So, what’s your workplace culture like nowadays?
David Murray began proceedings by giving a definition: “Corporate culture is rooted in an organisation’s goals, strategies, structure and approaches to labour, customers, investors and the greater community.”
“But, those are just words. Isn’t workplace culture more about people?” he suggested.
John Eynon agreed, pointing out that workplace culture was often formed around its business founder, but needs to evolve as the company grows or the founder moves on. “The trick is to keep the business going when change occurs. Has it got the right culture for its future? Does it need a benign dictator to come along or can those within the business take it on successfully.”
Eynon’s retail distribution company Import Services has one office and three remote warehouses, which means, despite communications technology, that some people don’t see each for weeks. “So, you can end up with silos, which can be useful, but need to be broken down.”
Traditional hierarchical management control is disappearing. “From the dominating working life that I grew up in, we now have one in which senior people have to stand back, but in the right way, and let their workforce do more in their workplace.”
Neil Stevenson suggested the workplace culture of Double H, despite being a family-owned plant nursery business, had been derived and maintained by its workforce. “Continuity has come more through key members of staff, some of whom have been with us for more than 30 years”.
Andrew Stembridge noted Chewton Glen’s acquisition 10 years ago in highlighting the challenge of culture change. “We went from having our owners on site, to being owned by a large investment company with very different expectations. I have spent a lot of time trying to preserve, champion and translate the old culture feeling into achieving the corporate bottom line, which is king.”
“When you have an established successful business with the right folk together, perhaps you don’t recognise how strong and positive your workplace culture really is.”
Trying to emulate a culture, or establish different ways of achieving an objective, can be “phenomenally harder than you can ever imagine” added Stembridge, particularly in large growing organisations where every replication could produce a dilution, or distancing from the core. “Whereas culture is virtually transferred by osmosis in smaller companies, you almost have to bottle it and individually hand it out in larger ones.”
Nick Buckingham also runs a family-owned business at Colt International. Having joined 18 months ago he instigated a major business improvement and cultural change programme, encouraging Colt’s talented long-serving workforce to embrace internal change because of the need to be viewed differently externally.
“Every business is all about people, and we need them to improve our marketplace presence if we want to survive and grow successfully.”
Customer and competitor research has taken place, knowledge and understanding gained, and Colt’s future is mapped out.
“Now it’s all about leadership. We need to take our people with us on this journey. The leadership team approach is to develop, coach and train – to help people look and move in the right direction. Most people like to be part of something positive, and I am currently very encouraged with our open, inclusive programme.”
Giving people more scope to ‘own’ their work is key, but so is enabling them to do their work, either through practical training or empowerment. The future ‘One Colt’ way of working will be a culture where people work together internationally, understand common objectives, have no silos or internal competition, and focus on customer service satisfaction, said Buckingham, who although MD, sees his role as a programme facilitator.
Grant Thornton’s Norman Armstrong added: “Changing an existing culture is very difficult, I think you can more easily create a new culture, or build on what you have.”
Achieving change is a good measure of a culture’s strength, David Moxon remarked.
Murray: “Changing an organisation’s culture is often seen as one of the most difficult leadership challenges”.
Buckingham: “It’s about building a culture where people accept that change is a way of life.”
Culture change requires the right leaders . . .
Recruitment specialist Mike Gawthorne runs a 200-strong company, which has seen significant recent change. “Our group DNA now is authenticity, inclusiveness and empowerment. The challenge is making sure we have the right leadership teams in place, within our corporate holding company structure of subsidiary businesses.
“It’s all about the leadership, their individual and combined behaviour – are they actually living and breathing the company values?
“You can do everything possible to get the right people, but it’s only when they are actually doing the job that you discover if they truly lead by example. You find out quite quickly because other people start to vote with their feet.
“There are tough decisions to be made. If you are trying to mature a business, to make it match-fit for today’s evolving market, you’ll have to make changes. So, make sure to explain why, and include everyone on the journey with you. Communication is even more important than it was 10 years ago.
‘Command and control’ leadership doesn’t work nowadays, largely because of modern communication – social media, worldwide awareness, online comparison and critiquing – empowering outspokenness, choice, and lifestyle flexibility, he noted. “Everything gets out into the public domain very quickly. If we treat our staff in a certain fashion, the ramifications are that our clients will feel that as well.
“For us, culture is absolutely about how we do things around here.”
Lawyer James Hawkeswood highlighted how Blake Morgan had changed from a traditional firm to a progressive 21st century service provider. “Particularly given the mergers we have done, we’ve had to bring people together from different geographies and made them feel part of a combined endeavour. We are far more businesslike than we were, and operate in a market that is increasingly competitive. We have always had very bright and able people coming to work for us, but more than ever it is important that they are driven and motivated by what we want to achieve.
“All of us now appreciate it is not about authoritarian leadership. Engaged staff actually want to be involved with their business, feel they work somewhere that shares their values and is progressing what they want to do. And, if you are very client focused, like us, making sure your clients see and feel that is very important too.”
HSBC’s Anthony Reed stated: “Companies often think they can dictate culture, and I am not sure you can. Environment is really important, but culture comes through good people with values – who and how you hire, how the organisation interacts, all determine how they will react, and importantly, reflect the organisational culture when you are not with them.
“If I want to grow my business, I can only achieve it through my people.” To be effective, today’s leaders have to be accessible, inspire and motivate; knowing your people is vital.”
Armstrong observed a growing influence: “Five years ago very few people spoke about workplace culture but it really dominates the lexicon now. And the question is: ‘What kind of culture do we need within our organisation to be successful in the next five to 10 years?”
“Cultural diligence never happened till a few years ago. In three to five years time it will be an essential part of the due diligence process – ‘What is the nature of the culture we are buying?”
. . . and true heroes, not firestarters
Armstrong highlighted false leadership, where a leader might agree something at board level then denigrate the decision when reporting back to his team. “That’s how culture can break down.”
Gawthorne suggested the views of organisational ‘heroes’– invariably honest hard-working individuals, with astute organisational awareness – could be helpful to true leaders.
Armstrong noted: “They may be the ones culturally held out by employees as the active heroes – but they may not be the right ones for your objectives.”
Some ‘heroes’ can also be firestarters he revealed: “They start operational fires, just to show people that they can put them out.”
How do you hire the right people for the right culture?
Recruitment specialist Gawthorne said hiring the right person to suit an existing culture was difficult enough, but businesses aiming for cultural change needed to be brave too – a challenging hire, in more ways than one.
Persona mapping was a useful approach to individual recruitment, but getting the right message out to the market was also key.
“It’s not simply about positioning a job advert correctly, but also what you are saying about your business, and importantly what your employees are saying about your organisation – 70% of people who reply to a job advert respond because they understand or have an opinion of that company’s culture. Jobseekers today do their own due diligence on companies,it’s second nature.”
Moxon said Solent University was constantly trying to impress on its students, many of them millennials, the need to be ready to contribute from day one and have a ‘can do’ attitude within their future business worlds.
Equally employers seeking fresh creative talent, needed to make sure recruits “know exactly what they are walking into”.
“It is really important that you prepare people honestly for the type of business they are going to enter,” agreed Gawthorne.
The influence on culture of business change . . .
Technology had been a huge culture mould-breaker, Gawthorne noted, particularly in professional services provision, where the Internet had made online ‘experts’ of everyone. Now clients are seeking added value and different support from their banking, legal and business advisers. “Our people are our differentiators.”
Armstrong agreed: “In our professional services sector, clients are not looking for technical specialism so much today. It’s more about expert insight, personal know-how and how to do business better. That’s why Grant Thornton culture is now all about our people being fully engaged within a relevant and successful 21st century organisation – one reason we now have a shared enterprise structure.”
Reed accepted that banking culture had evolved. “The focus has to be on clients and supporting their growth ambitions. We have to be relevant and aware of our clients expectations, and work hard to fulfil these.”
Clients are not looking for people who can read and check balance-sheets, but a trusted adviser who can add true value to their business. Expectations have changed on all fronts, he added.
Moxon noted that Solent University’s culture derives from institutionalised education, major and mainstream employment, and charity-type governance. “Our culture drivers are student satisfaction, teaching excellence, and now increasingly, changing demographics due to internationalisation of further education.
“The apprenticeship agenda is also going to change the dynamics of further and higher education.”
Stembridge highlighted the culture impact of ‘job or career’ employees. “Being customer-facing, our business relies on them all being aligned with our culture, but getting some ‘job-only’ employees fully engaged can be very hard.”
Adrian Went aspires to run an agile, worldwide-delegated business, at Griffon Hoverwork: “It’s very difficult to maintain employee confidence and an open, positive and forward-thinking business throughout frequent market ‘ups and downs’.” While decision-making is easy during the good times, too often decisions got pushed back upwards during the tight times, when people fear the results of their own decision-making.
. . . and the workplace fear factor
Stembridge said overbearing management and fear of job-loss doesn’t work any more with today’s more transient workforce.
“Management tolerance is driven by job availability and also millennials, many of whom don’t have the backbone or the discipline for work.
“Sometimes you have to tell people things are not right. That’s not to introduce fear, but to bring realism into their work. Sometimes, to meet customer standards, you can’t afford to do anything other than what is right.”
Reed: “You have to trust people when they make mistakes, accept that the mistake was made because they were trying to come from the right place.” Often nowadays, the management role could be seen as a coach or mentor.
Done in the wrong way, a culture of mistrust, even fear, could develop he warned. “Managers have to do what they say. How you maintain contact is extremely important, otherwise you can very quickly destroy what has been built. It is difficult and a daily challenge, but the most important one.”
Moxon believed there can still be something of a fear culture within the public sector.
Buckingham felt progressive change often provoked more suspicion than fear. Frank, open, honest reality was the solution, he believed.
Stembridge’s company had begun open staff forums to enable full discussion and acceptance – an employee pact – of the required operational standards.
Changing mindsets . . . and teaching giants to dance
Buckingham: “Whatever people’s aspirations are – to be the MD or just to have a job they enjoy – we need to accommodate all those options. But, I look for people who want to work for us, hopefully people who understand what we are about, so they’ve already been attracted by the right reasons.”
To assist innovation, Colt has set up a process improvement team. Having visited all his offices, proposed the multi-disciplinary teams, Buckingham asked for volunteers. “I was totally blown away. We were over subscribed, with applicants from a receptionist to a pps director. People really do want to be part of positive change.
“I believe most people are innovative in some shape or form, you just have to let it out and harness it.”
Went praised the work of further education, particularly the vocational sectors, because you get “oven-ready employees.” However, he argued that a more generic education would imbue a greater innovative mindset. Getting the balance right between specialist skills and knowledge scope was academia’s challenge.
Armstrong: “Diversity does help bring different backgrounds and experiences to the workplace, but personally I believe it is all about changing mindsets – from the fixed traditional mind to the experimental growth mindset. Education can help develop mindsets.”
He exampled England rugby coach Clive Woodward who gave all his players a new laptop. “Though ridiculed in the media, he did it to discover which players had the capacity to learn.”
Moxon: “The one thing not going to change is change. Employees who do not embrace change will be the ones who harm an organisation’s culture.”
Southampton Solent University was currently going through a ‘charter crusade’, he explained – changing the organisation with seven fresh strategic values. “It’s all about involving people, and making a ‘giant learn how to dance’.”
Evolving workstyles and attitudes
The hospitality industry was challenged today by the need to maintain higher customer standards, with a more diverse employee-base often not prepared to work as hard as previous generations, stated Stembridge. “That is impacting on how we run the business and its overall culture.” Culture used to be inspired by leaders, not overseen by managers, he noted. “Are we doing the right thing, or simply doing things right?”
Eynon echoed Stembridge’s concerns: “Some people don’t buy into today’s levels of customer service. You have to cut out that attitude or you won’t survive.”
Stevenson noted the paradox that smaller businesses are putting in more controls to sustain their standards and cultures, while the bigger corporates are releasing wider delegation, empowerment, and freedom of expression within their organisations to enhance their cultures.
Eynon wondered if difficulty in gaining and retaining good employees had led to less rigid employment regimes. “Twenty years ago perhaps, this Roundtable workplace culture discussion would not have taken place.”
Gawthorne: “People do evolve and change their priorities.”
Eynon noted how people’s ambitions and attitudes could change as they get older. “Remotivating them or altering their cultural viewpoint can be very difficult.”
Reed mentioned millennials’ mindsets: “It’s not just the career opportunities they see; it’s the skills the job allows individuals to develop that matters. People today don’t join companies to do a job forever; they join to learn skills and build networks they can take with them.”
Moxon: “What we are seeing at Solent University now is your future business generation coming through. Although their work attitudes may have changed, don’t underestimate the value of their communication skills and methods.”
The right cultural message . . . that doesn’t sink the boat
“How do you communicate with your different levels of people?” asked Moxon. It may be by web portal, email, text or publication, but it’s not communication until its read and understood, he added. Plus, how is the message conveyed? People will default to their preferred learning styles.
Gawthorne: “In comms terms you can’t do it all. You have to decide what media styles work best for your business, how it communicates internally, how it is perceived externally.”
“The key is having a flexible communication structure in place with appraisal systems, forums, one-to-ones etc so that everyone has the chance to speak. The open-door policy is good, it’s changed things, and nowadays there is often no door.
“It’s about employee engagement, plus trust and confidence in the leadership team – being able to sit down when you are up against things, and have an honest conversation with everyone to resolve what needs to be done.”
Providing employees with an understanding of the bigger picture could produce behaviours ranging from fear to enthusiasm, said Went. “You do need to be ready to balance that situation.”
Getting the right message to the right audience in the right way is key, said Gawthorne. Too much knowledge could make people focus on the small hole in the boat rather than its supreme buoyancy.
Management has to be convincing and confident added Armstrong, while highlighting words from Alex Ferguson’s book about leadership. “When new players joined the club, he simply said: ‘We expect to win every game. Get used to it’.”
Does workplace environment impact on employment culture?
Hawkeswood: “It helps, but fundamentally the people in it are more important.
When Blake Morgan moved in here eight years ago we were fiercely proud of the modern working environment, but already with concepts like agile working, efficient use of space has made today’s workplaces different again.”
Buckingham moved his office from a quiet corner of the building into the centre of the main operations floor. “The key is flexibility and accessibility.” Good communications are essential too, “because talking and returning customer calls matters, and texts are not acceptable contract documents.
“The modern ways of communication are useful additions to the traditional methods, but nine times out of 10 in our world you need to talk to someone.
“The most important thing is that you communicate well externally and internally.”
Supply chains and sub-contractor use need to be carefully monitored. “As far as customers are concerned they are our market face, so they need to understand our culture too.
“What our customers experience is what we are, in their minds.
“We have invested more and more in our people who actually make things work for our customers, because they can leave the site, the owner, the customer with a positive outcome.”
Hawkeswood: “You have no choice but to lead by example in an open-plan office. It is authenticity writ large, but provides a powerful ability to communicate.”
Eynon: “The solution for us is to involve those doing the work with development of our systems. If they buy into it, they’ll make it work. Don’t impose things. The best way to work out how to do something more efficiently is to ask the guy who is doing the job.”
Tolerance, control and feedback
Gawthorne highlighted tolerance and feedback. Too often, he felt, HR appraisal systems or operational standards were introduced without sufficient upskilling and understanding of the managers who would be using them. Tick-in-the-box processes could easily become perceived as imposed, inconvenient and unrewarding.
Buckingham said internal controls were necessary to avoid costly inefficiency, but they should not become impersonal regulation. He always talks talked to employees about issues to fully understand their point of view.
“Be careful about being overly brutal with someone tripping over the line at certain points. If you want a culture where people can, and are capable, of making informed decisions, you need to be well balanced about implementing ‘rules and regulations.’
“People invariably do things through naivety. If you can help coach them back in line, rather than putting them on a warning, you have a better chance of them making future right choices.” They also usually appreciate your help and become supportive.
Went: “It’s about clarity of purpose: them understanding the necessary regulation of business, alongside their desire to bring process improvement.”
Anyone for 360-degree personnel appraisals?
Not yet in the public sector said Moxon: “Obviously, we are in an environment where personal feedback is key to students, and vice versa. It’s how you give feedback that matters. Most people have some resistance to it, but then sleep on it, and see something constructive in it. That’s the concept you have to get over to the recipient.”
Hawkeswood: “There’s an honesty play about 360-degree feedback because the response email is always going to be tailored in some way. But if you have the right company culture, individuals can acknowledge areas in which they need to improve or upskill, which can be incredibly empowering. It comes back to fear. And, there’s no point expecting others to take feedback from you, if you are not prepared to take it from them.”
Went: “Leaders need to have the maturity to accept feedback when people want to give it; not necessarily in a formal process.”
Buckingham exampled a large US corporation that invested extensively in introducing peer-group 360-degree candour, only to see the process removed within 2-3 years.
“For us, feedback needs to be a day-to-day thing. You don’t let something go, and then tell someone about it a year later. Feedback should be a natural process. That way there are no surprises and you can build trust.”
Gawthorne: “If anyone has a surprise in an appraisal, then there’s probably a problem in the company’s management style. The appraisal should merely reflect ‘the way we do things around here’.”
What one thing will improve a culture?
Stevenson: “Write it down. Make sure people understand the culture. Personally consult, meet in small groups, and gain consistency of message.”
Stembridge: “Improve internal communications, especially with millenials, and across generational gaps. For me ‘Making every guest want to return’ is a priority, but maybe it’s not yet with the people who can make it happen.”
Moxon: “Where are the communication blockages? Changes to the built environment will help change organisational culture? And feeding back on the feedback you receive.”
Armstrong: “Step back. Think. What’s our purpose and how do I articulate that to the workforce?”
Hawkeswood suggested ditching bureaucratic process-driven annual appraisals. “If people are giving and receiving feedback on a regular basis, you should be able to move away from the formulaic and rather rigid structure of annual appraisals. Collectively you should know whether things are working or not, and be able to deal with things as and when they arise.”
Buckingham: “Culture is not a fad. It has longevity and you’ll need to give some quality organisational time to it.”
Armstrong: “There is a really big difference between purpose and visionary goals or mission statements. Goals and statements are internal; purpose is an external frame of reference. It’s customer-focused.”
Stevenson: “Know what you are, and what you are not. People need to understand what is expected of them.”
- Norman Armstrong: Partner, Grant Thornton
- Nick Buckingham: Managing director, Colt International
- John Eynon: Managing director, Import Services
- Mike Gawthorne: CEO, Serocor (ARM)
- James Hawkeswood: Partner, Blake Morgan
- David Moxon: Head of Apprenticeships Southampton Solent University
- Anthony Reed: Area director corporate banking Hants and Dorset, HSBC
- Andrew Stembridge: Managing director, Chewton Glen Hotels
- Neil Stevenson: Managing director, Double H Holdings
- Adrian Went: Managing director, Griffon Hoverwork
- David Murray: Managing director of The Business Magazine, chaired the discussion.