Culture is the biggest lever you can pull in your business. In the majority of cases, positive cultural change will be the overriding factor that drives sustained success.
However, cultural change is tough and is often overshadowed by the lure of a change in strategy. It is very tempting to focus on the quick gains a strategic change (in theory) can provide. Leaders can relatively easily shift strategic gears, make a few high profile appointments, refresh some job titles, publish a glossy plan and re-direct focus.
What some leaders fail to recognise, is that much of this effort is utterly futile, unless the right culture is in place. Whilst they may understand the need for a sustainable performance culture, the intoxicating pull to focus on the now can overshadow the disciplined long-term approach of habit reinforcement that is required to drive the right culture.
What I have learnt from my years of experience, is that when businesses have the bravery to focus on culture, remarkable things can be achieved. Mark Tobin, CEO of Followmont Transport in Brisbane shared what he learnt from his efforts to build a winning culture.
“When I took over the leadership of Followmont Transport, culture was just one among several important elements in our organisation’s makeup and success along with vision, competition, growth strategy, operations, property, sales, financials and the like.
I have come to see that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game, our values mean everything to us.”
In order for the right culture to be embedded at Followmont, it had to become an implicit part of the habits, routines and agendas. The focus of my work with Mark and his team at Followmont has been making cultural change a reality by operationalising it. They have done a great job of this and as a result, the benefits are shining through.
From my experience with Followmont and countless other businesses, I have come to the conclusion that there are four key pillars to develop a performance culture.
1. Accountability – Values and Results
Living and breathing a strong set of values is an absolute must for any successful business. Leaders must challenge their people and teams to show they are holding true to these values through the actions they take. Values must drive behaviours and decision making and be fully embedded into all team meeting agendas. Leader should celebrate and consistently share success stories around the values and recognise people for living them in a specific way, making values a part of the everyday. Conversely, people need to be made accountable for not adhering to the organisation values and this should be of equal importance to the actual results they are achieving.
The second part of the accountability equations is results. Leaders should not dance around the results they’re after. They need to be crystal clear about horizon goals and set outcomes daily that support their achievement. Accountability through a clear expectation of desire results and related behaviours that support organisational values, is the first part of building a performance culture.
2. Cut Through Communications
Consistent and deliberate communications across the organisation that reinforce culture is vital. I’m not talking about an initial blitz of ‘on message’ communications here with posters, motivational emails and jazzy slogans (although those have a place). What I am referring to is consistent communication efforts over time. Setting a vision and expectations, creating a common performance language and having consistent critical conversations all need to be fully embedded and become the norm for the organisation. Having a consistency in both the language and the rhythm of this messaging is key.
A great mentor of mine once said to me, “When you’re sick of communicating it, your team will only just be starting to pick it up as their own.” A leader shouldn’t underestimate how long culture really takes to embed.
Furthermore, I have actually found that the most powerful way a leader can communicate the desired culture is through his or her own behaviour. As a leader, you must be a role model and allow others to learn from observing your actions and behaviour. It goes without saying that this takes a very disciplined approach.
3. Learning Environment – Growth Mindset
High performing companies understand the importance of investing in their people to achieve corporate goals. These organisations spend time fundamentally rethinking what ‘learning’ and ‘development’ means in the context of their business. The best place the individual at the centre of a new vision and align skill and leadership development to company intent. Furthermore, they see learning as a continuous process, not a sporadic event. They also understand it’s a company-wide learning culture that needs to be embedded, not a responsibility confined to the HR department.
I would argue, however, that the most impactful part of a learning environment culture is that it removes the need for blame. Creating this culture encourages a mindset that there should always be a solution to a challenge and learnings to be had from mistakes and failure points. This in turn allows individuals and teams to fall forward toward key outcomes and play harder and faster in a world that’s screaming at us to keep up.
4. Excellence in Execution
Facilitation of collaborative team work, managing pressure, mentoring, supporting progress and the alignment of business systems to support the desired culture are never ending leadership focuses if we are to create the culture we are after. System misalignment for example, can prove a significant barrier as people operate through these systems every single day. The clichéd example of this would be trying to drive a culture of teamwork and collaboration with a sales team that are only incentivised purely off of their own individual results.
Like anything worthwhile in life, shaping culture requires effort and creating an environment where others can be winners is the work of the leader. Focusing effort on building habits, routines and operationalising culture will not only have an impact on engagement and morale, but more importantly, results when it counts the most.