About a month ago, we were conducting senior stakeholder interviews to ascertain key requirements for a new leadership position. This position was created to strengthen the leadership pipeline for the top role in government entities. A particularly enlightened leader was the subject of our interview that day. He said something that has stayed with us – “The ONLY job of top leadership in the organization is to shape and drive its culture”. Yes, he said ONLY! Louis Gerstner Jr., Ex-Chairman and CEO of IBM in his bestselling book, Who says elephants can’t dance: Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround, echoes a similar thought, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game”.
While the jury is still out on whether shaping and driving culture in the organization is top leadership’s only job – it is undeniably amongst the most critical.
The concept of organizational culture has been defined in several ways. The distinct definitions share three elements. First, organizational culture is a set of common/shared values/beliefs/attitudes. Second, it is unique to every organization and finally, it has a significant impact on the “way things get done”. A proxy we find particularly useful to gauge the strength of culture in any organization is the prevalence of existing processes and written rules. Lesser the number of rules, stronger the culture and vice versa. Ultimately, it is the unwritten rules that guide collective employee behavior in the organization.
Why spark a culture conversation amidst crisis?
Culture is intrinsically linked with crisis. Organizational culture can be leveraged, as a tool to manage crisis and also equip the organization for its post-crisis journey. In the light of COVID, leaders in public as well as private sector have been compelled to reimagine their delivery models and internal ways of working. Digital has emerged at the forefront – whether in terms of the ways businesses sell their products, services or transition employees to new ways of working. This paradigm presents a unique opportunity for organizations – to proactively shape the organizational culture and pave the way for embracing their digital future. The task, though, is monumental. Any leader who has steered a cultural transformation initiative will tell you it is hard.
A starting point
When embarking on this journey, a good starting point is to set target culture across key dimensions. From a digital viewpoint, certain dimensions are critical, which follow questions to be answered at two ends of the choice continuum.
- how decisions are made: controlling/empowering
- how customer needs are best served: incremental problem solving/radical innovation
- how results are achieved: structured/entrepreneurial
- who is held accountable: individual/collective
- who is involved: internal/external.
When setting the target culture, two elements are crucial. First, the dimensions must answer your most pressing digital questions, for e.g. if you have a fairly mature IT team and do not need to build external partnerships, the “who is involved” question becomes irrelevant. Second, a fair degree of tension is essential between two ends of the choice spectrum. For e.g. the choice should not be whether to innovate or not, as innovation is central to all organizations. Instead, the choice must be among different ways to innovate. Once the key dimensions and corresponding choices have been decided, it needs to be ascertained where the organization is placed currently on the spectrum and where it aspires to be.
Ensuring robust implementation
Once the target culture and current position of the organization is determined, the next step involves bringing this new culture to life. Leaders will have to start to role model the new behaviours and communicate behavioral expectations with their teams. Smart and selective investments will need to become visible as symbols of cultural change. These investments will also reinforce organization’s intent to embrace a new culture. Next, alliances will have to be built. This is especially relevant for large organizations with several power pockets. The alliances must include influential people in the organization, who, with their capabilities can drive the case for change. As highlighted earlier, cultural change is hard. Sustaining it, is harder. Culture sustenance is a full-time leadership responsibility. Leaders will have to be wary of their own biases and conduct. Lastly, culture change demands changes to the overall context, including but not limited to: Organizational design, Performance management, People development and Work tools.
In our view, the time is opportune to usher cultural change for four key reasons: Changes introduced now are less likely to be resisted by employees, who understand these are unprecedented times. Given the level of adjustment employees have had to make in the recent months entrenched behaviors are broken, making it relatively easier to form new behaviors. Slowing down of business, as unfortunate as it may be, has offered leaders the mental bandwidth to clearly ponder over the cultural choices to be made. Finally, an increased thrust on digital tools has amplified the communication reach of leaders at all levels in the firm (especially in case of large organizations).
The only question that remains unanswered is if leaders are ready to make the most of the silver lining in the storm.