08 Nov 2017 17:46 IST

Corporate culture: leading by example

Here’s how leaders can make sure that employees are aligned with the organisation’s culture

Prof Warren Bennis from Marshall Business School spent all his life researching, teaching and writing about leadership. He gave an excellent, simple definition of organisation culture. Simply stated, ‘Behaviours that leaders practice and tolerate’ become the culture of the organisation.

It is also said that leaders live in ‘glass houses’, because of which they need to be careful about how they behave. Culture, therefore, is no mystery — it is a touch and feel phenomenon.

The company’s OS

Culture can be a source of competitive advantage. A culture of high performance, open communication, ethical conduct, accountability and humility, for example, can truly transform an organisation into a vibrant and productive one. However, if it is not properly cultivated, it can become a drag on people’s productivity. In a way, culture represents the operating system of the organisation, that makes everything else function smoothly.

There are three aspects of corporate culture that affect the alignment of people with it. First, symbolic reminders represented in visible artefacts; second, recurring keystone behaviours that trigger desired conduct in others; third, mindsets that comprise attitudes and beliefs, that that are mostly invisible.

Of the three, keystone behaviours are the most important and that is what leaders should focus on when they want to try and improve or change the culture.

Implementation process

Once the keystone behaviours are identified (say initiative, accountability, customer-centricity, teamwork, conviviality, based on impact and implementability criteria), leaders should focus on measuring it both informally and formally through surveys and audits. Implementation process can consider such yardsticks as:

~ Are people able to demonstrate through action?

~ Are these behaviours visible?

~ Are these behaviours measurable?

~ Are they delivering results fast enough?

~ Are they consistently displayed?

Cultivating and seeking feedback from ‘authentic informal leaders’ could be an important step in making critical behaviours stick. Informal leaders are not those who hold high positions in the hierarchy. Anyone can earn this label.

Authentic informal leader

These leaders (and you could be one) may fall under any of the following categories, according to consulting firm PwC:

Pride builders : They are motivators and catalysts, improving others around them.

Exemplars : They bring vital behaviours to work and life and others pay attention to them.

Networkers : They represent the hubs of personal communication within an organisation.

Early adopters : They enthusiastically latch on to and experiment with new technologies, processes and ways of working.

What’s employee engagement?

This brings us to the next question that many companies are confused about: what is the difference between culture and employee engagement? Improving culture is not about providing free food and snacks, as is often misunderstood and attempted.

Culture goes deeper than employee-friendly practices. It is closely related to executing the business strategy. Therefore, the critical keystone behaviours will be unique to each organisation.

One of HBR’s articles, details Starbucks Coffee’s organisation culture that are supported by the following keystone behaviours:

· Servant leadership that supports ‘employee-first’ principle

· Relationship-driven approach

· Collaboration and communication

· Openness

· Inclusion and diversity

These are required to make Starbucks the ‘third place to go’ beyond your office and home.

Leaders at all levels can influence keystone behaviours and become ‘authentic informal leaders’. It pays to reflect if we do this on a regular basis so that the desired culture takes roots in the organisation.