Archive | August, 2013

The soft stuff is the hard stuff – unwrapping culture

29 Aug

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“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So said Peter Drucker and it’s a classic quote: spot on. The more I do and see the more convinced I am that culture eats just about everything. Without the right culture, no amount of charismatic leaders, off-site team building events and swanky cheerleading conferences will make much lasting difference. All the good words and intentions will wither and die on stony ground without the right culture.

So, what then is culture? Chris LoCurto says “culture comes down to two things: action and attitude”.  And as the HR Director at my old company told me, it’s about what happens when no-one’s looking: he tells a great story about three different types of employee, each one confronted by an empty crisp packet in the office corridor. The engaged employee instantly picks it up without thinking and drops it in the bin. The disengaged employee walks by on auto-pilot, thinking someone ought to do something about the standards of cleanliness in the building, while the truly disengaged person was probably the one who dropped it in the first place.

Now, “every company has a culture, either by design or by default”. So says a recent video from the CEO Show.

Here then are nine key questions to ask, amassed from plenty of reading, to understand how things really get done in your organisation:

Do departments and people collaborate or compete?

Warning signs to look for… There may be radically different cultures across teams and functions that drive radically different interactions between people. At the unhealthy end of the spectrum, there’s suspicion and mistrust and the dark art of budget planning becomes a zero sum game with winners and losers, and the idea of working together for the higher cause of (whisper it quietly) serving the customer is heresy.

How are decisions really made?

Warning signs… They aren’t really; it’s down to whoever was still talking at that critical moment when everyone else surrendered, for the sake of moving on (or because people were gathering outside the conference room, impatient to start the next meeting). Or, despite all the soundings and consultation, it’s really done hierarchically, by egos and status. 

Are people enabled or merely ‘empowered’?

Warning signs… Being told you’re empowered is not the same as being enabled. It’s not that helpful unless you also have the right tools and support to succeed. 

When confronted with bad news, how do leaders behave?

 Warning signs… Or, perhaps the first question ought to be, do the leaders get bad news, or is every scorecard a sea of green, which is nonetheless at odds with what peoples’ guts are telling them? But assuming the bad news gets through, which instinct is the first to kick in, of BIFFS? Blame; Ignore; Freeze; Fix; Shoot (as in shoot the messenger)

How do senior leaders add value? By criticising or constructing?

Warning signs… Managers who think the best way to add value is to hunt for flaws and ask the tough questions; all fine in moderation but not so good when the outcome is to delay, defer and depress. 

How is important information shared?

Warning signs… The endless and hierarchical waterfall that slowly cascades down, each time losing a little more meaning and nuance so that by the time the exercise is over, leaders are sick and tired of the whole thing, in fact they’ve already moved on.

How are employees recognised?

Warning signs… If “what for, exactly?” is the first response, then that tells you one thing. Clearly, recognition schemes are many and varied but as a general rule, avoid letting bureaucracy and process drain the life out of what should be a simple and fun thing to do – to acknowledge and thank.

How do big things get done?

Warning signs… Does nobody move unless there’s a signed off project, scope, and deliverables? The question then becomes, how easy is it for the business to adapt and absorb new things? Which leads us on to the last one…

How much time do people spend in meetings reviewing progress?

Warning signs… Some people get double, even triple booked. And ask yourself, what happens in these meetings? What percentage of time is spent on simply monitoring, reviewing and reporting on progress?

Finally, thanks too, to careerrealism.com for two more great questions that can also reveal so much:

  • What would you guess would be the five key words or phrases your (husband/wife/partner) would use to describe your company?
  • What is your favourite day of the work week? And why?
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