may be significantly weakened by cultural shortfalls, and Steve Hackley, Managing Director, Sky Business, highlighted ways to address and resolve culture related challenges. "You have to see it to be able to do it," he said. "Culture defies definition. In Sky, we use employee satisfaction surveys as the marker for culture. They give you a lot of ways to calibrate, and the mass of data helps answer the question of how to move the cultural dial in a positive way. It's maths-based and that cuts through the subjectivity, giving you ways to target interventions that help drive a better sense of purpose, more collaboration and better executive engagement. That's how you translate culture into competitive advantage."
Raza Baloch, Head of Business Partners, Virgin Media O2 Business, pointed to another set of actions that help organisations develop important cultural traits and behaviours that could strengthen their competitive stance. "When you look at culture, how do you start to change?," he stated. "One way to do this is to make it more bitesize. You may have work culture, social culture, support culture and equity culture. Consider whether you are hierarchical, overly bureaucratic and supporting employees in the right way. Focusing on small wins by breaking culture down into subsets has a butterfly effect."
For those business leaders grappling with culture management within a changing and fast moving market, Andy Smethurst, Channel Sales Director, Gamma, offered perspectives that may help prevent culture becoming stagnant. "You've got to understand whether you've done a good job of communicating what your values are to people - that becomes more complex considering how people work in the organisation," he commented. "And having communicated your core values are you then celebrating the successes of those people that live them? There may be remote workers who feel less in touch with the organisation. Do you celebrate the value they bring? And have you created a feedback loop?"
Purpose is what activates strategy. It's where you bring emotion and human elements to the businesses. We will fail to deliver on our objectives if we don't activate the strategy with a culture that is more emotionally purpose driven
Clearly, having a full grasp of culture and its impact on organisations is essential. But Leadership Coach Cally Beaton noted that in her experience many business executives 'think they have all the answers'. "We need to clear the path for brilliance and to let influences and differences come to the fore," she added. "The best wisdom comes from the most unlikely conversations and the most unlikely places. Let the learning come to you and be humble enough to let it in."
Hackley noted that hierarchy can be helpful in driving strategy, but culture can be driven out at any level by the people who care and know it best. "I resist the notion that culture has to be an artefact of hierarchy," he added. "Purpose is what activates strategy. It's where you bring emotion and human elements to the businesses. We will fail to deliver on our objectives if we don't activate the strategy with a culture that is more emotionally purpose driven."
Embracing the opportunity to build on an organisation's reputation as being purposeful and inclusive means truly turning words into action, emphasised Tempest. "You have to walk the walk," she stated. "If we don't make time for this we're not going to achieve in any way shape or form. Culture is a soft word and some struggle with its meaning and how to deploy it. But if you don't walk the walk and learn what those challenges are, whether it's ethnicity or disability for example, then you're not going to understand how to help and support those who are brave enough to put themselves forward. If you're a top level leader in an organisation you have to rapidly understand these challenges."
Tempest shared insights into BT's 'walking on eggshell' initiative where people have a platform to say 'this is what I suffer with in everyday life, and this is how you can help me'. "Inclusive programmes like this enable you to learn," she added. "They go some way in creating an engaged workforce that delivers successful outcomes. You create an organisation where people aren't afraid to speak up, they feel listened to and heard, and then put 100 per cent into helping themselves and the business be successful."
One of the clearest action points identified in the discussion relates to whether cultural goals are actually reflected in the real-world experiences of staff. "It's about turning words into action, and often the people who can action things are not in senior positions," added Beaton. "They are colleagues at different stages in their career and allowing their opinions to become part of how we engender change is important. Underestimate younger generations at your peril."
We need to clear the path for brilliance and to let influences and differences come to the fore
At the centre of this argument is the issue of potential cultural misalignment between leadership and employees, and in this context Hackley observed that a primary cultural motivation can be linked to the adage that problems should be shared. "One of the quick wins is to engage the organisation in the culture war and make it a distributed solve, instead of deciding your cultural icons and strategy and then cramming it down into the organisation," he commented. "Assign responsibility to people to come up with the answers and watch the magic that happens. Push culture out and let it come back to you. It's not just about empowerment, it's invitation too, freeing people to own the culture, to speak up and be part of it. There is an important nuance between empower and invite."
It is true that cultural priorities are different for each organisation, but the factor that unties them all is that there is no excuse for not making time to 'look after your employees', noted Baloch. "You can't say you don't have time to look after your employees, and yet have time to focus on delivering on a number – the two are intrinsically linked," he emphasised. "This is a mindset shift. Issues around budget and time impacting culture development could be excuses. Time and budget holding back culture development is a nonsense."
It is generally accepted that by far the most important cultural enabler is top level leadership, but there is a question as to whether leaders are targeting their cultural development strategies on the right critical areas. "When employees see the leadership teams make decisions – which is what leaders do - they want to be part of the process," noted Smethurst. "That's important. But people may not give enough time to realise that culture and strategy are not mutually exclusive. Culture brings together the strategy and you have to make time to understand that."
The advantages of emphasising cultural traits in this way can only be fully maximised if the conversation is ongoing and remains a day-to-day priority, noted Baloch. "Culture is ever evolving, so you have to be able to adapt," he commented. "We are in what is technically and ageing industry and we struggle to hire new generational employees, therefore we have to continually evolve. We work with technology which is constantly changing, and we embrace it, but from a cultural and employee standpoint we're not so good at embracing them."
Tempest noted that change does not happen overnight and that when events like Covid come along you have to react. "One of the challenges many companies are going through is the post-Covid home, hybrid and office working culture," she added. "We have a proportion of people who don't come into the office at all. It's challenging, but we find a way of creating a collaboration culture. It requires leaders to think differently and deeply."
The best wisdom comes from the most unlikely conversations and the most unlikely places. Let the learning come to you and be humble enough to let it in
According to Beaton, opportunities to build on an organisation's reputation as being purposeful will likely be missed unless 'everyone has a voice and makes the edit'. "When I do panel shows, which are still very much male dominated, it's not about saying the right or the funniest thing, it's getting your voice into the room so that there's no choice but to keep you in the edit," she explained. "We still allow the loudest voices in the room to dominate."
At the centre of this debate is inclusion, and Beaton noted that neurodiversity inclusion, for example, is about developing a culture that embraces not being perfect, along with business leaders understanding that they don't have all the answers. "We need to develop cultures that enable difference and failure," she added. "Perfectionism is the enemy of success, so you may as well square up to failure."
More points to consider
Raza Baloch, Head of Business Partners, Virgin Media O2 Business
You can't execute on a strategy without having the right culture in place. They are intrinsically linked.
Steve Hackley, Managing Director, Sky Business
You just have to engage. Businesses are full contact high engagement environments and you've got to get messy.
Andy Smethurst, Channel Sales Director, Gamma
You've got to create a business case for culture and in some instances make a budget for it. You cannot leave culture to chance.
Raza Baloch, Head of Business Partners, Virgin Media O2 Business
It all starts with your purpose. You can't drag people along. You have to inspire and motivate them to believe in and adhere to a set of values. This drives the culture of a business.
Cally Beaton, Leadership Coach
Perfectionism is the enemy of success, so you may as well square up to failure.