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Culture change is never instant

You can’t change a company’s culture overnight by writing a policy or issuing a memo, but it can be influenced to change over time

Since the dawn of the internet HR folk tasked with writing a company’s people-related policies have started with a Web search. They find crib policies made available online by other helpful employers, conduct a crude ‘find and replace’ of the company name, and then implement them as their own. We’ve all done it.

Thankfully you can’t apply the same approach to developing a company’s culture, although that hasn’t stopped people trying. I’ve witnessed many a discussion along the lines of ‘how can we be more like Google/Facebook/other company of choice?’ We are attracted to the ideas of these successful organisations; perhaps because we believe that they have the answers. In turn their cultural strategies become something to aim for, perhaps even ‘best practice’ (if there is such a thing).

Put simply, your culture is just ‘the way things are done around here’. You can’t change a company’s culture overnight by writing a policy or issuing a memo, but it can be influenced to change over time. Sadly there are no silver bullets or quick fixes, but I do have some suggestions based on observation of both great company cultures and some not-so-great ones:

1. Don’t try to be anyone else. There’s only one of your company that has your mix of people, your strengths and weaknesses and your position in the market. You have to have your own culture. Google has already cornered the market on being Google, so if you try to emulate it too closely the best you can hope for is to become a second-rate Google – or at worst introduce something that doesn’t fit your particular context.

2. Start where you are. Before you begin to think about your desired culture, understand where you are now. Listen, and listen hard. What do people think and feel about your culture today? Only then can you understand what needs to evolve.

3. Design intentionally. If you don’t set out the culture you want you may get a culture you definitely don’t want by default. Be clear about your aspirations for your culture. Ask yourself: what do you want it to look and feel like at your organisation? What do you want the experience of your organisation to be?

4. Involve your people in that design. If you’re setting out to define the culture you want, involve the people who are going to play the largest part in bringing that culture to life. Involving people in the building phase secures their commitment. You will also learn a lot about the existing culture from discussing what you want the future to look like.

5. Be prepared to invest time – and plenty of it. Anyone can change a written policy or create a new mission statement, but evolving culture is hard and takes time. There are no shortcuts.

6. Model the culture you want – right from the top. Your people will see straight through the ‘do as I say not as I do’ approach. Every leader must reinforce the culture you all want with their own actions every day.

7. Line everything else up behind it. Do you value trust and openness? Then you need to have operating procedures that empower your staff and listen to them regularly. Are you focused on innovation and entrepreneurialism? Then it’s counter-productive to encourage micromanagement. Deeds must match words.

8. Keep asking how you’re doing. Think about how to measure the culture you are aiming for. What are the metrics you can monitor regularly to assess your progress? What systems will provide staff with a voice and encourage direct and constructive feedback?

9. Act on the feedback you get. It’s not enough just to listen to the feedback: take it on board, use it, act on it. This is an ongoing process that needs to be done often – not just annually as part of an employee engagement survey.

These steps won’t guarantee a perfect culture (if indeed there is such a thing). Instead this is a framework for planning, designing and continually assessing. Culture continually evolves and so must your approach.

Tim Scott is director of people at Fletchers Solicitors