Businesses are not like wines – they do not improve with age. Time and growth can turn even the most vibrant, dynamic firms into rigid bureaucracies incapable of responding to change until it’s too late. The companies that do survive and thrive in their maturity are the ones that don’t sit still, and so never let inertia set in.
But what do you do when you feel your once vibrant culture fading? Countless failed transformations show that changing a culture by diktat isn’t possible, yet this doesn’t mean a leader can’t steer the attitudes, assumptions and behaviours of their organisations, as Phil Jones’s experience shows.
Jones joined Japanese-owned office equipment and business support company Brother UK in 1994 as a fax machine salesman. After working his way up to become MD of the £112m business in 2013, he decided it was time to shift from a traditional corporate pyramid, with power concentrated at the top, to a culture of influence.
The results speak for themselves – recruitment costs are down 27%, sickness absence is now half the national average and, Jones says, the company is enjoying significant discretionary effort from its people. Here’s how he did it.
1. Make big, symbolic gestures
"You have to be aware of the signals you’re sending in a cultural transformation. While a lot is done behind the scenes, sometimes you need a big message that something is changing.
"For example, the senior management, including myself, had reserved parking spaces. I was keen to reduce the signals that power was accrued by climbing the ladder, so I offered to buy lunch for a month for the first person who parked in my old spot. It spread through the company like wildfire, and the next morning I came in and saw an old Honda Civic there, belonging to one of the chaps in our workshop.
"There was a great deal of emotional significance in between those two white lines on the tarmac – and embedded interest in the status quo. It’s terribly important to bring your senior and middle management along with you, to explain why you’re asking them to change. It wasn’t easy and it involved sacrifice, but with a little time you can get it done."
2. Give them a nudge
"I was very keen to get a growth mindset and culture of continuous improvement embedded in the business, but in a company with roles as diverse as fork lift truck driver to marketer and everything in between, not everyone actually has a desire to learn.
"To get the flywheel turning, we began to signpost that continuous development applies to everyone in the business. In the first year, not everyone got that – people often ignore bright ideas from the management because they think they’ll just go way.
"So we began to link pay and performance reviews to the amount of learning and development people did. You needed to do the minimum mandatory training just to access the company bonus. By the third year, we had 100% compliance on the mandatory training, and 60% of people were training for future roles. The average across the business is now 36 hours a year.
"It took a bit of effort, but the pleasure has been that people who were deconditioned to learning, who perceived they had nothing left to learn, ended up liking it again."
3. Turn values into actions
"We have three paired values in the business – trust and respect, ethics and morality, and a challenging spirit and speed. But if I get knocked down by a bus tomorrow, what carries on from those?
"We developed an internal system called PRIDE, which stands for personal responsibility and delivering excellence. It allows anyone in the business to nominate someone else for doing something that exemplifies our values.
"It’s a thank you for going above and beyond, and it comes attached to an Amazon voucher, if it gets through the approval process. It generates an awful lot of good will, and it also means we catch every single act of congratulatory behaviour, so I can see the culture of the organisation when I’m not looking."
"I call all this the ‘purpose premium’. It requires an investment period of at least three years, before you start to see the fruits of building a better culture – and attribute measurable savings or benefits to it – but it’s surprising where it can take you."
For more information
Here’s what Adobe’s UK MD Gavin Mee learned about removing negativity from corporate culture. Academics Matthew Baldwin and Thomas Mussweiler explain why one cultural size doesn’t fit all, while this guide explains what can be done to boost a culture of innovation.
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