Driving cultural change

If we’re honest, most attempts at culture change fail. We like to pretend that we’ve made small steps forward, but in reality we witness the prevailing culture continue.

The reason? Most approaches aren’t systemic, instead they focus on only some of the levers available and shy away from others. And without shifting the entire system, the almost inevitable result is that change is temporary and unsustained.

To make this point, we can look to the structure of other systems.

The first stage of learning to drive in the UK is the theory test. It teaches us all “the rules” of the system. What we should do in response to certain signals, how we should behave, what the expectations of ourselves and others should be.

Then we go and sit in a car, with a friend, family or paid instructor. In the model, we learn to apply the theoretical knowledge in to a practical environment. The reality is that in this application we start to learn how things are really done but maintain a level of congruence because of the artificial experience of “passing the test”.

And assuming that we manage to retain enough of the “right way” to get past the test and into our own wheels, we then go out in to the world and experience first hand and for real how the behaviours are applied in the system.

Do people stop at red lights?
Do they follow the speed limits?
Do people speak on phones?
How many people keep to the stopping distances?

On top of this we have the structural implementation, the speed cameras, the police, the insurance companies. What do they reward, what do they punish? What is accepted and tolerated, what is looked down upon and reprimanded.

In reality, this isn’t far from the approach of most organisations – with some form of classroom based intervention. However, when we look at the application of this back within the department and then the organisation as a whole; when we look at the structures that we put in place in terms of recruitment, promotion, reward and development – that’s where we start to see the gaps.

No system is perfect and there will always be a certain level of incongruence and imperfection – that’s because we’re human. If you drive, you’ve probably jumped a red light, broken a speed limit, looked at a text once or more. But we have an expectation that people who constantly break the rules will be dealt with and that if we generally abide by the agreed norms, then we will be ok.

The problem in most organisational change programmes is that the interventions take place outside the system – like the theory test – and expect a transference back in. But individual behaviour tends to norm to the group and group behaviours tend to be driven by the structure of the system, which we tend to neglect.

Put simply, organisations are systems. And if you want to change the culture of organisations, you need to consider the whole system. Anything short of this will almost certainly involve a lot of time, a lot of effort and resource, but ultimately end in inevitable failure.

It’s open season for talent

It used to be that things were simpler when you wanted to recruit senior “talent” in to your organisation. Companies and sectors worked in a pretty siloed fashion and with a commercial hierarchy in place. Making it more straightforward for recruiters and managers alike.

When you needed to recruit an senior hire in to your business, you’d first identify your place in the industry hierarchy. You then had two choices, you could look up the hierarchy and identity people who were in more junior roles to your vacancy, but in a bigger organisation. Or you’d look down the hierarchy and find people in similar or larger roles, but in smaller organisations.

Of course, there were always organisations and companies of the moment. The ones that CEOs and leaders would say, “how about getting someone from ABC Corp?” but generally it was a straightforward thing.

Then things got a whole world more complicated.

As our businesses have changed and developed through the use of technology, as new “super companies” have come on to the scene and as the fetishistic adulation of the start-up has grown to gargantuan proportions, the world of talent acquisition has become much less linear.

On one hand you have the large traditional corporates, with their constant refrain of, “get me someone from Google/Facebook/Apple” and on the other, increasing evidence that these target companies are looking to established FMCG players

So what’s going on? Well nothing really, it is just the silos falling away and the increasing movement of talent both within and between industry. But the implications for those working in HR and talent management become increasingly more interesting:

  • Brand names don’t guarantee skill sets and whilst they never have, recruiting within industry always ensured a certain level of transferable knowledge that would pass as valuable. With cross industry moves it is harder to be sure.
  • Established organisations and fast growing organisations have completely different cultures and ways of working. Even if you get the skill set right, the ability to land well and navigate the organisation is an imperative for hiring.
  • The more sources there are for recruiting from, the more competitors there are for the same people. As career paths become less linear, your compelling argument needs to be greater than your status in the industry. You need to understand what you really have to offer someone from outside.
  • Compensation, benefits and career structures might need to go right out of the window. When things are no longer moving in a linear fashion, you can’t have linear structures. That offers a whole heap of pain, but it is a natural repercussion of inter industry moves.

But, at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is letting go of the things we’ve had, to gain the things we want. Bringing people in from outside of the industry, whichever way they move, means that they won’t have industry experience, it means they won’t necessarily look, behave and talk the same. And it means it will probably take them longer to get up to speed – regardless of the name or prestige of their previous company.

I am legend

Here’s a question;

When you leave your organisation, will you leave it better or worse than you found it?

It’s a pretty pivotal test for all of us, even more so if you are a senior leader or a CEO.

Have you extracted more value to your organisation than you’ve added? Is it better for having had your presence? Will it be after you’ve gone?

The simple fact is that we are all caretakers. Our job is to leave our organisation in at least the same state as we found it and our focus and intention should be to leave it even better.

It isn’t easy. Our financial markets, our economic model compel us to extract value and to return it to shareholders. Our leaders are rewarded for it, in this imperfect model.

Even in not for profit organisations, the public and third sector. It is very easy for egos and personal agendas to cloud the perspective of leadership teams.

It doesn’t matter what circumstances our business is under, our thoughts should always be beyond our own safety and security, our own comfort, our own personal gain.

Our reward should not be in personal adulation, false empires or the trappings of power.

Our reward should be knowing we’ve left a sustainable legacy.

We should not put off the decisions, hide from the challenges or avoid the truths of today, but face them head on to create the hope for tomorrow.

When we leave our organisations, we should leave them ready for the next generation to build and grow. We should leave them fit, healthy and ready.

Judgment is not when we are in situ, but when we are not.

So when you’re facing a tough decision, a change, a need to repurpose, rethink and realign. Ask yourself not whether this suits the needs of now, but whether it has to be done for tomorrow.

Delivery is everything

If I had one single wish, something that I could change about the world that we live in, it would be to ensure that people delivered on their commitments.

The amount of time that is wasted chasing others to follow through, courier companies, our public services, utility companies and of course colleagues at work. The time is totally unproductive – in and of itself, it moves nothing, adds no value, creates no meaning.

And think about those services that pretty much always deliver, the restaurant where the service is faultless, the retailer who always hits their delivery slot, the bank that can always help. The delight that is created through the consistent and regular fulfilment of its stated obligations.

In a world where the consumer is king, delivery is divine.

My advice to anyone entering in to a career in HR, that wants to change the perception of the function and profession, is to focus on delivery as a critical tenet of your strategy, both personally and as a function as a whole.

When dates are set, keep to them. When promises made, fulfil them. When actions agreed, complete them. If you want to create the promised delight, then the delivery of the solution is as important as product. And that repeats every day.

There’s a phrase in restaurant kitchens, “you’re only as good as your last service”. If you want to make a real step change in your organisational perception, take this to heart and realise that consistent delivery is key.

In fact, it’s (almost) everything.