Culture is set from the top

Fashionable as it still seems to be, to talk about ‘bottom up’ change, culture is never changed that way. The behaviours of the top team (what they say and even more importantly what they do) always dictate what ‘goes’ in organisational life.

Two universal quantifiers (never and always) in as many sentences.

Now, I don’t often speak in absolutes – there are usually so many exceptions – but the cause of my departure from this rule is that this is the exception – I just don’t know of any cultures that have been changed without the executive team changing first.

Whether it is an investment bank or an NHS Trust or indeed the whole of the NHS (to be controversially topical); a global corporation, a SME or a charity – culture is set from the top.

There is an old adage “people do what you count, not what counts”. So, for instance, if we reward individualism we cannot be surprised when people fail to behave as a team or corporately. Just recently I suggested to an executive ‘team’ with whom I am working, that they might consider taking 50% of their own salaries for meeting their individual KPI’s within their directorate and the other 50% for meeting the overall targets of the organisation. They laughed and thought I was joking.

Similarly if we reward ‘sales now’ in preference to sustainable markets we cannot be shocked at those who sold in the sub-prime market.

And omission is just as impactful as commission.

If the CEO turns a ‘blind eye’ to conflict or poor performance in the form of ‘bad’ behaviour – you can be sure that those behaviours will flourish.

As Albert Schweitzer said “Example is not the main thing in influencing people. It is the only thing.”

I am often asked to help to change cultures.

‘So what do you want it to be like?’ I ask.

The answer varies little:
‘We want better employee engagement’ (as an aside: what a classic nominalisation – how different if we talk of ‘engaging employees’)
‘We want to be more corporate and less ‘silos’’
‘We want more to be more strategic and less operational’
‘We want to have a ‘coaching’ management style, rather than directive and telling.’

Fine aspirations. Well intentioned even. A little unspecific, but we can get over that. But…..the 64 million dollar question:

‘What about the CEO and the Directors? Are they engaging employees, corporate, strategic and coaching in their style?’

Too often, I know the answer before I ask the question. And it is obvious really; if they were behaving that way, then they probably wouldn’t need to be talking to me about changing the culture (unless of course I am talking to a CEO who took over in the last 3 months.)

The point is, a fortune can be spent on initiatives supporting managers – from first line to senior – to change their ways. My assertion is that the change won’t stick unless the top team are prepared to do so too, and to lead the way.

So a question for all Directors, MD’s, CEO’s and Presidents – what sort of role model are you for your organisation?

And whilst we may not all be in the position of being able to change the cultures of whole organisations, we have, every day the opportunity to influence the others and to “be the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi)

Be a better role model today!

Marie Faire
March 2013

Posted in Leadership, Organisational Development, Professional Development