Developing a business culture that drives growth

What’s your instant reaction when I use the words ‘business culture’ in terms of the workplace? Positive? Negative? Unfortunately we often can feel negative about the idea of culture at work. When in fact we should be creating a positive culture, letting it thrive and working out how it can contribute to growth for our businesses.

Let’s not get hung up on labels: I simply define business culture as ‘the way we do things around here’. And that can be changed. If negative behaviours go too long unchallenged they become embedded. And that becomes part of the fabric, or the ‘culture’. The good news is, the opposite is also true - if positive behaviours are repeatedly demonstrated in the workplace, they become part of the culture too.

Whose job is ‘culture’?

Here’s a joke you may have seen before:  

‘This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done!’

When it comes to culture, it really is everybody’s job. It must be shared, agreed and acted on by everyone. Of course, it’s easy to find people within your business who think things should change, but far harder to find those who are willing to change themselves. Even harder to find anyone willing to lead change.

But actually, leadership isn’t about your job title or the hierarchy of the business. Anyone in any role can be a leader and can bring about culture change. Regardless of role, we all need to start with ourselves.  As a wise man once said, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world. It’s our job to challenge those negative behaviours that can creep in, whether they’re in others or ourselves.

It’s about being authentic – not just being able to recite the company purpose or being an exemplar of its values. It’s in the details of everything you do at work. In one of our offices in London there’s a sign at the dishwasher asking people to load their mugs into the dishwasher. But people still leave mugs on the side, right next to the sign.  Why do they do this? I make a point of loading it – is my time less valuable than theirs?  And I’ve noticed that members of my senior leadership team do the same, and are happy to tidy up the office kitchen if they need to. It’s about caring about your culture – sustaining and nurturing it – because that isn’t ‘someone else’s job’.  And it’s not about hierarchy or title, a special parking space or office. 

Why is culture important?

You may be familiar with this stress curve. As pressure increases, performance starts to improve to a point. As the level of stress increases, we reach peak performance but then quickly start to see a negative effect. When we are particularly under pressure and feeling our stress level increase, we revert to type. There is a saying: “no-one rises to the occasion; they just revert to the level of their training”.

In terms of business, your ‘type’ is your culture. At key moments of high pressure – challenging situations, for instance – the true culture of the business will come to the fore, good or bad. We all need to work hard on culture so that when times become hard, you can be sure that the shared culture is the thing you can fall back on and that sees you all through.

And what’s has this got to do with L&D?

“Learning opportunities are among the largest drivers of employee engagement and strong workplace culture – they are part of the entire employee value proposition, not merely a way to build skills.”

Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2016

This quotation from Deloitte’s paper sums it up – what we all provide in the L&D business is far more important than just a way to build skills – it’s fundamental to the entire employee experience. Culture drives engagement and vice versa.

At the most basic level we can help to develop the skills, resilience and creativity your people will need to continue nurturing culture when times are tough. Create coaches, mentors and future leaders in the business; people who can be champions for your culture and can help others by providing a sense of direction. Remember it’s not about hierarchy - leaders can be found anywhere in an organisation. It’s about behaviours.

Of course, what we all want is not just to think of ‘L&D’ as an initiative or directive from one part of the business. It’s about creating a real learning culture, driven by employees rather than by us. The desire to learn and develop, fostering the culture of continuous improvement. The world is changing at a crazy pace – we’re living in volatile times. Not only do businesses have to be architected in a flexible way, they have to take a less rigid approach to the future. I don’t believe in future-proof – that’s naïve. We can’t even plan to be future ready – the best we can hope for is ‘future flexible’.  And that’s integral to your culture. Do you have the kind of culture where your staff are willing and ready to keep learning, developing and changing?

If you’re a parent you’ll remember when your kids go from crawling to walking – suddenly your whole house is a death trap. Sharp corners, plug sockets, things that can fall or be knocked over. You can’t wrap the kids in cotton wool, of course, but you turn the house into an environment where the risks are minimised so that they can experiment. The same is true of your business – you need to create a safe environment where employees can be free to take some risks and take the exploratory steps towards change and growth.

Let it flourish

And that’s really the key – many of the habits that will lead towards a healthy culture that in turn drives growth revolve around where control lies. If you’re an L&D professional, how much do you currently control your organisation’s learning culture? How much of this is a mirror of the person who sits at the head of your organisation?  Can you do more to empower employees to drive their own development? Could your managers or leadership team do more to nurture a culture of exploration rather than one of control?

Ultimately, your culture will be one you collectively deserve.  For L&D and HR professionals, I urge you to not be a gatekeeper; instead aim to be a gateway for learning and development. And in doing so, you can let a strong, positive and engaged business culture flourish.

This blog post is based on my keynote presentation at LearnX 2017 in Sydney – see the slides.