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14th May 2022

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Culture eats strategy for heavy breakfast

Tuesday May 04 2021


The culture within an organisation is recognised as a fundamental to its strategy and all the other elements that make it tick. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

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  • To compete, we all must hold ourselves accountable to high standards of behaviour that impress our clients and business partners.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast” was Peter Drucker’s insight. The guru of management did not mean that strategy was unimportant, but that a strong and empowering organisational culture was a certain route to business success. But let’s be honest, in some quarters, culture is still considered inconsequential ‘fluff’.

You can often feel the culture of an organisation, the minute you walk in the door. The same applies to online business interactions. Is the organisation, alive, sharp, fast in providing intelligent well thought out responses?

Do you look forward to doing business with them? Or, are they slow, have to be constantly reminded, with tasks and agreements often ‘falling through the cracks’?

In Kenya, what business or NGO does not say they can deliver magical results? A look at their organisational culture reveals the truth. It’s relatively easy to assess culture and to gradually turn things around to corporate advantage. And, to create a workplace that people want to be part of.

No-balance sheet asset

Despite management having all sorts of tools at their disposal to control and account for resources, one of the most significant assets that can be often overlooked, never included in a balance sheet, except perhaps under the heading of ‘goodwill’. That asset is the staff and the organisation’s corporate culture. One often hears CEOs say “our staff is our greatest asset” yet few really believe it, or if they do, most have not thought through how to capitalise on their human resources.

While corporate culture is physically intangible — difficult to put one’s finger on [a bit like Corona] yet each part of the organisation may have their own distinct way of doing things, which can easily be felt in interacting with staff.

Culture defined

Edgar Schein, social psychologist and former MIT professor of management defined organisational culture as: “…. the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed, in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration — a pattern of assumptions that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Organisational culture can be defined in less academic terms as simply: “The ways things are done, and the beliefs staff hold.”

Some might argue that organisational culture is not important — yet any keen observer of organisations and their operational and financial performance knows it is a key determinant of success or failure.

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1982 classic In Search Of Excellence suggested that organisations who have a history of significant success and who are worthy of the term “excellent” appear to have their true essence rooted in the beliefs and values (the culture) of their employees. In essence: the culture within an organisation is recognised as a fundamental to its strategy and all the other elements that make it tick.

There is much academic and business research to show a direct link between staff engagement and business performance.

Gallup Organisation research found that in the US working population: Actively engaged – loyal and productive – 24 per cent. Not engaged – view their jobs as an exchange of time for a pay cheque. They arrive and leave on time, take their breaks, never volunteer for extra work or projects, and do little else in between beyond the minimal effort.

They show little passion or creativity for their jobs and go through the motions – 63 per cent Actively disengaged – unhappy and unproductive at work, most liable to spread discontent among their co-workers – 13 per cent. Research, over the last 20 years, suggests similar results in many Kenyan and East African organisations.

Research done by Marcus Buckingham, when he was with Gallup provided some unusual findings, he believes: “There is no such thing as [one single] corporate culture. Companies are made up of many cultures, the strengths and weakness of which are a result of local conditions.”

This makes sense, the corporate culture can differ very much from department to department. A large influence on culture is leadership, how managers – supervisors actually behave day to day, not what they preach, or say should be done, but more how they act. Those are the “moments of truth” that are revealing indicators.

Culture advantage

Given the importance of culture to operational and financial performance, what do you do? [Product warning: If the company is insincere, staff will recognise it and the effort will backfire.]

Step 1 — would be to do the diagnosis, to know what your corporate culture is. This can be done simply and inexpensively, either online or manually, in a brief survey, incorporating the 12 Gallup questions that assess levels of staff engagement, plus asking about issues people are concerned with, the problems they face day to day.

Levels of teamwork can be assessed by adding in the two Google teamwork questions. Responses should be absolutely confidential, you don’t want or need to know who said what. When staff trust that they can voice their opinions freely, without recrimination, they will. Results will surprise you.

Step 2 – share the results in an open ‘town hall meeting’. Plus, a précis of the report can easily be emailed to each staff member. Get everyone’s feedback. Outcome will be a feeling of openness, that the leadership is listening, and that things [hopefully] will be acted on.

Step 3 – act, take action. The good news is that roughly 80 per cent of the actions required are easily done, and will cost the company almost nothing. They are all the little things that irk – upset staff, that when left unaddressed, can build up to create a major upset. Quid pro quo – you do something for me and I will do something for you. At this stage, it’s important to genuinely act, and be seen to be in action, making things happen. Creating the small steps forward, the all-powerful ‘small wins’ that give staff confidence that real change for the better is happening.

Simple service standards

Based on the culture survey, one of the ways to enshrine the required service improvements, you will have created, both internally and externally, with customers and partners is to do what world class five star hotels and professional service firms do. Create: simple transparent service standards.

Based on a template, staff can create their own service delivery standards in all units of the organisation to make it 100 per cent clear on how everyone agrees to work.

In a graphically attractive format, these can be put on one page, or in a booklet, given to all staff, so that everyone knows each others brand quality standards.

In Kenya, competition is intense and customers have high expectations. To compete, we all must hold ourselves accountable to high standards of behaviour that impress our clients and business partners.

With time, these standards must become habits that are second nature to us. If they are just words on paper they are useless. Adults learn mostly by imitation, not by being lectured or preached at.

All of us, not only managers must lead by example. You are what you do, not what you say you do.

David J. Abbott is a director at aCatalyst Consulting. [email protected]

2021-05-03 21:00:00

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