03 March 2022 15:07:32 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Leading a transformation in workplace culture

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One of the big-news acquisitions recently has been the takeover of Air India by the Tata group. It presents some unique challenges and opportunities. Every leader faces a similar scenario when they join a new organisation, when they take on a leadership role, when they transition to a new one, or when there is a merger or acquisition.

In each of these cases, it is tempting to let the operational and execution issues override everything else. But the heart of these transitions is usually something much softer but much more crucial to failure or success. It has to do with how successfully the leader can create or transform the culture of the organisation and the team. Leaders will need to look at many areas to trigger this change. Let’s look at three.

The team

Imagine trying to create a culture of collaboration and respect in the racism-thick atmosphere of 1971 North Caroline. Instead of imagining it, you can watch an outstanding movie called “The Best of Enemies.” Civil rights activist Ann Atwater played brilliantly by Taraji Henson faces off against the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan (an outstanding performance from the ever-dependable Sam Rockwell).

The movie highlights a little-known intervention called a “charrette’ that was imposed on the community by the judiciary to help them navigate their way through the thorny issue of school integration. It’s an amazing look at how culture can be transformed. How you take old biases, prejudices, and ways of looking at people and things, jointly shine a light on them and find a way to collaboratively forge a new path. Not just by thinking your way to a new culture but by acknowledging the deep and often violent feelings that stand in the way of transformation.

Leaders often ignore this truth —that culture is created from people’s hearts and guts — rarely from their minds. Going back to the Air India acquisition — in preparation for the handover there was the controversial circular asking crew to get their BMI (Body Mass Index) and weight checked before flights. Well-intended but probably not a good idea to put staff so personally in the crosshairs in anticipation of a new culture.

Peter Senge was bang on when he said: “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”

A leader wanting to create a new and transformative culture must learn to start with her own teams. Not speaking to them but listening to them. Not judging them but seeking first to understand. That exercise in itself will go a long way to create the seeds of the very culture she is striving to create, apart from giving her insights around the personal passions, purpose and interests of the team that can be valuable foundation blocks for the new journey.

The customer

Often the customer is ignored when driving culture. Culture-building is sometimes viewed as a navel-gazing exercise that is purely internal. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In fact, the culture of an organisation is what will create almost every facet of the way an organisation acquires, engages with, and serves its customers. It will determine whether the organization will succeed or fail with its customers.

TCS is exploring a new operational structure. The whole organisation will be organised around four groups — acquisition, relationship incubation, enterprise growth and business transformation. While not exactly smooth to roll off the tongue, there’s a clear intent to align the business with the customer journey.

It marks a shift away from traditional structures — geographic or verticals or services — each of which created its counterpart culture. The new structure could act as a powerful trigger for a culture focused around what value should be added to the customer at the specific phase of their journey. It will force a new approach to hiring, training, induction, performance management, rewards, and recognition. It’s a grounds-up way of ensuring that the team transforms their mindset and behaviour. It’s likely to be more powerful than any culture-statements about putting the customer first.

A culture driven by hubris and arrogance can result in consequences that haunt the team and the organisation for years afterwards. I recently heard of a school Principal rather full of himself who lashed out rudely at a visitor who entered his office unannounced. When the visitor attempted to explain who he was, the Principal responded with a — Whoever you are, get out.”

The visitor quietly left the room and told the staff outside as he left, “I’ll show him who I am.” Turned out he was a local political big wig. By afternoon, the school was raided by an income tax party, a fire safety team, a visit from the education department officials — the enquiries and harassment cycle that began then, haunts the school many years later, and prevented any meaningful growth. One act of insensitivity, bred on a culture of neglecting the customer, cast long and dark shadows.

Purpose and priciples

The culture has to reflect the purpose that drives the organisation. The principles have to act both as compass and boundary — what will guide our actions and decisions and importantly what won’t we do in our quest for growth and success.

As Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, would say: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room; a room in a house; a house in an environment; an environment in a city plan.” Purpose and principles are that ‘next larger context’ that culture must thrive in.

The case of the fintech founder and ‘shark’ whose phenomenal rise in wealth and fame is only matched by allegations of dubious practices. If that elusive audio clip that triggered some of the controversies is genuine, then add to that sheer rudeness and lack of respect driven by greed.

It’s quite likely that this personal culture of the leader became what the team saw as acceptable. It’s quite likely that others in the team imitated a similar ‘take-no-prisoners’ brash style of dealing with others. More than any culture document or town hall clarion call, it is the personal style, decisions and actions of the leader that will create and drive culture.

Take Twitter’s new CEO Parag Agrawal’s decision to take a few weeks off as paternity leave after the birth of his second child. Heresy, by traditional corporate and Silicon Valley standards, were not taking personal time off would put you in the running for the corporate equivalent of the Bharat Ratna. 

You can sense both the regret and the relief in that tweet. Notice the ‘leading by example .’ That’s what creates culture — the self-imposed boundaries we set that act as guardrails in an otherwise frenetic race to an imaginary finish line.

A leader must start the culture shift by first looking at herself, by treating the team as part of the culture creation and not just the recipient of it and by ensuring that culture serves the purpose instead of the other way round.