Are you following through? 5 pitfalls for leaders to avoid when attempting to define company culture

How should leaders go about creating a culture in a new business? Here, Phil Allcock considers a recent project with a start up client.

We did a piece of work last week with a new client we’re particularly excited to be working with. One of the reasons we’re so excited is that they’re a startup and, while they’re faced with the inevitable complexity of creating a business from the ground up, their CEO has insisted that the creation of the ‘right’ culture gets equal attention.

What this leader recognises is that, because a culture will silently solidify around them anyway, they need to take this window of opportunity to have some conscious influence over what emerges. He knows that, if they don’t, they run the very real risk of spending valuable time and money over the next few years trying to change the less helpful elements of that accidental culture. Time with us, therefore, is a great investment for him.

So far so good, an opportunity to shape a culture was taken. While we were together, however, we were very conscious of the need to sound a warning – that when you set out to create an organisational culture, you have to tread carefully. If you’re thinking of going the same route, here are a few key things to be mindful of:

  1. It’s all about you. We know that people have very well developed BS detectors. If, as a leader, you make any pledges about culture, about integrity or being family friendly for example, people will be watching you like hawks for the first sign of a pragmatic bending of the rules or a raised eyebrow when someone leaves a meeting because their child is sick. If you don’t back your words up with actions, your credibility is at risk and, if you’re going to lead, that’s a commodity you just can’t afford to lose.
  2. Be real. As a leader, you need to be careful that you don’t commit to something that you really can’t deliver. I once had a client who made a big deal about their commitment to QUALITY. They also, however, had an absolute focus on delivering their figures at quarter end. It soon emerged that QUALITY was really important until the days leading up to that deadline, when delivering the numbers suddenly became the overwhelming priority. It turned out that, when it came down to it, quality wasn’t that important.
  3. Language. While you might dismiss this as semantics, language does matter. I was recently part of a passionate discussion, about whether the phrase; ‘don’t piss people off’ should become one of the maxims that defined a new culture. On the one hand, some felt that this phrase was one that people would get, because the language was refreshingly down to earth. On the other, some felt that it might make something that they felt was vital in their new culture – being straight with each other – appear unacceptable. Both were good points and a clear illustration of the need to be absolutely sure that the words you use as leaders reflect what you really want, before going public with any statements about what’s welcome or otherwise in your culture.
  4. Who’s really welcome? It’s all too easy for clients to commit to creating a culture that’s inclusive or ‘welcomes difference’. Last week, it became clear that two of the Lumina Spark© qualities our clients felt they needed to welcome into their ‘home’ were radical (very happy to challenge the status quo and shake things and people up) and intimate (comfortable with getting close to people and really understanding what was going on for them). The only trouble was that, among the 18 senior leaders present, only one was comfortable with being radical and one with the intimacy that leads to in depth understanding. The question we had to ask was, how are you going to make those things welcome if you don’t really value them yourselves? They’ve gone away to think about that.
  5. Alignment. Finally, if you’re going to put in the effort displayed by our client last week and then nail your colours to the mast in support of your chosen culture, make sure that you then do two things. First, recruit people who will fit and then add to it. Second, if it becomes clear that someone isn’t fitting in or adding, do something about. If the culture you’ve committing to has anything to do with fairness or being supportive for example, your first step will be to raise and explore the issue and then work with the individual to help them fit and add. If that doesn’t work, however, you’ll need to get tougher and manage them out of the business. This in itself is a great ‘what if’ scenario to use to explore how real you’re being, when you make statements about values like fairness.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss your company culture. Get in touch today.

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Liz Staniforth

Liz Staniforth

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