Do CEOs prioritise cultural values?
- 8 Min Read
In a new regular column, global leadership consultant Nick Freedman updates about cultural values within organisations. In this month’s piece, Nick questions what CEOs determine as cultural values and how to prepare to lead a culture change programme.
In 2015, I was invited to speak about building culture at Leadership Revolution. The event was created by Australian peak body, Ai Group, with the goal to inspire 250 CEOs to look at their businesses differently, learn about the future of work and befriend the idea that disruption is the new norm. A range of big-name speakers were ﬂew in, and when I saw the running order, my heart skipped a beat, as I was talking after Gary Hammel, who is cited as being the world’s leading business thinker.
I needed a powerful opener for my talk.
Having worked as a culture consultant for 15 years, I knew that very few businesses do the culture piece well and I wanted to probe this, so I asked the audience three things.
Put your hand in the air if your cultural values are hanging in a frame in your reception.
Half of the room put their hand in the air.
Now, keep your hand in the air, if you can tell me what they are.
The room let out a huge laugh, because (sadly) many business leaders can’t remember what their values are. Lots of hands went down.
And now, keep your hand in the air if you reward your employees for aligning their behaviours with your values.
More CEOs bowed out. In the end, just 6 hands were in the air (out of 250).
If you’re into statistics, that’s 2.4%.
Now if you’re an HR leader that’s part of the 2.4%, then all credit to you. Well done. You’re way ahead of the curve. For the vast majority of businesses however, there’s room to improve.
As an HR leader, you probably get this already. Culture work can be challenging to get off the ground. You may have tried to get budget and resource allocation from your CEO before. You may struggle to ﬁnd the time in your week for the culture piece, amongst your other competing priorities. And you may have gone some way along the journey but then not had the backing of your peers, or sufﬁcient executive sponsorship to keep going. All of these are genuine challenges, and I’m not downplaying the validity of any of them.
Most HR leaders I know have a wonderful, innate desire to help and serve their people. They see their tribe as coming under their care and genuinely want to improve their personal and professional lives. My intent over the next HRD Connect articles I write, is to serve the community with a range of strategies, tools and ideas to help you build your culture. More and more leaders are realising that culture can be used as a competitive advantage and collectively it won’t be hard to push that statistic beyond 2.4%.
If you want to focus on building your culture this year, these six principles are worth considering:
1. Smash that frame in your reception!
I’m not suggesting you literarily do this! However, if your values are sat in a dusty old frame that hasn’t been looked at for years (and your CEO can’t remember what they are), it would be wise to start afresh. There’s a good chance your ‘Culture 2.0’ will end up including some of the original values, but there’s nothing harder than trying to breathe new life into something which people have no emotional connection with. You’ll ﬁnd your people will be more engaged with the idea of a ‘culture reset’, particularly if they get the chance to be involved with shaping it.
2. Leave the ‘top down’ approach in the past (where it belongs)
Leadership theory has evolved, but not all leaders have caught up yet. Building culture using a top-down perspective is a dangerous idea. And it usually backﬁres. The people who are most cynical about culture in your business are the ones who have seen management go off-site for 2 days then come back and preach ‘this is our culture, now you must act this way.’ We need to think of building culture as an ‘all in’ approach. Everyone inﬂuences how things are done in your business, and whereas most of the power is held by senior leaders, this doesn’t mean they should have 100% of the voice for setting the cultural tone of the business. A hybrid of top-down (CEO/executive team retreats) and bottom-up (culture ambassadors / employee surveys / focus groups) is a healthy way to work. The more people who have their thumbprint on crafting your culture, the more tangible and emotionally real it becomes for your people. I’ll talk more about how to recruit your team of culture champions in future articles.
3. Build an evidence-based business case for your CFO/CEO
Like all great business initiatives, you’ll need budget to get this moving. Some line items to consider are time/salary (for yourself or an assistant), technology costs, proﬁling tools, program management and consultant fees. The good news is that there is plenty of easily available data to compile into a business case. By gathering relevant statistics about why having an average culture is costing the business money, it becomes easier to get funding for your new culture project. Have a look into Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey for some statistics.. Explore Josh Bersin’s ﬁndings on the costs of losing good talent. And look into Branson’s philosophy of focussing on engaging employees ﬁrst, and customers second. Then place your research, alongside relevant data from your organisation (engagement levels / attrition rates / recruitment fees / onboarding costs). Building the case to create a great culture that attracts, develops and retains the best talent, whilst reducing HR overheads, is an appealing proposition for those who sign off the budgets.
4. Building culture is a journey, not a one-off event
There are many reasons why value statements sit in dusty frames in receptions without adding any real value to the business. One of the main ones is that leaders think culture is a ‘set and forget’ process. It’s not. Building culture is an ongoing journey with distinct phases. Naturally, there’s a lot of initial work to reach agreement about what the values are, but it doesn’t end there. Some would say that’s when the real work begins. It takes persistent effort to keep reminding people they need to align their behaviours back to the values. So to join the 2.4% of businesses that do culture well, begin by making time for yourself to be a culture leader. Allocate a block of time in your week, to focus on building your culture.
5. Choose a framework you like and can work with
Aristotle once said ‘the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts’ and this is true of your culture. Look at your organisation as a whole and culture as one of it’s parts. As a culture leader, you’ll need to explain to lots of people how culture ﬁts into the rest of the business and why it matters to focus on building it. Having a visual framework will help these conversations. There’s a range of frameworks to explain what culture is, so choose one you feel happy working with. I love Ken Wilbur’s Integral Framework and frequently use it help my clients build values driven businesses. I’ll explain more about Integral Theory in future articles, and so for now, my new book on culture will introduce the four quadrants (mindset, behaviour, culture and strategy).
6. Take care of yourself ﬁrst, so you can hold space for others
Being a leader of culture requires that you hold the space for others to transform, and this takes a fair amount of resilience. In my 2014 TEDx talk, I spoke about the beneﬁts of mindful living. As the velocity of our world increases, it is now more vital than ever for leaders to adopt wellbeing strategies to remain in balance. By modelling how you’d like others to be, you set an authentic tone. So even before you start thinking about how you want to transform your culture, make sure you’ve got the mental and physical strength for the journey ahead.
Got a culture story to share? If you’re one of the 2.4% of leaders who have successful cultural programs in place, I’d like to interview you. I am writing 3 case studies for future HRD Connect articles. If you have a cultural transformation story that could beneﬁt the community, reach out. You can ﬁnd me here.