The importance of organisational culture

Getting the right workplace culture is the magic business dust.

Getting the right workplace culture is the magic business dust.

lance walker business cultureCreating the right organisational culture is an inherently clichéd concept. A reasonably recent addition to the appalling stable of buzzword-laden phrases that surround leadership thinking, it’s both difficult to define and difficult to measure.

Yet it’s the magic dust that often separates good organisations from great organisations. Everyone has either worked in, or observed, teams with toxic cultures characterised by lack of collaboration, disempowerment and lack of passion – the kinds of team environments that suck the life out of people. And we’ve all worked in, or observed and admired, teams with great cultures that inspire and energise.

Creating and encouraging the right organisational culture is indeed one of the most important tasks for any leadership team to address. The challenge is that culture can’t simply be imposed from the top down. It’s an organic process that relies on, and comes from, the whole organisation.

It’s an ‘outcome’ rather than a ‘thing’ in its own right. I’ve said to my team many times that our culture is not what I want it to be – it’s what our people say it is.

Leaders need to take a nurturing role to establish an environment where great cultures can develop from within the community of people. Providing clear vision and direction is key – giving people the context for what they are doing and why they are doing it.

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It’s important to set clear expectations and empower people, giving them the freedom to express themselves and flourish within those defined expectations. The end goal maybe fixed, but how you get there varies from person to person.

Leaders should model the behaviours they want from others. In all communities, people look to their leaders for cues. Inconsistency between what leaders say (and demand of their people) and how they then behave poisons great cultures. Being consistent and authentic, ‘walking the talk’, is vital for building a positive culture. So, too, is holding people to account when they act in a way that is inconsistent with the cultural norms. You know you’ve achieved some manner of cultural success when this policing happens between peers, and not from the top down.

I’m also a big believer in the power of rituals. Not only do these create familiarity for people but they provide identity and uniqueness. Loyalty New Zealand has rituals within our culture – some overt, some less so. They include the way we welcome and induct new employees and how we recognise and reward people. These rituals aren’t necessarily set in stone; they evolve over time. But they become touchstones for our culture.

We’ve worked hard to promote what we call our 5Cs: organisational behaviours that are based on being collaborative, constructive, courageous, customer-obsessed and crunchy.

We’ve made these behaviours part of the way we interact with each other every day, but it’s actually not these behaviours that define our culture. I know that if I ask different members of our team to define the culture, they’ll all use slightly different words and express different sentiments.

And that’s just fine. Because being able to rabbit off a consistent rote line on our culture is not success in my book. Success and satisfaction for me as leader comes when I walk into the office and feel the vibe and the excitement and the energy and the passion in the team. That’s what a great culture is, however you define it.

Lance Walker is CEO at Loyalty New Zealand, leading one of the world’s most successful loyalty programmes, Fly Buys. A loyalty marketing expert, Lance leads a 70-strong team.