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Part one in a three-part blog series – ‘Leading Culture in the 2020s’

Humans are adept at forming mutually beneficial relationships with animals. We tame and influence them with food, care, communication and other behavioural conditioning. In most cases, there are stark differences between a wild animal and a domesticated one of the same species.

Wild brumbies roam Australia’s Snowy Mountains, out of control and unpredictable. But horses can also be tamed and cared for to become loyal, operating as one with their rider. A powerful yet controlled combination.

In the same way, great leaders actively shape their culture, harnessing its power to carry their business in the desired direction at full pace. They actively nudge people’s beliefs and behaviour to align with company purpose and strategy.

Some managers though, prefer to stand back and simply hope employees get behind them and stay happy, later wondering why strategy, tactics and important changes are not adopted (let’s call it ‘the wild brumby approach’).

Organisational culture is not only about keeping employees happy and engaged.

Leading employee culture is about influencing the beliefs and behaviour of people, to align to a higher sense of purpose, to optimise the execution of strategy and to make change happen. It is about setting the boundaries for what is helpful and what is not, right now (which is why the values on your website, documented three years ago are unlikely to be shaping your culture today).

It is important to note here that these boundaries can be influenced by senior leaders to a significant degree but inevitably all employees can, should and certainly do exert influence.

Happy, engaged employees can be an asset and with the stresses of 2020, leaders must be highly empathetic to employees’ well-being and individual experiences of isolation and loss. But employee engagement scores rarely unveil the true effectiveness of culture (despite executives and boards often using it as the singular culture metric).

Surveys only uncover the employees’ perspective, at a point in time. And while a sense of purpose, meaningful work and business results often lead to good employee engagement scores, the reverse is not always true.

You should not set a new strategy or execute significant organisational change, without considering how your culture needs to evolve and be supported to enable the shift.

In the current COVID-19 environment, a return to ‘normal’ is not imminent. The world has changed, as has your business. Economic uncertainty and social distancing are the norm. Leaders are re-engineering strategy, transitioning business models, right-sizing to match capacity and losing (at least some) connection with employees as they work remotely.

Your culture must evolve to drive success.

Why and how your culture needs to change are the most critical questions to address. In our experience, the most common rationale for culture change are:

1. Alignment with strategic priorities

This is the most needed cultural approach that should be tackled on a regular basis. The strategy you set as well as the industry environment and organisational history all influence what needs to change. Start with the business need, then influence the culture accordingly. For example, new competitors taking market share with lower-priced, similar offerings, may mean you need to become more lean, efficient and fast-paced in order to keep up. You may also need your culture to deliver more innovation than it has before. If so, what inner beliefs and new behaviours should you encourage in the culture to enable this?

2. Culture turnaround

Where the culture has become toxic and/or majorly negates workforce success and business results. Symptoms often include high staff turnover, poor customer satisfaction and large volumes of HR incidents and claims raised.

3. Strategic drive for high performance

Where (often new) leaders seek to increase talent and culture standards, as a driver of competitive success. This is often aligned with point 1 above, given its links to strategy. However, regardless of corporate strategy, many leaders constantly strive to build higher-performing teams.

4. Enabling change agility

Where significant industry disruption necessitates a transformational roadmap, shifting to an agile culture is about helping employees to become more open to change, better at executing it and instilling processes that support this (such as an Agile Transformation).

Whether you choose to actively shape it or not, your culture is evolving right now. It is being influenced by factors prevalent in employees’ lives like family, individual ambitions, peer relationships, career and cultural backgrounds.

These factors should be considered, accepted and respected. But as a leader, you can choose to be a powerful, inspiring, compelling voice in an employee’s beliefs system, or a distant, irritant in their otherwise more important priorities.

Consider all the ways you can influence your peoples’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Whether it is through coaching, mentoring, rapport, emotional support, quality communication, collaboration, new operating rhythms, recognition, goal-setting or simple encouragement. Leaders tend to have more tools than they realise when it comes to influence.

Your job now is to ensure the culture is influenced by strategic objectives and by your leadership behaviour, not only the other way around.

By Huw Thomas – Principal Consultant, Head of Thought Leadership & Innovation


This is the first of a three-part blog series. Read parts two and three here:

Contact us to learn more about lead change in the post pandemic era