Winning with Culture: Using Culture To Play Offense

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We’ve found that culture is often taken for granted in the day-to-day operations of an organization, particularly when times are good. Leaders tend to focus on the factors most directly linked to organizational performance such as strategy, execution, and brand. When an organization is confronted by a crisis, however, culture can quickly become the culprit. In fact, organizations with long-track records of success, find that threats usually arise when people deviate from cultural norms or expectations.

Kelli Klindtworth, Culture Offering Lead, North Highland
Kelli will be speaking at the IRM UK Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe 16-18 March 2020, London on the subject, ‘Culture: The Missing Ingredient in Agile Transformations

Yet, culture is not as intangible and amorphous as most leaders think. Much like playing offense, it can and should be proactively monitored and managed by leadership to assess engagement, ensure alignment, push performance levels, drive innovation, and promote change-readiness and change resiliency. At North Highland, we believe it’s time to take culture strategies from the defensive to the offensive. We’ve identified eight critical levers of culture that are critical to building and enabling resilience. These levers operate alongside one another and can be adjusted as needed to help keep the organization aligned with its values and purpose, push performance levels, navigate difficult times, and drive towards new opportunities.

  1. Vision & Values: Strategic ambitions, grounded in shared beliefs, that connect the work to the greater purpose of the organization
  2. Capability: The skills, expertise, and professional development of the organization and its employees
  3. Leadership: Management styles, decision-making approaches, and governance that guide the organization
  4. Teamwork: The structure and interactions of an organization, its people, and how they enable or inhibit collaboration.
  5. Communication: Content (language, voice, messaging, substance) and its delivery (formal/informal, medium, channel, frequency)
  6. Environment: The functional (physical layout, decor, amenities, etc.) and emotional (mood, atmosphere, spirit) setting of an organization
  7. Measurement: Key performance indicators, how they are measured, and their impact on accountability
  8. Recognition: The feedback and review process and how the performance of employees and the organization is celebrated and rewarded 

To illustrate the power of these levers working together, we worked with an organization that sought to renew its culture of service excellence. The strategy included focusing on the customer experience to determine how excellence could be defined and achieved. We enabled cultural transformation by zeroing in on vision, values, and capability. By managing those elements in the re-design, the organization deepened their level of intentionality around who they wanted to be, and reinforced “the way things are done” to create an aligned message of service excellence. The newly implemented systems advanced the company along its journey to achieve its desired culture. In this case, managing and influencing vision, values, and capability helps shape the way that people act, and influences how systems are designed to drive actions and decision-making.

In another example highlighting the role of vision and values working together, a retail manufacturer had articulated a new vision to inspire the organization. It harnessed the power of that vision by distilling it into a set of clear values that drives every aspect of the business, guiding employees in how they engage with customers. Innovative activities, marketing strategies, and community campaigns were designed to reinforce these values, underscoring their significance and meaning for employees, aligning them to new business growth opportunities, and connecting them to the values, stories and aspirations of customers. Vision and values create a sense of purpose at both the organizational and individual level. Anchored in a set of guiding principles, organizations can determine what matters most and leverage values and vision in the decision-making process.

Companies today can no longer manage culture on the defensive, waiting for a crisis to test culture. It must be actively managed and revisited so that it does not fail when you need it most. Winning means using culture to play offense.

Click here to learn more about People & Change at North Highland.

Kelli has served as a learning, change, and leadership expert for over 18 years. Her experiences span a variety of areas including Education reform, cyber security/compliance, technology enablement, and even police transformation. Kelli holds a BS in Political Theory from NYU, an MA in Education Administration, an MBA focused on Organisational Strategy and Development, and is completing her Doctoral dissertation specialising in Transformational Leadership.

Copyright Kelli Klindtworth, Culture Offering Lead, North Highland

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