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Leveraging culture for strategic success

As experts at creating it for their clients, creative agencies are all about the importance of culture. But truth is, there’s actually a high degree of ‘Cobbler’s Children’s Shoes’ when it comes to consistently investing in internal culture, whether with established leaders or newly acquired talent. 

I recently heard renowned Professor of Management, Jennifer Chatman speak at the London Leadership Summit*. Jennifer has helped optimise the culture of world-leading organisations such as Adobe, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs.

Here are some of the pointers and views shared by Jennifer and myself on how to use culture to your business’ advantage:

1. A strong culture can lead you in the wrong direction. An agile culture can lead you to success.


Organisational culture is too important to be left to chance, and the test of a good culture is how it holds up through difficult times. Equally, it is important for Leaders to not blindly stand by the culture and to remain agile, should the business benefit from moving forward from a culture that has become obsolete.

A current example of this is the recent changes at WPP: with the departure of Sir Martin Sorrell, is the culture that’s been established so strongly still the right one to stand by?

Let me ask you:

Have you got strong, powerful values and behaviours that your leaders and teams can stand behind, even when the going gets tough?

Having the right culture gives you competitive advantage and the means to successfully execute your strategy. Jennifer encourages us to start by asking ourselves the key question:

Which behaviours are essential to accomplishing the strategic objectives?

I would follow up with – who are:

  • The natural champions of our culture?
  • The cynics?
  • The passengers?
  • The doers?
  • And the killers?

Ask yourself what percentage of your staff falls into each of the above categories, what does it tell you about your culture, leadership, talent, recruitment strategy and connection with (what I call) the ‘Naked Truth’ about your business and people?

Your Champions are your secret weapon to keeping your culture vibrant, moving and relevant. Your Cynics are no bad thing, because every culture needs to be robust. Your Doers keep the oxygen in the system. But your Passengers are where the danger lies, as they are often left to quietly erode energy, sap goodwill and be a blocker to growth and positive momentum while the Killers take up all the attention and focus, having to be dealt with quickly.

Ask yourself what percentage of your staff falls into each of the above categories, what does it tell you about your culture, leadership, talent, recruitment strategy and connection with the ‘Naked Truth’ about your business and people?

2. The social norms within your culture

In her talk, Jennifer pointed out how vital it is to remember that everyone has to uphold your culture, even when:

  • It’s hard
  • It’s not absolutely ‘necessary’
  • No one’s looking

Let’s use a very memorable example of human behaviour to illustrate this point.

We are conditioned to comply to social norms. A social experiment conducted in America observed behaviour of the public when visiting the bathroom: 90% of people washed their hands post going to the bathroom when other people were present.

Can you guess the number that washed their hands when they were on their own? 16%! Yes, only 16%. Which leads to the following question:

What are the social norms going on in your organisation? Do you even know?

3. Leveraging culture to enable higher performance

Another great example shared by Jennifer is Zappos, the shoe company who trust their employees to use their discretion and judgement on how to best serve customers – read the inspiring story here (it’s got pizzas, casinos and shoes. What’s not to like?).

This is no fluffy feel-good practice: results showed that small investments gave incredible returns. Why?

Because employees were trusted and empowered to solve immediate problems. This gave them a very powerful skill: Adaptability.

Why is that so important? Because having a strong culture without high adaptability means being exposed to high risk. So let me quote Professor Chatman:

“Your people don’t have access to your good intentions. They just have access to your behaviour.”

And let me ask you: how’s your behaviour, and that of your senior leadership team playing out right now?

Remember, no matter what you do or don’t do, a culture will form!

4. Optimising your culture

2-florian-perennes-594187-unsplash-copyHere are a few questions shared by Jennifer to take your culture to the next level:

  1. What is my organisation’s culture gap?
  2. Why is that gap strategically important?
  3. What action step can I get started on right away that will help to close that gap?
  4. What is likely to be my biggest obstacle and what is one concrete way to address it?

5. The Good News

Whilst this is a lot for an already busy leader like you to action, it is an indispensable element to creating/reinforcing systems that work with you towards reaping the benefits of business success and talent retention.

The good news? No one expects you to do it alone. Find the right specialist to work with to help you optimise your culture, and the lasting results achieved throughout the journey will far outweigh the investment.

*This is the 3rd & penultimate article of Sally’s London Leadership Summit series featuring inspiring leaders from Goldman Sachs, Google, & Harvard University across subjects including managing risk as a Leader, creating greater culture for better business success, and how to sustain success in this time of huge change.

About: Sally Henderson, Change Mentor

Sally’s focus is on helping her clients be greater leaders, build better business and enjoy richer lives.

For 20 years+ Sally has partnered with the best in show of the branding and creative industry at senior leader and owner level to drive successful change and leadership development. Her unique approach to Change Mentoring has proven over 24 years in the creative sector, to transform leadership & performance – often in ways others said wasn’t possible. She is not afraid to challenge convention.

Sally will help you grow your business, leadership, influence & potential by equipping you with bespoke tools & techniques that make successful change a reality for your own development, and that of your organisation & people.

Image credits: 

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Photo by SH Lam on Unsplash
Photo by Florian Pérennès on Unsplash



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