Culture: not fluffy

When CEO’s talk to impress they like to reel out the numbers, hit you with ratios, pump up the pipeline. Fun stuff for big boys and girls;  but none of it meaningful if you don’t have the people and culture to deliver it.

So the whole issue of how you bond together a group of people into a company, then line them up and point them in the right direction, is becoming of much greater interest. How can an Aid organisation claim to feed the world if the price charged by its employees is sex? How can the biggest advertising group on the planet retain client confidence when it masks its CEO’s departure under what can only be described as unfortunate circumstances by hiding behind a hastily imposed confidentiality agreement. How much will it cost to completely rebrand one of the world’s largest logistics groups after the CEO, in whose family name it trades, is taken to court to answer charges of manipulating elections in Africa?

Even the smallest companies need a culture. A defined way of doing things that guides the behaviour of the  Chief Technology officer and the Turn-Boy. It doesn’t have to be high-minded. It simply needs to say how we , the Company, have decided to do things around here. To be fair. To be fun. To be uplifting. To be careful. These are all simple human behaviours that any staffer can use in his daily work – and that can become recognisable attributes of the organisation.As such they create real commercial value. Firstly in the way they influence customers to buy, come back again and recommend your business. Secondly in boosting the  price a buyer is prepared to pay for shares in your enterprise.

Talk to any private equity investor and they will tell you that where their investment begins to unravel is the moment they discover the enterprise culture is wrong. Almost anything else – bad debts, poor infrastructure, shaky business model – is a tactical fix for them.

Culture – the way a company has grown up doing things, perhaps over decades – is anything but. It’s structural, like finding that your office building has no foundations. It requires the tearing down of walls and the breaking of silos. It commits you to creating a great deal of personal unhappiness as you weed out the bad habits and the people who perpetuate them. It’s a process will destablise customers and delight competitors. And the worst of it is, it may not be fixable.

So, if you are building a business to sell, put the culture at the top of your blueprint.


Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa

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