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  • Writer's pictureKate Lye

It’s time for Boards to ask really searching questions about culture

The debate around the future of work rumbles on. But where is it taking us?

By Kate Lye, Managing Partner, KLI Consulting & Stratforma Network Partner

Mark Mortensen’s recent Harvard Business Review article did a nice job of reframing what can often feel like a binary debate about flexible working. Instead, he outlined three broader interdependent conversations about productivity, people and culture.

I have characterised these into three questions that Executive teams need to ask:

  1. What is the optimal mix of work arrangements that helps our business deliver its goals?

  2. What employment proposition do we need to attract, retain and inspire the best talent?

  3. What culture do weneed to be successful and how do we sustain this?

MOOC - 2020 was an unofficial cultural experiment

Understanding and strengthening the culture your business has today (as well as what it needs for the future) is an opportunity that many businesses say they want grasp as a result of the pandemic.

Indeed, there has probably never been a better moment to do this because 2020 was effectively a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on culture.

This extraordinary period brought leaders face to face with the cost of having a diminished culture, weakened when most of the in-office means of conveying cultural norms and patterns of behaviour, were put on hold. Unwittingly the pandemic has laid bare both the cost and contribution that culture makes to business success.

It is well documented that the pandemic has had an unequal impact on minorities and also women. However, it has also created a two-tier cultural system - colleagues, on the one hand, who have first-hand experience and ‘get’ all those informal ways in which their employer operates, and those, on the other, who don’t. New joiners have become the placebo in this forced experiment, revealing the impact of removing traditional cultural experiences.

This divide has helped leaders articulate what they have been missing and whether this constitutes a real business cost. But it’s important to remember that the contribution your culture makes to your business is highly individual, both in terms of what and how much.

Global law firms have told me about needing a culture to support complex cross-jurisdictional work. Consulting firms have talked about needing an environment that builds trust and shared delivery expectations. Call centres say culture can energise teams around repetitive work and helps newcomers quickly learn the ropes.

Pinpointing what you truly value about your culture, enables you to move beyond generic HR platitudes and get granular and rigorous about harnessing this typically neglected asset.

If Margaret Wheatly, is right (and she often is), that the critical act of leadership is to help an organisation to think and learn from experiences, then as part of the ‘back to work’ discussions, leaders should be asking teams about their cultural learnings. For example:

  • Which aspects of our culture helped us survive and keep delivering during the pandemic?

  • To what extent did our culture get weaker as a result of people not working together in person? What were the warning signs or evidence of dilution?

  • What are the tangible costs of a weaker culture for us - for instance in relationships, collaboration, learning, operations, agility, morale or retention?

  • What do we now know helps fortify our culture? And what elements of our culture could not be delivered remotely?

  • How does our culture need to evolve to help us meet the business challenges ahead?

Translating learning into action

A discussion along these lines generates tangible data you can build on.

For one, it helps you capture a description of your culture at its best. It allows you to pinpoint warning signs for when your culture is under pressure. It makes you quantify the cost of a weakened culture and prioritise activities to repair and reinforce it.

Equipped with these findings you can review your business processes. Does how you recruit, develop, reward and promote colleagues deliver one cohesive cultural experience? What about your operational or customer facing practices?

Furthermore, such findings offer a business the chance to underline - both digitally and in person - critical acts of culture; examples that demonstrate your organisation’s unique culture in action. If you have pinpointed the cornerstone behaviours and beliefs of your culture, then showcase what they look like in practice at different levels, so they become tangible, repeatable and measurable.

Just talking about culture is a cop out. Calling out and demonstrating critical acts of culture is a leadership discipline to aspire to.

So, if 2020 proved to your company that culture has a business benefit, then it makes sense to use your fresh insights to design the right infrastructure and the oversight to preserve it.

Let’s not pretend that anyone can manufacture culture, but you certainly can set the direction and reshape your practices, so it becomes part of your business’s muscle memory.

Promoting culture to the Board agenda

But don’t stop there!

The gold standard here will be achieved by those clear-sighted businesses that really pick up the ball and connect cultural practices to the shift towards Stakeholder Capitalism and the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Board agenda.

Every business needs a narrative that conveys their why, what and how. Increasingly businesses are taking the time to articulate their business purpose as part of their strategy with along published actions, measures and timeframes. Ambitious Boards will want to include culture in that mix.

That means defining independent indicators and measures that track and reveal the health of your culture. (For example, if you say your culture is affiliative, find ways of tracking collaboration and the value it creates. Equally, use your historic issues to identify the problem behaviours you also want to monitor.) Boards need to provide the grit in the oyster with a regular values, culture and behaviour agenda item.

If I could wave a magic wand and offer leaders a miraculous tool that bonded colleagues together, helped align behaviour, maintained standards and retained talent, who wouldn’t say ‘We need that!’?

And yet how many serious conversations happen at an executive level about the type of culture a business needs and how to deliver it?

Smart Boards will use this pandemic to be more demanding about the culture their business needs and much more serious about overseeing the culture they have.

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