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Julia Nickless


Director- People Development and Recruitment

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An Opportunity to Re-set Organisational Culture


“2020 – it’s been paradigm shattering”, I heard one leader comment recently.

While business recovery plans are in motion, a new strategic direction is being set in many sectors and organisations. Fundamental questions are being asked such as, “Are our products and services relevant anymore? How do we pivot rapidly so we can capture market opportunities now or, at least, ensure we don’t become defunct in the longer term?”.

And, while this is happening, people in our organisations are riding a new kind of rollercoaster – socially, economically, emotionally, psychologically. The way we work, how we interact with others, even our very purpose is being challenged. Exciting for some, terrifying for others. And, for many, emotions change day-to-day depending on their particular cocktail of circumstances.

So, alongside business recovery plans and strategic direction, how important is it to consider culture? Pretty damn important, if you heed guru Peter Drucker’s advice when he said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. He warned us to leave culture ‘unattended’ at our peril. No matter how good a written-down strategy is, it ultimately needs to be executed by people. In order for its intention to be fulfilled, those people need to emotionally connect with it, align behind it and behave in a way that enables it to become a reality.

For example, an organisation in a highly regulated industry decides that in order to ‘survive and thrive’ through 2020 and beyond, and grab market share, they are going to reduce their number of products and services, simplify processes, become much more agile in their decision making and ‘easier to do business with’ from a customer perspective. This will make them more efficient, reduce costs and enable them to appeal to customers who want a simple life in an already complicated world. Sounds great (on paper).

And how does this become a reality? It isn’t simply about the process. It’s about attitude, a mindset shift from lengthy consultation with clients about a wide portfolio of products and services to ‘making the complex simple’ and getting customers to a good outcome quickly and without fuss. It’s about a shift in ‘identity’ (and we know that a shift in identity involves losing something as well as gaining something). It’s about the language that’s used every day, and how this upholds and re-enforces the new strategy. It’s about role modelling from leaders, managers and those in positions of influence. It’s about catching and calling out when we or others slip back into the ‘old ways’ of doing things. It’s about culture, and culture trumps everything.

So, amongst the trials of 2020, leaders have an amazing opportunity – An opportunity to press the reset button on organisational culture. A chance to take immense learnings from this ‘paradigm shifting’ year and apply those to strengthening the organisation for the future.

This could, for example, be about new ways of working, such as “our culture moving forward will be about doing our best work and delivering the best outcomes wherever they are best achieved”.

More flexible and inclusive ways of working will help to retain and attract an even better array of talent (and, in turn, reduce real estate costs) – capitalising upon a period that has shown presenteeism in the office is not the be-all-and-end-all. This is a major positive shift where previously some managers and leaders may have, through their words and actions, re-enforced a culture that said “If I can’t see you, I don’t trust that you are doing what you should be”.

Tips to ensure culture is not left unattended:

  1. Create space and time to explicitly name what you want to leave behind from the previous culture, as well as what you are moving towards.

Don’t gloss over what’s ending – as people, we find it tough to move forward until we have acknowledged what we are losing. Ask people to describe what they will hear, see and feel that will tell them the new culture is becoming a reality. Organisational change consulting and training may be particularly helpful here.

  1. Support and develop your leaders and managers to effectively lead through change and enable your future culture.

Your leaders and managers have the most critical role in setting the tone and shifting culture – they can effectively undermine or positively re-enforce your vision of the future. And, remember, change doesn’t suddenly become easy just because you have ‘Director’ in your job title! You will see faster and more impactful results if you are deliberate in giving your leaders the space and support to consider their attitudes, habits and beliefs, helping them not only to consider but also personally commit to changes they may need to make. This can be supported in-house if you have the right expertise, or with an experienced external partner through leadership coaching, career coaching services, executive coaching, leadership development programme or coaching for the whole leadership team as a collective.

  1. Create working groups across the organisation

To empower and bring a range of individuals into a conversation about what has been learnt so far in 2020 and how that can be applied to improving the organisation in future. Start with those who are passionate about the topic and seek representation across different functions and levels. Encourage actions to be owned across the organisation, not led by HR or the leadership team as a matter of course.

Author Profile Picture
Julia Nickless

Director- People Development and Recruitment

Read more from Julia Nickless

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