Three important cultural questions that leaders rarely ask


You’ve just been promCulture questionsoted into an exciting new role in the senior leadership team. Over the past few years you’ve progressed from specialist roles into managerial positions. You’re respected both as an expert and as a manager. Your new role involves managing other managers and you’ve been given the remit to reverse the recent decline in sales and increase both customer and staff satisfaction in your area of the business, both of which have hit all-time lows in recent months. It’s a service business and you understand all too well that a demotivated workforce has a huge impact on customer satisfaction and sales.

You’re beginning to see that it’s important to step away from the operational ‘doing’ and play a more strategic role in creating a culture that engages people and promotes innovation and creativity. Intuitively, you sense that putting together a project to ‘fix’ the culture is not the place to start.

So where do you start?

To quote acclaimed author Simon Sinek, you ‘START with WHY?’…

Culture question #1: “Why are we here?”

It’s all very well getting your marketing department to craft a nifty Mission statement to put on your website, but unless the whole leadership team is crystal clear on why you exist as an organisation, any work on culture will be wasted. In most established organisations the process of getting clear about the ‘Why are we here?’ question actually starts with a slightly different question – ‘What does this organisation mean to me?’ Ask this to every member of your leadership team, listen to each others’ answers and you’re already one step closer to the ‘Why’ answer. Take a pharmaceutical company I worked with: for some in the leadership team being in the organisation meant finding a cure for a disease that killed a parent. For others it meant something more general like ‘alleviating suffering’, or even ‘contributing to the future of science’. Once you start to surface these ‘higher purposes’, you’re in a better place to craft something meaningful together to define the ‘Why’ of the organisation in the context of the wider world.

American company TOMs, founded by American Blake Mycoskie, clearly states its purpose on it’s website “Together we can help save lives”. Not what you’d expect from a company selling canvas shoes. The company states how it goes about this With every product you purchase, TOMs will help a person in need, one for one”. Originally the idea was that for every pair of shoes sold, TOMs would donate another pair to a child in need. The Purpose has now allowed the company to expand into eyewear, with exactly the same model. In effect, the strong WHY has enabled the company to grow and expand into different markets whilst staying true to its core purpose. The purpose is emotionally compelling and transcends the product – a truly engaging ‘WHY?’, engaging to both customers and to employees.

Culture question #2: “What are we like at our very best?”

For many companies, processes, bureaucracy and the general ‘stuff’ of corporate life have contributed to a confusion about what ‘great’ looks, feels and sounds like. We focus on what’s wrong and on identifying the ‘gaps’. We have competency frameworks that attempt to describe every single attribute or skill that we think is needed. We have policies and processes for every eventuality and we have checklists and guidelines galore!

But really pare this down to what we’re like when we’re at our very best and we start to get a much better sense of what makes us great. Stories are a great vehicle to create a compelling yet concrete vision of us at our best. Get people to describe what it’s like from multiple perspectives – what are customers seeing? What are suppliers seeing? Use all the senses – what are we seeing, feeling, hearing?  Have a conversation with everyone about this. It’ll provide a much richer picture than even the best set of KPIs can do. And it will build people’s motivation to make a difference.

Culture question #3: “What are the rules of belonging?”

I once asked this question in a different way to a client’s leadership team. I asked them “What do you need to do to get excluded from here?”. Apart from the obvious – fraud, theft, murder – there were some subtle but telling responses. One member of the leadership team said “turn my phone off in the evening”. Another said ‘take a lunch break’. Another said “admit I’ve made a mistake”. This particular company was trying to increase levels of innovation. They realised that if the prevailing culture was not to allow mistakes, people would never take risks and experiment with new ideas.

So if the answers to the ‘Rules of Belonging’ question fly in the face of what you’re trying to do, change them! Not by glib statements from internal communications, but by encouraging the most senior leaders and key influencers to role model the ‘new’ rules of belonging. In this case, the CEO started to share with others some of the mistakes he’d made in the past and what lessons he’d learnt from these experiences. Soon the leadership team were feeling more comfortable with taking risks and asking each other for advice when things weren’t going as planned. With this, the seeds of an innovation culture were planted.

I’d love to hear from you what questions have helped you to build a culture aligned to your purpose and values – please start the discussion.

Do get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss how to support your leaders to build a great company culture.


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