Russ Lidstone, Group CEO at communications group The Creative Engagement Group, Mentor, RSA Fellow, Advisor, Bloom Ambassador & Chair
Significant business “events” such as acquisitions, innovations and mergers would be deemed by many to create unwanted disruption, a lack of alignment, integrative disharmony and managerial distraction. And when there is so much change and uncertainty, perhaps the most significant risk to an organisation is the potential dilution of its all-important culture.
Change can, however, be the impetus for stronger business culture, not weaker. Workplace culture is a living, dynamic concept, not a didactic one. Change is often something that many people like the idea of, but not the reality; as John C. Maxwell said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”
One of the key questions leaders are faced with is, “How do you maintain, or indeed strengthen, company culture in the face of change?” I believe there are eight key principles to success in this area.
1. Values are lived, not written.
Often, organisations pay homage to their culture by writing their values and behaviours on a wall. But while written statements of intent can help teams understand what is important within an organisational culture, they are meaningless unless they do two things. First, they must relate to the business’s activities and ways of working, not to some hyperbolic vision that has zero relevance to most of your team’s day-to-day. Second, words cannot lead a company’s culture—they can only reflect the culture that already exists through leaders’ actions. It’s the evidenced behaviours that count.
2. Co-create, don’t dictate.
Unlocking value from acquisitions—ensuring operational and capability fit that can generate sustainable growth—is one of the biggest challenges a leader can face. But most importantly, a business needs cultural alignment. It’s fundamental that acquisitions or launches of new intrapreneurial initiatives have shared agendas and are viewed as co-creations, where both organisations can shape the future without the acquiring business imposing a tight cultural straightjacket. This enables new additions to flourish and cultures to learn from each other and share best practices.
3. Celebrate symbols of meaning.
Optics are critical and can have a disproportionate impact on how employees view their organization’s values and accepted social norms. Often, these optics are determined by leaders, but culture cannot be a top-down phenomenon. Celebrating and recognising positive initiatives and behaviours driven by your teams will have a more potent effect—be it evidence of collaboration, charitable initiatives or policies on well-being. Challenging any actions that run counter to the culture is equally important, but in a live, thriving, dynamic and diverse culture, it’s often not leaders who drive this, but people at all levels.
4. First impressions can make or break.
The first weeks in an organisation can define the employee experience on many levels. Employees understanding, embracing and recognising their role in the company culture is critical for many businesses. That’s why it’s so important to onboard people effectively by giving them the space to understand and appreciate your company’s culture, and by giving them the chance to embrace these behaviours in ways that works for them.
5. Have shared and transparent agendas.
It’s hard for people to feel like they truly belong to an organisation and help shape its culture if they are not emotionally invested or if they have little understanding of the business performance, how it works and what the drivers of sustainable growth are. Transparency, dialogue and openness to questions are essential ingredients in engendering a strong culture. That’s why one of the most important leadership tools is the ability and desire to effectively listen to your workforce, creating a psychologically safe space where opinions and ideas can be shared freely.
6. Encourage intrapreneurship.
At all levels within successful organisations, there should be room for personal growth, development and the ability to apply skills in new and different ways. This creates dynamic, thriving impetus for cultures that need to innovate. Encouraging team members at all levels to bring forward ideas that can strengthen the business and are supported with investment is key to keeping culture. Intrapreneurs embody supportive cultures where people are keen to drive business and personal growth.
7. Put egos in the trash.
Everyone should feel that they work with, not for, their company. A sense of belonging is driven by the idea that no one is more important than anyone else and the knowledge that each team is encouraged to play an active role in shaping the culture. Of course, there needs to be some form of operational hierarchy to ensure smooth running of an organisation, good governance, empowered decision-making and appropriate distribution of responsibilities across the whole business. But if egos overpower actions, it will lead to disenfranchised teams and be destructive for successful integration of new companies.
8. Be inclusive.
A place where people do not feel free to be themselves or celebrate differences will inevitably stymie the richness of a culture as well as drive poor behaviours. Encouraging passionate people to form working groups focused on such fundamental topics as DE&I, well-being and ethics is a powerful way to inform policy, shape behaviours, instigate helpful activities and stimulate beneficial discourse. These groups can also help hold leaders accountable for doing the right thing. Lip service on inclusivity will simply undermine company culture as societal expectations of businesses and leaders shift. Faithful inclusivity, on the other hand, encourages employees to make decisions based on purpose, not just paychecks.
As the saying goes, “Watch what they do, not what they say.” Leading cultures through change is ultimately about actions, not words. It’s important to remember that the responsibility to create culture is a team game and, moreover, that change is a cultural catalyst.