Culture Cues

Culture is the character of the organisation. Businesses that cultivate strong, attractive characters understand the values they need to deliver their goals. They know the behaviours their employees must demonstrate in their daily work to deliver the right customer (and colleague) experiences. They measure the commercial value of their culture at customer touchpoints: evaluating how their staff behaviours impact sales, recommendation, repeat purchase, range purchase, and loyalty.

They pay great attention to the effort it takes customers (and suppliers) to do business with their organisation. The best cultures work at reducing that effort (lower customer effort scores) which almost always create an upswing in referrals (higher net promoter scores).

It’s obvious then, that this task becomes easier if you hire for cultural fit. One of my most successful clients has a hiring mantra: ‘fit for culture; fit for attitude; fit for skills’. Note how this inverts the order of requirements mandated by more traditional approaches to recruitment. The companies where bosses tell the HR department:      ‘We need a new accountant: CPA 1 or 2. Here’s my budget (and go to India if they’re cheaper there).’ Continue reading

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Morbid meetings

Last week on the sunny island of Mauritius I encountered a business behaviour that brightened my day. In the boardroom of a powerful, dynastic sugar business a modern courtesy was given a traditional touch. Before the meeting began, an assistant moved around the table and collected everyone’s mobile phone in a dark wooden box. The box was then placed on the sideboard for the whole of the meeting. The message was this: ‘We have come here to meet and talk; to engage with each other, respectfully.’

Before you dismiss this as archaic, let me tell you the boardroom was high tech. With more screens and connectivity than the average Skype or Zoom junkie could handle. But those screens were only activated to display content relevant to the discussion, then politely switched off again afterwards. As a result, a coherent, purposeful and productive meeting ensued.

How very different from most of the modern ‘zombie’ meetings we all attend? Where participants are there in body, but not mind. Where the need to ‘do emails’ is an excuse for partial engagement. Where the lack of mutual respect is palpable. Where consensus is hard to achieve, except when it defines the time the meeting ends and attendees can slam shut their computer lids and shuffle off to another limbo setting.

I well remember the first time I saw an iPad in a meeting. It was in a bank, obviously), and the senior executives were simply delighted to be tapping away on their new toys. We even had demonstrations of how the clever little soft covers could roll up to form display stands. I don’t think that all the bankers present could actually work the devices properly but, my goodness, it looked clever.

But if we had watched more closely, we would have discerned the seeds of disengagement. The one application they could all work was the calendar, so they amused themselves making minute adjustments to their own and others’ working week. Inviting, rescheduling and canceling. Tap, tap, tap … ‘sorry, I just missed your last point.’

Now we have a bigger problem. Level One Managers have discovered the disadvantages of being ‘elsewhere’ during a physical meeting – that’s why they carry notebooks instead. But the zombie virus has now spread to Levels Two and Three. Today it’s the norm to enter a business meeting and erect your lid. In much the same way that you might erect a modesty screen when changing on a crowded beach. It says: ‘My screen is up, I’m busy multi-tasking’.

You see, most people at this level are trying not to be singled out, or asked a question. In the old days they carried spiral notebooks and biros, and assiduously wrote down every word spoken by others. Not to create a record, or to minute action points, but to look busy. Too busy to be called out.

Well done, Technology, for consolidating our culture of unproductive meetings.


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Staff turnover

One of the many metrics management and HR  teams like to measure is staff turnover. The percentage of the workforce that has left the organisation during a certain period, and had to be replaced. Received wisdom says that turnover rates in excess of 25% should cause concern. That may be true for large businesses in traditional sectors, but I think it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant for the organisations that are driving our future economies.

Many of the businesses I work with have staff turnover rates in excess of 35%, and some higher. The reason for this is that they are growing exponentially and that growth demands new talent and energy. A good analogy is what happens in the mouth of a child as she grows. First she has no teeth, then she has baby teeth. Later the baby teeth are pushed out by stronger, larger, sharper adult teeth. Later still, she may require an intervention to remove her anachronistic wisdom teeth.

I also take issue with the idea that staff turnover necessarily requires replacement. Above ancillary staff grades, every leaver creates an opportunity to do things differently and better. But that requires imagination from the leadership, and a deep understanding of the concept of talent from Human Resource professionals.

A few months ago I listened to a very experienced and successful entrepreneur talking about the humans dimension of business. You won’t be surprised to hear that he hires for attitude over skills and qualifications. Not for him the pigeonhole approach to recruitment: “We need an IT Manager with at least 3 years experience and qualifications X, Y and Z”.

Instead he would be more likely to define the talent brief thus: “Our IT problem is not about technology, it’s about communication. We need an IT person who will engage our staff to explain the value of digital transformation and to seek their input as future users. In short, we need an IT evangelist.”

Then he showed us a simple grid that he uses to manage his approach to talent. Draw a square and divide it into four quadrants. Label as follows: Continue reading

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Visible leadership

I’m sure many of you have watched the hit comedy series The Office in either its UK or US versions. If you haven’t, let me tell you that is one the most embarrassingly funny satires of office life that you’re ever likely to see. Its ability to make people squirm lies in the accuracy of its observation of human behaviour. I dare you to watch the series and not see things you have done yourself. The writers didn’t even have to exaggerate.

The Office also satirises various kinds of leadership style – both from the formal leaders in the fictional business and the informal ones. The wannabe leader, the rebel leader, the visitor from Head Office. Once again they are funny because they lampoon behaviours we all see in working environments every day: vanity, treachery, abdication of responsibility, favouritism, discrimination.

And that’s not so funny, when you stop to think about it.

What leaders forget is that that they’re under surveillance around the clock. From the way they greet security guards, to their clothing choices, to the food they eat and the calls they make.

They are watched by the silent majority – a group of people that, by contrast, leaders know relatively little about. As a CEO friend of mine says: ‘They know every little detail of our lives, yet we know nothing of theirs.’ Continue reading

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The whole football

Last week I  listened to a very seasoned regional business leader as he spoke to our CEO programme He came to talk to us about governance. Very soon that led to a discussion about organisational culture. About how a workforce and management team, who are properly aligned, create fewer exposures to risk.

We talked about the need for everyone to understand the big picture and he used such a good analogy that I simply have to share it here. An organisation, he said,  is very much like a leather football. It is made up of panels, sewn together. (12 pentagonal and 20 hexagonal panels in a standard football, by the way.)

In organisations, these panels represent teams, branches or departments. The people working on each panel know each other, and they also know the people on adjacent panels with whom they interact. A few of them also know what happens on panels a bit further away. But almost nobody knows what happens on the other side of the football. Continue reading

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Culture becomes central

After decades of being a ‘nice to have’, the idea of a deliberately created corporate culture is finally moving closer to the top of Board agendas. Around the world, an ever-lengthening series of corporate scandals and audit and governance bloopers have raised serious questions about the standing of business in wider society.

The Institute of Business Ethics in the UK recently surveyed 28 large companies in a wide range of sectors to find out what gets reported to the highest echelons of major organisations. They found that 82 per cent of respondent Boards monitored data related to culture.

This is a significant new challenge for business leaders and requires a systemic approach to measuring culture. The most useful information came from external feedback – customers, partners, suppliers and other stakeholders. And so it should, because (although we all want staff to be happy, recognised and rewarded)  where culture really makes a commercial difference is outside the business.

Louise Kelly of Grant Thornton in Belfast writes about The Central Bank of Ireland conducting culture reviews at the five main Irish retail banks. These focused primarily on the performance of Executive leadership teams because they are the ones required to set the tone ‘from the top’ and impact the drivers of group behaviour. The studies produced insights into behavioural and structural patterns in leadership, decision-making, communications, group dynamics and mindset that affect the way consumer needs are considered. These banks are now required to deliver action plans to address the risks identified in the reviews. Continue reading

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Truth, essential in business

It matters not how many procedures or policies you put in place, or how many dashboards you set up. If your company culture does not prize truthfulness, you will experience commercial disappointment.

And there’s plenty of disappointment about in business today. In management meetings, weekly reports and board papers. To be fair, much of it is a sin of omission rather than commission. People hate to bring bad news; so they avoid it. Many bosses like to shoot the messenger; which reinforces this behaviour. Every hierarchy place hurdles and threats in front of the truthful.

It is often said that, in Africa, people like to tell you what you want to hear. Maybe they did, in the same way, that no one ever used to place a value on timeliness. But, increasingly, modern Africans knows that if you want to get on, you must be on time. So perhaps it’s also time to dispense with our whimsical view of disingenuousness.

Reputation, trust and credibility are assets that no brand or organisation can afford to lose, and the surest way to lose them is to lie. Honesty may not always pay, but lying always costs. Continue reading

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Marketers as CEOs

It’s been a while since I last looked into the likelihood of Marketers in East Africa reaching the C Suite, or even holding the top job in our biggest companies. My methodology tends to be qualitative, picking up data from what I read and what senior business or academic colleagues tell me. But I have to say that I don’t yet discern a surge of CEO candidates with marketing backgrounds. Instead I am aware of several senior Marketers who have left the corporate world to become entrepreneurs and apply their experience and talents to their own businesses. If that is the most likely destination for decades of practical marketing experience, then one has to say that the corporate sector is missing a trick. But maybe the few really top Marketers want it that way. Preferring to test their skills in the commercial arena, backed by their own money … to arm-wrestling senior colleagues from Finance, Procurement or Operations for the rest of their careers.

But the net effect seems as true today as it was when I touched on the subject nearly a decade ago. In our biggest companies, the direction of Marketing may rest in the hands of discipline leaders who have reached their limit of their career development.

In America,  Kimberly Whitler from the University of Virginia has run a number of comparative studies on the subject. She’s interested in which kind of companies create conditions for Marketers to lead the whole enterprise. Her work is based on data captured from LinkedIn. Whitler notes that what distinguishes the Top 15 such firms is:

  • They regard Marketing as a P&L function, not a staff or discipline function.
  • They operate in the most competitive categories.
  • They have a sustained track record of investing in Marketing talent
  • They promote enterprise-wide learning and leadership training for all discipline heads.

Continue reading

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Workspace woes

The world of work still needs an effective solution to the shaping of productive office space. Here in Africa, relatively few of us have the privilege of working in offices. Far more people work in small retail outlets, factories and out under the hot sun.

For the modern office worker, anything seems better than the dark-panelled dens of the public sector, or the stark concrete and glass of academia. So many of us feel happy when we see an open plan office. ‘Here,’ we say, ‘is a modern company. I am going to enjoy working here.’

But sometimes we are disappointed. I have never liked open-plan workspaces (even those with glassed off offices for managers and rooms for meetings). My first experience of them was in Europe, where huge spaces housing tens of people were eerily silent. I found that silence inhibiting – it was as if everybody was listening to every call I made. Consequently, I spent a lot of time making calls in meeting rooms.

To be honest, I have never found open plan offices in Africa to be silent. There is always a hubbub, and sometimes it’s cheerful. But the problem here is that everything that happens becomes everyone’s business. Work and personal matters combine in an endless buzz that increases tensions between colleagues.

Then we have open plan environments where the bosses like to shout, and invoke apprehension. These are truly counterproductive, as employees spend most of their time anticipating unwelcome attention. Continue reading

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