Does Leadership Defines Culture?

cultureLast week I had the opportunity to meet an old school friend, Maria Sarkar, who I hadn’t seen for many years, which as well as a providing a trip down memory lane, and a reminder of how old we are, also gave me the opportunity to take a look inside a dynamic company with a great culture.

In discussion with Maria about her company it was obvious how passionate she was about her business, not just profits, but mostly her products, her customers and most importantly her people.

There are many companies I have seen that have tried to create, or should I say copy, great corporate cultures, but often they fail because the key ingredient that they haven’t copied from these cultures is the leadership.

It’s easy to put in break rooms where your people can come in early and enjoy breakfast, rest & relaxation areas with comply chairs, TVs, and video games, or look to offer staff other perks such as flexible working arrangement, free days where they get to choose what they work on.

But if this is not something that leadership is fully committed to, then the culture will remain the same as it always was, but with a few nice features.

Leadership needs to walk the talk, not just make things available to their teams, they need to make sure they become embedded, that they are used, that the teams feel comfortable when using them.

At one firm I worked at we had a break room where they installed a table tennis table, unfortunately, it was right underneath the bosses office. It wasn’t just the location that put people off using the facilities at any other time but lunch time, it was the snarky comments of the boss, who would say things like ‘I wish my days were free enough to be able to just put in a couple of games of table tennis‘.

In this firm we wanted to look like flexible, open company, but the leadership was anything but that, but they wanted to show that they were moving with the times and had a bit of that silicon valley spirit about them.

But you can’t just copy a culture and expect people to adopt it if leadership continues to go about things in exactly the same way as before.

Maria told me that she thought of her teams as her family, and you could clearly see this in the way she interacted with them, and more importantly with how they interacted with her. Her leadership approach was part of who she was, how she acted, not just something she had read in a book.

Maria’s leadership philosophy was shared with others in her leadership team, which meant that there was a consistency of approach from the top down. This is very important because with this type of consistency the teams can really see and understand the culture and be comfortable in adopting the culture.

In companies where there is no consistent culture, it makes it difficult for staff as they need to operate in different ways depending on which member of the leadership they a dealing with, which can be confusing, frustrating and also exhausting.

The philosophy that Maria and her team had defined was implemented into pretty much every aspect of their operations. This is important because you now have consistency from everyone on the leadership team and also in every area of the business, which again reinforces the culture and makes it much easier for teams to adopt, and then thrive in them.

To create a great corporate culture one of the things that we need to do is to give our staff freedom.

But often, as managers, we are too afraid to do this, we do not know what our teams will do with that freedom. Maybe if we put pool tables and pinball machines in break room then our teams will spend all their working time playing, rather that working.

It’s why many people don’t do this, they lack confidence in their ability to create the culture that they want, or they don’t understand how culture is created.

Work hard, play hard is a phrase you often here when people talk about their company cultures, but if you take a closer look what they really have is a work hard, work harder culture with very little if any play at all.

In Driveworks there was a work hard, play hard culture and the leadership was focused on both equally, which is the only way to make this kind of culture work and give your staff confidence that the culture is real and not just a whim.

During the discussions Maria talked more about the play hard aspects of what her business did than the work they did. This was all the people aspects, about training, social events, encouraging cooperation and collaboration, and providing learning opportunities.

It was also interesting that the company as well as providing recommended reading lists, such as Who Moved My Cheese, etc, Maria would also follow up with people and get them to discuss their thoughts on the books, she wanted to make sure people understood what it was they were trying to do, why and get people to buy into it.

In many companies, books are bought, handed out and management has no clue as to whether people read them or not.

What does this say to our teams and departments?  I know when this has happened to me, often I have wondered why they gave me the book, and what was I supposed to do with the information? So usually, like others, I did nothing.

I asked Maria how she managed the aspect of giving people so much freedom and then being sure that people also did a good job.

Her answer was that she was very clear with her teams about when it was time for fun, and when it was time for work.

For her the most important aspect was people’s attitude, and she worked very hard to ensure that she got the right people into the company, people that would fit with the culture that she was looking to create.

Everything started with recruitment, it was a rigorous process, but if you have spent time defining your culture, it’s important to find people that are going to be a good fit, people that will thrive in it and compliment it, rather than fight with it.

As Maria told me, ‘it’s hard work, we don’t always get it right, but the efforts pay off in the long run’.

The right corporate culture doesn’t happen just by chance, it takes effort on behalf of the leadership, they need to walk the talk, manage the culture ensuring that they get the right people into the culture, and look to make sure its consistent in everything they do.

When Maria asked me what I thought, I told her if I was consulting her, I would tell her to continue to do what you are doing, change nothing, you’re way ahead of many companies.

Her answered surprised me, she said ‘that’s fine, but I’d like you to tell me what we could do to make it better!’.

Leadership defines culture, and those leaders who want to continually improve their culture will continually improve their companies both in terms of performance and staff retention.

Take the time to examine the culture  your company has and ask yourself is this the culture you want, and if not then do something to change it, remember Leadership defines culture!

Gordon Tredgold

#Leadership Principles

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