A while ago, I facilitated a session with the board of a major Kenyan organisation, where I had them reflect on what they were proud of as a board and as individuals, and what additional aspects they wished to be proud of later.
The team is undergoing a review of its culture so as to take it to the next level, and as the directors reflected on the initiative they felt they could and should be more involved.
This is very much the norm at the director level. They are typically far more concerned about the numbers, the financials, which is what led the two Harvard professors, Kaplan and Norton, to come up with their Balanced Scorecard.
Through this framework they had company leaders place equal emphasis on the factors that deliver the numbers: the products and customers; the systems and processes; and the people – the element they described as “learning and growth”.
It is of course the people who define and live the culture, perceived through how they behave, which reflects their attitudes, these being a function of their values.
How many directors feel competent, and hence confident and comfortable dealing with such soft issues? Not many. “Leave it to the HR people,” they may well say, as they return to their easy-to-measure revenues, profits and suchlike.
I have written before in this column that few people at any level possess the expertise needed to enhance a culture.
At best they may find ways of defining the existing one, with all its ups and downs, and of sketching out the aspirational one, with the usual words to describe it: trust and openness, innovation and collaboration….
But as for how to migrate to that better world and overcome present challenges, don’t ask them. Indeed some will tell you it’s a waste of time, as most culture-change programmes fail to make a difference.
Then, as I read what others write on this subject – not least at the national level – too often I again see descriptions of how awful the present culture is or how wonderful living Utopian values would be, calling for a transformation to that ideal world but without in any way guiding us on how to travel along the journey towards it.
Yet while it is true that many culture-change initiatives fall way short of what they were intended to achieve, some do deliver both significant and sustained impact. What differentiates the two?
First, it’s investing time in bringing people together for open conversations that generate what I call “purposeful reflection”, where participants discuss and agree on what they will do more of and less of, start doing, stop doing and continue doing.
This requires the presence of a safe space, or as it is now sometimes described, one of “psychological safety” – which, allow me to state, is more readily created by external facilitators skilled in creating such a space and conducting such activities.
Without going into other critical success factors for culture change, let me jump straight to the need for enthusiastic support from the board.
Everyone must know that at the top level, it is accepted that culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast – or, as I put it, that there must be a culture strategy component within the overall strategy.
The directors must be part of the strategy development and then participate in the conversations about culture, adding value to them and being role models for the desired culture.
They must also appreciate that changing a culture is much more than a one-off event but a continuous journey, one that requires focus and time, plus the relevant specialised skills and experience among those driving it.
And the performance management system must be such that those who embrace the desired culture are recognised and rewarded – which is why “Change Champions” are often identified as part of the process.
These days it is expected that directors undergo training, and this is now indeed the norm. But beyond programmes that relate to governance issues of oversight, compliance and risk management, how many cover the softer areas of leadership, like culture?
Happily, the organisation that invited me to spend time with their board appreciated this need, and I am confident that their directors will now ensure that matters to do with culture remain firmly on their radar.
Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of the Kepsa Advisory Council. [email protected]