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This is the final chapter of a three-part blog series on ‘Leading Culture in the 2020s’.

Click here to read Part One and Part Two.

For executives, changing the culture of an entire enterprise is not easy, nor quick. Significant, lasting culture change requires a structured culture change process, committed leadership and a well thought out change management plan (yes, it is much more than sticking a set of values on your wall or website and asking people to recite them). But you can get quick wins, that fuel employees and your objectives through the crisis, with some clever leadership tactics.

In part two of this blog series, I shared tips on how people-leaders can shape team culture. While these tips are also relevant to enterprise leaders, the top team must also influence culture at scale.

Going beyond the ‘middle-management filter’ ensures greater alignment and avoids the ‘Chinese whispers’ effect. With the normalisation of remote working and the uncertainty of the current pandemic likely to continue into 2021, it’s time for executives to ‘double-down’ on culture.

To help executives right now, below are five tips to help proactively shape enterprise culture, as we lead our people through this health crisis, economic crisis and remote working phenomenon:

1. Engage team leaders and junior team members directly, to gain a full-spectrum perspective on culture challenges and opportunities

A senior manager at a Big-Four bank mentioned to me that she used to chat with her (3-up) Executive General Manager several times a week because they sat in close proximity. Now working remotely, she hasn’t spoken to or heard from him in six months.

It is important for executives to hear from junior team members directly to fully comprehend and clarify culture challenges and opportunities. To keep a finger on the pulse.

Asking employees from various levels to participate in small focus groups can be effective if executed appropriately. Conducting an anonymous survey with specific, well-designed questions can yield open, honest insights. Best to ask creative, direct culture-related questions such as “If you were the CEO, what would you aim to change about our culture, right now?” Or “what is the biggest barrier to teamwork and collaboration at the moment?”

2. Identify and communicate policies and current, relevant culture priorities

During crises such as COVID-19, communicating policies for managing the situation is imperative and the top priority.

But policies are just the baseline; a strict non-negotiable that is immediately achievable. By contrast, your culture priorities are something to strive for. You aren’t there yet but should aim for these behavioural goals to maximise success.

Once defined, the culture priorities should be launched, formally and/or informally, with an accompanying communication and change plan involving leaders at all levels.

The key to tackling culture is that it is about change. Hence you need a change plan. Otherwise, it will just be a meaningless announcement with no sustained drive to realise the envisioned culture.

For executive leaders, your primary means of change-influence is effective communication. Beyond this, you could also consider:

  • How can we continually motivate employees, over time, to nudge their beliefs and behaviours in the right direction?
  • What resources and training do people need to develop new knowledge, skills and mindsets about our culture?
  • When and how will we measure how the culture has changed?

3. Get creative with your communication methods

Remote work requires executives to be more creative with getting their message out. We are all at risk of shrinking our circle of influence as we no longer walk the office halls, lifts, foyers and local cafes. While we in Australia head back to the office, on any given day, employees will still be rotating between home and office for some time.

Executives must adopt new ways of communicating, like virtual town-halls, vlogs and written newsletters. One client of ours purchased an in-house video capability. It took a few trials and errors but lately, it has been fully booked by senior leaders, due to the positive feedback leaders received from their people on the vlogs they were posting.

Culture change is rarely transformational by nature. It is more about nudging it to evolve. This requires a nuanced, thoughtful approach about what messages delivered how and when, will influence most appropriately.

Of course, executive messages must be authentic, open and honest. Fake it and no one will pay attention, or worse, they will pay attention and disengage as a result.

4. Identify new measures of cultural effectiveness

As we’ve said before, engagement surveys are not true metrics for culture effectiveness as they only track employee perspectives in general. They do not measure against current, relevant culture priorities. They also don’t truly assess how well employee behaviour is delivering to company strategy and required changes (find out more about this in part 1 of this blog series).

So how do you know when your culture is effective?

The effectiveness of your culture should be measured against key strategic challenges. For example, if you’re concerned about productivity amid mass remote working, you could define and track a set of productivity measures in terms of employee behaviour. Of course, with any metric leaders should provide adequate resources and support to make them achievable and desirable.

The second option is to design a bespoke culture survey, aimed at capturing feedback on the degree of adherence to defined culture priorities. But again, this is limited by the point-in-time perspective of respondents, rather than actual results.

5. Lead through authentic communication: empathy, reality, directness

Crises demand a next-level focus on human connection. Fear, uncertainty, overwhelm and mental health issues arise and threaten to destabilise individuals and teams. During uncertain times your culture is at risk of behaving like an out-of-control wild brumby. Executives must nurture it and become more skilful riders.

It is imperative to build and reinforce high degrees of behavioural alignment across your business. Don’t allow a culture to dismantle or (if it was already bad) get worse. Role-model openness to feedback and stimulate communication channels to help the workforce make sense of the experience and where they need to focus. As Brene Brown says: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind”. Feedback must be specific and constructive.

Some leaders will already be adept at leading culture through crises, turnaround and transformation. Other leaders will need to pivot their style and learn on the fly. The upshot of embracing this leadership challenge is you have the opportunity to become a better leader and to leave a lasting, positive imprint on your people, with the way you go about it.

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

This was the conclusion of a three-part blog series. Read parts one and two here:

Contact us to learn more about leading enterprise culture in the post covid era