Based on our experience at Axialent, culture is the greatest lever to achieve sustainable business results. Undoubtedly, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had most companies in “survival” mode. As we navigate into the new normal, knowing how to “maintain” or manage culture amidst workplace disruption is one of the top issues on business agendas (and in leaders’ minds). However, this is not a new concern; many of our clients have approached us at different turning points, seeking a partnership to preserve the leadership qualities that made them unique or to reconnect with cultural traits that were key to their business success.
Understanding how culture can be leveraged to boost organizational performance is the single and most important reason to manage culture. For many of those companies who have been successful in doing so until now, the current virtual context is a game changer.
To help companies and leaders address these concerns, we first need to clarify what culture is and how it can (and we strongly suggest must!) be consciously managed… before it manages you!
Culture Is Like DNA
A company’s culture is like its DNA. Culture can be better positioned (or not) to successfully execute the business strategy, achieve its goals and fulfill its mission.
At Axialent, we describe culture as the set of expectations people hold about “the way we do things around here”. A collective mindset. The unwritten code of what it takes for “one” to become “one of us”. This develops from the verbal and non-verbal messages that members receive about what is valued and how they are expected to behave. Leadership behaviors and decisions most vividly role model these messages.
Conscious Culture 101
The first step in consciously managing culture is to understand your culture. In our experience, an in-depth culture diagnostic combining qualitative and quantitative tools is most precise. The second step is then to gain clarity on what you want it to be. It would be easy to say that consciously managing culture equals consciously managing the messages that create these expectations. This is only partly true. Changing (or maintaining) culture is like changing your DNA and it must occur from the inside out. No external factor will drive sustainable change. To change culture, you need to address the values, mindsets and beliefs that people hold, as well as the messaging.
This is why the focus of our work on culture is on short impactful interventions with a strong long-term backbone. We highlight the direct link to mindsets and how these impact behavior and collective assumptions. We work team by team to establish widespread high-performance habits across the organization. The image below illustrates our approach:
Remote Culture Leadership & Beyond
Remote environments require a different approach to culture design. Many culture defining messages have some sort of material correlation in the physical world such as in-person strategic planning and goal setting meetings; visual symbols such as office layout or parking space or informal, water-cooler type conversations with leaders. A far more conscious approach is needed to nurture culture when there is a lack of in-person connection, and this is even more critical amidst workplace disruption.
Leaders and organizations must find new ways of making culture evident to their employees. Intentional efforts to connect with people and to really understand their needs and concerns must be made. Practicing compassion with people and taking it to the next level is of utmost importance. Embracing vulnerability in each person and being humble enough to let yours emerge too. This is where true connection resides.
What is the Role of Purpose?
A company’s purpose is the reason for its existence; the dream and the “why” that offers meaning to its endeavors. Maintaining your company culture as we navigate into the new normal requires companies to help people remember the reasons for which they exist.
Let’s explore a few examples. If you live in Latin America you probably know Mercado Libre; it is the most valuable company in the region (Forbes Magazine, August 2020). Its purpose is to “democratize commerce and money in LATAM”. Some of the actions they have initiated during the pandemic to support the communities in which they operate are: changing their logo (from a hand-shake to an elbow-bump) to raise awareness of the importance of social distancing; they stopped charging commissions on sales of essential goods such as diapers, cleaning supplies and non-perishable food; they postponed the dates for interest and repayments of over two million loans and finally, they took over those employees facing redundancy from food industry organisations such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Burger King.
In another example, the global logistics firm UPS is working to strengthen supply chains, so life-saving vaccines reach isolated communities around the world. The company has ramped up work with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance by committing $3 million in new funding over two years. UPS’s mission statement is “Grow our global business by serving the logistics needs of customers, offering excellence and value in all that we do. (…) Lead by example as a responsible, caring, and sustainable company making a difference in the communities we serve”. Similarly, the major global port operator in the UAE, Gulftainer, has launched a fast-track service to speed up the delivery of medical equipment. Its vision is to “consistently achieve best-in-class performance in all our port operations and third-party logistics activities worldwide”.
Conscious Culture Amidst Workplace Disruption
Re-engaging people with the purpose and the values your company holds is one of the most important responsibilities in leadership and it’s not an easy one, or one every leader can meet.
I love Fred Kofman’s definition of leadership. In his book The Meaning Revolution, Fred says “leadership is about getting what can’t be taken and deserving what is freely given. The followers’ internal commitment cannot be extracted by rewards or punishments. It can be inspired only through a belief that giving their best to the enterprise will enhance their lives”. If you hope to be an inspiring leader who is able to sustain and reinforce your company culture, the first thing you must understand is that “hearts and minds cannot be bought or forced; they can only be deserved and earned. They are given only to worthy missions and trustworthy leaders. This applies not only to organizations but also to many other domains of human activity”.
Here are a some top tips to managing culture effectively:
- Communicate actively and visibly your company purpose (your “why”).
- Seize opportunities to model your company values.
- Prioritize health (physical and mental) and wellness and help employees do the same.
- Connect daily with employees and promote virtual interactions, making sure communication is a two-way process.
- Continue to develop leaders through coaching and make sure they are modeling empathy to employees.
- Publicly recognize those who model your desired culture and continue to hold people to account for performance.
- Harness organizational and leadership adaptability (the ability to innovate, experiment, and quickly take advantage of new opportunities) and remain open to the unknown.
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