30 Jun 2015 18:07 IST

Organisational culture: it can make or break you

A policy of openness and a supportive work ambience can help companies succeed in a competitive world

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody,” said Bill Cosby.

Based on my own experience, as also that of other entrepreneurs, both small and big, here is a list of factors that appear to lead to success. These are not hard and fast rules, but observations based on experience. I will over the next few articles try and elaborate on some of the more important factors.

Some of these factors are:

(i) Company culture

(ii) Business strategy

(iii) Attitude and beliefs of the promoter and the key team

(iv) Risk–taking

(v) Financial discipline and cost consciousness

(vi) Marketing & sales including customer service

(vii) Business processes including use of IT as a key differentiator

Key factor

Let me deal with company culture in this article; the importance of this cannot be underestimated. Everyone talks about it but in reality little attention is paid to it. What exactly is it? Wikipedia defines organisational culture as having to do with the “behaviour of humans within an organisation and the meaning that people attach to those behaviours.” Some of the factors that contribute to company culture are company vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits. The key point is that company culture is something that already exists in your company’s genetic disposition; it’s not something that employees bring with them. It is what the promoters and key people in the organisation build, over time, by way of observed behaviour, exhibited attitudes and shared beliefs.

Taking responsibility

Let me elaborate using an instance from my personal experience. In Scope, we strived to build a “supportive culture,” a “homely family” as one of our internal surveys described it. This along with a culture of openness, learning, financial discipline, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and honesty were what we as promoters strove to build into our company DNA. Obviously this culture did not come about overnight but was the result of several initiatives that supported the building of this culture over several years. However, once this culture is built the advantage is this: people who do not subscribe to the above norms of behaviour do not survive in the organisation for too long. Those who do all pull in the same direction — ensuring greater momentum.

Hearts and minds

At Scope, we believed in the dictum that engaging the hearts, minds, and hands of talent is the most sustainable source of competitive advantage and we worked towards building a workplace culture that was mutually supportive and friendly. No company, however small can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it and this is what we sought to do. We believed that all of us should as a matter of course be friendly and mutually supportive.

We also communicated with employees, encouraged them to support and complement each other and help each other out so that we had a team of people pulling in the same direction rather than individually brilliant folks working at cross-purposes. We truly believed that we had a place that was more than a paycheck for our employees.

Shared experiences

Furthermore, we encouraged people to share knowledge and experience and we found that most were in fact very happy to do so. It didn’t cost anything to be friendly with our employees, show interest in what they did and take up the suggestions (very often vital) that they provided. While money is important and we did pay reasonably well, we believed that our lower than industry attrition was due as much to the friendly and supportive culture that we built.

While we sought to minimise stress and have a friendly and supportive culture, we also ensured that we maintained a professional work culture that respected client confidentiality and work deadlines. Obviously we could not have survived without focus on these two, in our line of business.

Our recruitment policy and all the instruments that we used (for all levels) was also directed ensure basic competency but more importantly the right attitude. Our belief – and we have been proven right again and again – was that with the right attitude and willingness to work hard and smart, training would do the trick – which it did.

Staff retention

Our retention strategy was based on a friendly and supportive culture, but with all the basics well taken care of. So while we offered competitive salaries and excellent facilities for a company our size, we differentiated ourselves through our ‘family’ oriented work culture, regular job enrichment, performance based career progression and the possibility of a lot of learning and a lot of fun.

Two other areas we focused on were openness and cost consciousness. Employees could walk into our room after informing their immediate superior and our regular meetings with randomly picked employees, breakfasts and lunches with employees all contributed to the culture of friendliness and openness. When the top management itself exhibits such behaviour it becomes a norm down the organisation.

To keep costs down one needs the will to do so and build it as an integral part of the organisation culture; this again flows from the top. Once there is a culture in the organisation along with some effective systems and processes to support this behaviour, it becomes a habit. For instance, we made it a practice to switch off the lights and the AC ourselves once a meeting was over. This obviously became the norm throughout the organisation. On the other hand, I have seen executives in a start-up company travelling to Mumbai on the same flight and then taking separate taxis to their office close by in Vile Parle, in cabs hired from Colaba. Yes, of course the company was well funded but for a company that had not yet made profits, this was extravagance. While the company may have got a great valuation because it was the flavour of the day or for other reasons, it is not a sustainable model. The company learnt the lesson but at a cost.

Knowledge business

In a knowledge business the culture of openness, learning and sharing/supporting are key to success and this we encouraged and supported.

It is a matter of pride for us that many who have left the organisation have told us that the working environment at Scope was something unique and wonderful. This helped with reducing the attrition rates especially with women for whom the working environment mattered a lot more. This also helped us in ensuring that employees throughout the organisation, as a matter of course helped in keeping a tight leash on costs, ensuring client satisfaction 100 per cent, supporting each other, and coming out with innovative ideas without inhibitions – all essential components of our strategy.

This is why culture is often described as the cornerstone of an effective strategy.

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