When Business Goals And Company Culture Clash

Business growth and profitability is the stuff of legends. Companies that astound investors, employees and the business media with sustained or unprecedented expansion become the darlings of the global financial markets and the spotlight grows on the careers of the executive officers, non-executive directors and innovators who made it all happen.

It is not surprising, then, that we are all chasing the same dreams. Growth leads to new opportunities. New opportunities present the potential to change the things around us. And recognition enables influence on a scale sometimes unimagined.

Yet there comes a time in the development of any company - large or small, public or private - when the risk of significant imbalance between corporate objectives and company culture escalates and begins to threaten continued business growth.

It is time like those that define companies. It is in such instances when the owners of a company reveal their true intentions, inhibitions and fears. And this is precisely when high performing executives begin to ask themselves whether it makes sense to work "all out" for the growth of their business when the reality is that corporate culture or fears about how growth may change it is holding them - and their organisations - back like an anchor.

Particularly for companies with long legacies or foreign owners, the stakes are very high when it comes to aligning business growth objectives with the corporate culture insiders see as the key, unifying force that has positioned the organisation for success in the first place.

The simple truth when it comes right down to it, is that even the most ambitious corporate plans for growth may collapse under the weight of questions about retaining company culture. That is why it is essential for executives already in a key leadership role, or contemplating a move to a new company and management opportunity, to probe considerably on the state of balance between business goals and company culture.

Questions one might ask could include:

  • "What elements of the culture are the owners willing to sacrifice in order to achieve business growth?"
  • "How much growth would the owners need to realise to be convinced that the culture needs to change?" and,
  • "Am I being compensated to preserve company culture, achieve business growth, or both?" And in the very likely case the response from company owners is "both", how are the financial incentives and rewards balanced to recognise both sides of the coin?

The pursuit of big dreams forces these tough questions and requires thoughtful answers. There is a natural conflict between ambition and identity. On a human scale, it is a question of knowing one's self. In corporate terms, it is a matter of sacrifice versus comfort and the willingness to confront one's fears.

Culture Assessment

Download your complementary copy of "Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis" and go through the assessment either individually or with your team. Review the assessment with two central questions in mind. "Where are we today on the 5-1-5 scale?" And using the same scale, "Where do we need to be?"

Consider, which descriptor best describes where your organisation is today? Score (X) to capture your level of agreement with that statement (5, 4, 3, 2, or 1). A "5" suggests you strongly agree. Repeat to describe where you believe you need to be (✓). How far you look into the future is a factor of the business sector you are in. A good default assumption, however, would be 24 months. It is quite possible, that on any single question, where you are is where you need to be.

In thinking through "Where do we need to be?" consider the following:

  • What did you learn from the Covid crisis?
  • What is special about your business that you must retain?
  • What do tomorrow's customers want to buy and how do they want to buy it?
  • What would it take to attract the customers that are currently out of reach?
  • What would it take to attract and retain the very best people?
  • Digitalisation isn't simply a matter of investing in technology. How are you going to "rewire" the organisation in order that you optimize the return on investment from that technology?
  • What do you need to do to become more agile?
  • What will it take to move faster?

It is also important to ask: "Do we have the leadership in place to make this happen?" "Are all of those in pivotal roles totally committed to this degree of change?" After going through the assessment (including any "From What to What?" dimensions you may have added) identify:

  1. What elements of today's culture are critical to tomorrow's success (Roots); and
  2. The five to seven key changes demanded if we are to start to create tomorrow's culture, today (Wings). More than seven will make the challenge overwhelming.

Joining the points that describe where we are and, similarly, joining the points that describe where we need to be, will give a very helpful, visual "map" of the cultural journey.

Download your complementary copy of "Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis" today.

Who "Owns" The Culture?

Is the organisation in question currently "managing its culture"?

The simple answer to that lies in the degree to which people from across the organisation can answer five central questions:

  1. Where is the organisation heading (critical, strategic priorities)?
  2. Why do we do what we do (compelling purpose)?
  3. What are the organisation's values and can you give an example of a recent decision that was shaped by those values?
  4. What makes the organisation special (unique capability)?
  5. How does the organisation make a difference in society (giving back, the environment, building bridges to the local community)?

The five questions posed are just as meaningful to a small consulting firm as they are to a multinational. Who to ask? Clearly you want the top team to be in agreement. The acid test, however, is how middle managers respond. If they are not all on the same page, culture is, at best, an afterthought.

Who "feeds" the bulk of the workforce? The answer: middle management. Which group is the most important to the organisation when it comes to actually delivering the needed culture? The answer: middle management.

The dilemma here is that engagement scores from both sides of the Atlantic show middle management as the group that is least engaged. It's a group that, taken overall, is disappointed, disengaged, disheartened and discouraged. And when it comes to culture, if you don't get middle managers on board then no one is on board.

Why have middle managers become disconnected? Top leaders have forgotten the basic law of gravity: effluent flows downhill. And after the best part of a generation of downsizing, rightsizing and upside-down–sizing - where the "Middle Kingdom" is constantly asked to do more with less - the typical supervisor is standing knee deep in it.

There is a simple message here. "Invest your next dollar, euro, pound, whatever, in the training, education and coaching of the one group that 'owns' the culture."

Insights from "Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis".

Tomorrow's Leaders Are Culture Savvy

Culture is a complex system that is only as strong as its weakest parts. Moreover, if a piece is missing it doesn't work. An engaged workforce doesn't mean you are heading in the right direction. Organisation values are essential but on their own they are not enough.

Conventional wisdom suggests that culture follows strategy. The dilemma is that in a world where strategy is persistently under attack, "the plan" has to be constantly revisited. The new dictum is culture enables strategy. What endures, what provides the platform for growth, what shapes future performance, what enables different strategic scenarios to unfold … is the organisation's culture.

The challenge, of course, is not merely to possess a strong culture but to build a business environment that shapes how people act and, at the same time, supports emerging strategic scenarios. This speaks to changing the patterns of play, measurement, the ability to shape the culture conversation, bringing middle managers on board and inspirational leadership.

Even where all the building blocks of culture are in place, if the leader in question lacks the ability to take people places they otherwise would not go, you still don't have much!

Our own research - and that of others - suggests that only 20% of organisations manage their culture. Power moves into a vacuum. If you are not managing your culture someone else is! And if those at the helm lack culture savvy take it as a given - the future of the business lies in the wrong hands.

And the difference that makes a difference: Recognise that culture is managed from the outside-in but demands leadership from the inside-out; provide structure and guidance into how to have the culture conversation; become a storyteller; measure culture and work diligently to uncover (global) best practice - then improve on it. Our species are, above all else, copying machines with an inherent desire to be better than all the rest.

Insights from "Tomorrow's Leadership Will Be Different".

Three Essential TRANSEARCH Orxestra® Webinars You Can Watch Right Now
drive.google.com (PDF)

TRANSEARCH International recently invited organisational change and culture guru Dr John O. Burdett to present a series of global webinars on the following themes:

  1. The Culture Conversation
  2. Coming Down the Mountain - It's all mindset
  3. Organization Design

For those who have already watched the webinars or participated in the live sessions, thank you for your ongoing interest in our TRANSEARCH Orxestra® series. If you haven't been able to join us or missed one of the sessions, you can read more about the webinars using the links above and watch the videos at your leisure.

Insights from "Three essential TRANSEARCH Orxestra® webinars you can watch right now" by Vladimír Polomský, Sr. Consultant, TRANSEARCH International Czech Republic & Slovakia.

Read "Three Essential TRANSEARCH Orxestra® Webinars You Can Watch Right Now" leadership insights

The Culture Conversation - 2. Why Culture Now?

The following is an edited transcript of part 2 of "The Culture Conversation" webinar by John Burdett. Read Part 1 of The Culture Conversation.

Today is the fastest things have ever been … but the slowest they will ever be!

Speed is a cultural imperative. It has been for a long time, but now more than ever. It doesn't matter how good your services are. It doesn't matter how good your support systems are. It doesn't matter how good your service ethos is. If you are slower than the competition … you don't have a problem … you may not have a business.

Culture, right now, needs to embrace speed. Not just speed of delivery, but speed of response, and speed in terms of basically everything that exists within the organisation.

Read Part 3 of The Culture Conversation

The Culture Conversation - 1. Why Culture Now?

The following is an edited transcript of part 1 of "The Culture Conversation" webinar by John Burdett.

Why culture now? Why culture at this particular point in time?

It can be argued there are 3 stages to a crisis:

  • Stage 1: Shock, denial, coming to terms with the new reality.
  • Stage 2: Simply surviving. Pulling the needed resources together and navigating through the crisis.
  • Stage 3: Reinvention. Thinking about the business differently. Asking, "How do we come out of this crisis stronger?"

Some organisations will come out of this stronger. Some will be winners. And I'm going to suggest that the question we need to ask, perhaps the question you need to have in your organisation… "Is tomorrow's organisation agile enough to both navigate and take advantage of heightened uncertainty?" That question moves you into the culture space and the culture conversation.

But, let me segue just for a minute. There is a good deal written, and being written right now, about 'Distance Employment', 'Remote Employment'. There is no doubt that Covid-19 has accelerated the platform around digitalisation, and a whole lot of what is happening now will continue. But, I would like to step back and recognise that there is something about work that is very special.

People don't come to work just to work. The workplace gives a sense of belonging. It creates a sense of meaning in peoples' lives. It's a place where people share stories. Yes, it's a place for people to gossip, and gossip is as common to homo sapiens as grooming is to apes.

It is also the case that if you look at organisation structure and start to think for a minute that that is how the organisation actually works, you are sadly mistaken. The organisation works as a result of ongoing, informal, collaborative networks. It works in terms of people accidentally bumping into each other. What Alam Mumford used to call "Accidental Learning". The workplace isn't just a place to do work. It's a social experience. It is part of how people find meaning in their lives.

As a reference point, IBM, Reddit, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard and Best Buy, all went through the notion of having a good deal of their employment 'remote employees'. And, they pulled many of those employees back. The reason being that it stripped out a wad of what they called "innovation".

So...

  • Why culture now?
  • 3 stages to a crisis.
  • Is tomorrow's organisation agile enough to both navigate and take advantage of heightened uncertainty?

That leads you naturally into a conversation around culture. And indeed it leads you into what we would suggest is a very different conversation.

Read Part 2 of The Culture Conversation