Culture takes leadership and leaders need culture

I’ve just returned from a visit to London, where the newspapers continue to regale with stories about financial institutions failing their stakeholders - employees, customers, shareholders, communities and regulators.

Time and again, when all the dust has settled, the blame is attributed to a ‘poor culture’. What exactly that means, though, is hard to say. Most organisations' cultures are not written down in their manuals, processes and procedures. Culture exists in the nebulous state of "the way things are done around here" or "what's ok and not ok".

"If leaders appreciated how much they are watched, copied and emulated, they would be very surprised about the influence they have every day at work."
Susie Babani, Global Chief Human Resources Officer, ANZ

When a culture fails, it is not about rogue individuals. We all get them, they are generally swiftly dealt with and life goes on as before. The bigger threat to culture is when too many people do the wrong things over a period of time, often with catastrophic consequences. Worse still, often nobody stops them until it is too late.

When questioned afterwards, many will agree that they knew things had gone astray. But it often happens slowly and systemically, and somehow a new world develops where "not quite right" becomes the new "normal".

My concern is (and it should concern us all) whether we are doing the workplace equivalent of walking around a stranger who collapses in the street so we don't miss our bus.

Fundamentally, I believe culture and values are one and the same thing. Values are what we hold to be true as human beings. They are pretty commonly understood and accepted and I see no reason why they should not translate into the workplace.

ANZ's values of integrity, collaboration, accountability, respect and excellence came from what our employees told us mattered to them – not just at work, but in their everyday lives.

Work is, after all, part of our everyday life. So how do some workplace cultures stray from what the company knows to be right, and how do strong, respected, conservative and longstanding organisations allow that to happen in a relatively short period of time?

Four things to try and hold true in keeping your company's culture the way you want it to be.

1. Talk About It - all the time, every day

It is not always clear to employees what is ok and not ok. Many new people join companies each year. They may also be new to your industry, they may be inexperienced, you may have inherited them through acquisition or they may operate in different geographies where norms differ.

They need to hear what is expected from them from day one. Doing the right thing is not always a black and white issue - that's what makes it so difficult - so encouraging an environment of openness to discuss business ethics is the key.

For instance, if someone external offers a staff member two tickets to a significant sporting event, should they accept? Does it depend on who made the offer?  Was it a current or would-be supplier?

Is it rude to decline in some cultures? What conflicts of interest might accepting the gift create? What if your boss accepted a similar gift? Does that make it alright for you too?

In a strong culture, employees would stop and pause before just accepting the gift, and would feel comfortable bringing these issues to the table and discussing them.

There is no one right answer to these dilemmas, but through debating and thinking about the consequences of actions with others, the likelihood of doing the right thing is significantly increased.

2. Reward

There is a reason people put pictures of svelte stars on their fridge when they are dieting: it's a reminder of their goal and the positive outcome they will get if they stay committed to it.

In the workplace, we are still at an embryonic stage when it comes to genuinely valuing, recognising and rewarding HOW people do their jobs (a demonstration of values)  relative to WHAT they do (a demonstration of results).

At ANZ, we are now into our second year of determining our employees’ performance rating (which subsequently drives pay) based on a mix of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

All commercial businesses are, quite rightly, under constant pressure to deliver results so inevitably, the natural focus in the past has been on that.

However, we believe that to be sustainable over the long term and to maintain the kind of reputation we want to have, we have to learn to focus on and reward both aspects equally.

3. Consequences

How we choose to react when things do go wrong is critical. Do we encourage open disclosure of errors, or is it the culture to hide bad news and keep everyone else away?

Employees need to know the consequences of doing the wrong thing, while employers need to be firm in administering those consequences up to and including impacting pay or even dismissal.

This is not the same thing as how we should deal with someone making a genuine mistake, where counselling may be a far better solution. Mistakes make us human, but knowingly doing the wrong thing cannot be tolerated and must have visible consequences for all to see.

4. Leadership

Everything I've said so far comes unstuck without values-led leaders. I suspect that if leaders appreciated how much they are watched, copied and emulated, they would be very surprised about the influence they have every day at work.

Our role as leaders is to serve as a values role model, as well as creating and living the culture we want in our company. If we do that by what we say and most importantly, what we do, others will follow our lead.

As leaders, we are paid well to lead the way but if we dodge that responsibility, we risk alternate cultures becoming the norm with potentially dire outcomes.

When company cultures fail, we as leaders just have to look in the mirror to see the cause.

For more great insights from Susie Babani, click here, or follow her on Twitter at @SusieBabani

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks