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One of the most important elements of a company’s strategy,  but also one of the least tangible.

There’s no question that culture has become a major buzzword in our post-Covid realities. Other than “disruption” and “innovation,”  culture is on the minds of business leaders more so than ever.

Curiously, ‘culture’ in today’s world is now closely connected with accountability, productivity, collaboration and profits. This is what the acceleration of hybrid work did. It accentuated the contribution of culture as an operationalising strategy through your people.

A robust company culture is no longer a priority  of organisations only. In fact, today’s workers consider it as much as they consider salary and benefits. It has truly become a non-negotiable.

But what I have come to realise is that whilst the importance of culture is often thrown around in conversations on a daily basis, many entrepreneurs, founders and business leaders I encounter struggle with  what culture means or how to define and shape their own, regardless of the size and scope of their organisations.

Defining the Rulebook

There is no manual for managing the change the world of work has undergone over the past 18 months. And anyone claiming otherwise is sure to eat their own words.  Nothing is static. Things are evolving constantly. And just when things seem to be stabilising, a new curveball is thrown right into our laps.

The emerging hybrid workplace is challenging our preconceived notions about work, the workforce, and the workplace. I’m finding that leaders are grappling to truly make the mindset leap to what it means to lead culture, productivity and excellence in this non-visible working environment.

As Esther Perel wrote in FastCompany, “People used to leave a marriage because they weren’t happy; now they leave because they could be happier.” The same shift is happening in corporations as well as startups. This means that many of the same questions I ask about relationships can be applied to the future of work.”

So what should this mean to you as a leader in your organisation?

That Darned Elusive Culture

Most organisational leaders think they know their culture. But what I find is that they only have an understanding of their culture.

Having quantifiable data to measure culture, link it to the bottom line and then improve it consistently  is actually amongst the most difficult tasks to achieve in business.

I should know, I’ve assisted business leaders and organisations of all shapes and sizes in this mammoth task for the past 18 years. Seldom do organisations have the deep knowledge and insight that is necessary to build a roadmap for sustainable business-led change. It’s understandable. We often define the change we want to see too loosely and don’t translate it to day-to-day behaviours that span operational contexts and culture simultaneously.

This is because our brains are hardwired to resist change and move towards simplicity. We don’t naturally think holistically enough about our organisation’s challenges. Also, when change (especially organisational change) is mentioned or introduced, it often triggers a fear response in all concerned – including leadership! What’s more, leaders are often too focused on the tech-based process changes rather than on the people who actually have to live with the changes they are envisioning.

Many business leaders are intimidated by the concept of culture because it is so intangible and hard to define. The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle reminds us that “While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” We have to realise that it’s hard to run an effective culture because there are no shortcuts.

But I believe organisations of any size can implement and maintain a world-class culture for business success. It is truly possible and within reach for anyone.

Culture Shock

The question for businesses today is not why culture matters, but how it matters. Take a moment and reflect; do you, as a leader in your organisation, currently know what your culture impacts operationally and financially? Do you feel the culture enables your organisation’s objectives or disables it? There is no doubt it impacts, the more important question is; how?

It has an impact. If you, as a leader, know how your organisational culture is currently unfolding in the coming year and how it influences your bottom line, you’re already winning.

To understand the impact and how it affects every aspect of operational efficiency. Your job is to shine a light on how culture is embedded into the makeup of strategy and decision-making and infused into your operational ways of working. There’s no single pathway or formula to achieving the right culture balance. Nor is it something that can be accomplished within a specific time period. This I’ll touch on in future articles.  The key to success in the new distributed models being rolled out worldwide is that culture cannot be an afterthought. The invisible nature of these new ways of working are no longer good enough. They’re not something to slot in only when there’s spare time. It can’t be simply owned by HR. It should sit smack-bang in the core of your operations and defined as tangible behaviours that can be tracked, improved and linked to both individual and organisational performance. It’s clear now that it is essential in order to drive your competitive advantage – to win the hearts of both customers as well as existing and potential employees.

Getting Back to Basics

Developing the best culture for an organisation requires an operational people-centric strategy that pays attention to the opportunities and risks arising from our new world of hybrid working.  This means your most important priority as a leader should be weaving that elusive golden thread between your culture and business impact.

You’re probably thinking,  ‘Thanks Oran, but how do I actually go about this?’ To answer this question, it is doable and easier than you think. 

You do this through adopting a hands-on, data-driven approach to culture management.  It’s important to remember that ‘our culture’ is not simply how happy people are. It’s the intersection of all our ways of work. This can be achieved through connecting  culture to the operational requirements that actually drive your business objectives and produce tangible results.  Don’t simply define fuzzy ideals or vague objectives. Instead, be as clear as day on what results you want; what exactly you want to see in your people and why. Then, measure these crystal clear objectives relentlessly and consistently. 

Leaders need to adopt a holistic approach that enables the organisation through data rhythms to address the key levers of culture change. Data holds the key to connecting these dots.

Bottom line: The current status quo presents an exciting opportunity for the COO and the CHRO to reset and co-create the way workplace culture is understood, defined, measured and developed. They need to work together to find overlapping measures. Two brains are better than one and with this, the COO and CHRO can co-create or reset the organisational reality.

Getting stuck in

In the classic on culture, The Culture Cycle, James L. Heskett  says organisational culture is not a soft concept, arguing that the impact of organisational culture on profit can be measured and quantified. I’ve seen brilliant companies with courageous and innovative visions fall on their face because of culture. There’s nothing soft about it.

Developing a distinct culture for your business is a highly individual process. Whether you’re aware of it or not, every company has its own genius. Like a fingerprint, it is unique to you and only you. What matters is that the culture is defined clearly enough that it becomes evident and easily identifiable in helping you realising your strategy. 

The goal is to translate your company’s  values and beliefs into workable practices. All rituals, expected ways working and the behaviours associated with them need to be quantified. This will close any gap between the culture the company is aspiring to and the values it is demonstrating in practice.

Culture is particularly important during times of great change. Like right now. As leaders, our challenge is to grow and sustain a culture despite the circumstances.  This may mean adjusting our definitions of work, performance, and employee engagement to accommodate this.

Technology has been adopted and adapted to enable new possibilities in the way we work, proving to be more systemic, inclusive, efficient, and adaptable. In remote and hybrid work, culture definition, measurement and enablement are not a side hustle. Both should be seated firmly at your decision table, more often than not,  this will determine your trajectory.

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