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How did this happen on my watch? Avoiding our own phone hacking moment

“Baffled, humiliated, humbled”… the very public exposure of the Murdochs and some of their News Corp colleagues over the past few weeks has left senior executives in many organisations feeling decidedly uneasy.  Whatever the truth of who knew what in News Corp, this is not the first case of a corporation being stopped in its tracks  because customers, staff, investors or the community  were being treated in a way that was clearly totally unacceptable, yet had somehow become the norm within the organisation.   In most recent high-profile corporate disasters, independent investigations have identified dysfunctional cultures as being the cause of behaviours which have cost dear in money and reputation  – and in some cases brought down the entire house of cards.

As a senior executive or Board member it is obviously impossible to know everything that is going on in your organisation – but how can you be as sure as you can that your phone hacking moment is not around the corner?  Having that confidence relies upon active management of the organisation’s culture.  Culture, like products, people, technology, brand and infrastructure, is core to what makes a business tick, and yet few businesses understand what drives it and how it is impacting on performance. Still fewer think and plan for how improving their culture will help improve performance. 

What happens when you do plan for and manage a good culture?  Our work with our partners Walking The Talk (www.walkingthetalk.com) has taught us that active culture management links directly to improved results and lower business risks.  Customers (often at the receiving end of poor cultures) will remain loyal, good people will choose to come and work for you and the employees you value will be more likely to stay.   We see a very strong correlation between long-term corporate success stories and close attention to culture – just ask executives in organisations like GE and Virgin.

Put like this, it all seems so obvious, and yet there are still very few businesses who see planning and managing culture as a key building block to corporate success.  This is probably because it is too easy to see it as something soft and intangible – but in reality, like anything else, it can be understood, changed, and managed as an integral part of running the business.

So let’s start with what culture is.  The definition we use with WTT is that culture is the patterns of behaviour, by people and systems, that are encouraged or discouraged over time. It’s the messages we send through what we do, how we work, how we organise ourselves and a host of other symbolic ways, all of which http://www.phpaide.com/demos/ContactForm/ say something about what is valued, what is important and what people must do to fit in, be accepted, be rewarded and be promoted.  It’s not what people say – it’s what they do.    It’s the ‘walk’ as well as the ‘talk’.

Culture starts with leaders – if we don’t walk the talk then we cannot expect anyone else to.    This can often mean we have to change – and as how we behave is so driven by how we feel and what we believe it is at this level that we need to start.   WTT’s model HAVE/DO/BE helps us understand how this works.

It is common for businesses to focus on what they HAVE – or want to have, without really paying attention to what they DO and how this impacts results.  Still less do they have a real grasp of what the organisation wants to BE – and yet intuitively we know that in any organisation, behaviour (and loyalty) is driven by what people believe and value, how they feel and what level of consciousness and awareness they have about the culture and their working environment.

Through 20 years of work in the field of culture change, WTT have identified six cultural archetypes – achievement, customer centric, innovation, greater good, one team, people first.  It would be an odd organisation that didn’t have elements of all of these, but one or two archetypes are usually the real drivers – and leaders need to think carefully about which ones they want to encourage to improve performance and reduce risk.    This can be depicted graphically:

Culture can be consciously influenced and changed – it is about assessing what you have now, defining what you want to change it to and understanding the levers to do so. These are usually a combination of how the top team thinks and behaves (always crucial), people development, workplace design, process & performance management, and internal and external relationships and communication.    This understanding enables culture to be planned and managed, underpinned by appropriate mechanisms to measure what is achieved.  We do it for all the other cornerstones of business success – technology, infrastructure, people, brand.  It is high time that it became the norm to do it for culture as well.

So, could the News Corp story have been different? Of course it could.  News Corp seems to been driven by one clear and overriding mantra: get the story, whatever the cost – a clear example of a culture focussed on achievement to the detriment of people or the greater good.    Senior managers – and non-Executive Directors – could have developed the tools and processes to understand the costs and risk of operating such an unbalanced culture.  They could have used this understanding to ensure that, whilst keeping ahead of the newspaper market they also changed the way they worked – for example in how senior people provided role model behaviour, the style and content of communication and the way in which performance was managed and rewarded.

Ignite, a change and innovation consultancy based in London, helps its clients to achieve breakthroughs in improving performance and resolving challenging business issues.  Ignite works in partnership with Walking the Talk to enable clients to develop and sustain cultures that secure improved business outcomes and reduced risk.

To explore how to transform the management and planning of culture in your organisation contact Tim Connolly (07860 585242) or Megan Meredith (07429 184350) at Ignite –  timconnolly@ignite.org.uk

Posted August 8, 2011 by Tim Connolly.

2 Comments »

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