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Culture Matters

A 3- part blog to help you build the Post Covid culture you need

By Alistair Brown, Principal Associate Consultant In times of crisis cultural alignment is key to a speedy reaction, renewal and recovery. The current pandemic driven, emergent and confusingly termed “New normal” is going to be very different and “far from normal! For leaders this is very personal in its impact, unique in its implications and uncertain in its outcomes. Fundamentally new thinking, solutions and leadership approaches will be required to find the right path through something we have limited experience of to call on…and all seemingly against the clock. Here’s a “sobering one pager” worth a quick scan if you’re expecting anything resembling a “return to normal” Post Covid. Something Better Change I think culture has always mattered, but has too often been a hidden, misunderstood or under estimated problem or opportunity and is now a critical business imperative. In this “Culture Matters” series of 3 blogs I would like to explore leveraging your culture from 3 different perspectives

  1. Why it’s so critical to act right now and position culture more strategically in your recovery plans

  2. 6 key questions you need to answer to be more purposeful and intentional around shaping your culture.

  3. Some of the leadership success habits I’ve experienced working with organisations shaping their culture.

Why aligning culture and strategy will be critical to your post Covid recovery Too often aligning culture with strategy has been an over looked, down played or superficially treated opportunity which gets mixed press and a cautious reception in the Boardroom. This is often due to its perceived subjective nature, diverse opinions and challenges in connecting culture investments clearly to the bottom line…..and a resultant ….but rarely acknowledged “Fear of failure”. Ironically the majority of senior managers intuitively agree it’s a powerful force for change. For some it can be the cause of every failure and for others the solution to a multiple of organisational challenges. However harnessing and leveraging the power of culture is becoming more mainstream and higher up the list of what keeps CEO’s awake at night and thankfully there is much more research and evidence around the impact and successful strategies. Why focus on culture right now?

In a world where the external environment continues to change faster than your internal environment, there is mounting evidence to support the link between sustainable performance and a focus on aligning culture and strategy. It’s a journey that never ends. I think culture matters even more right now as many organisations are contemplating pivotal moves around the “Big 4” fundamentals of their identity - Purpose, Vision, Business model and Values. All these pivotal activities are under intense scrutiny as leaders are forced to consider more radical and innovative changes to adapt to a world with very different customer, employee and partner needs and expectations when the fog clears. What and who do we want to become as an organisation emerging from these uniquely disruptive times? I believe it’s now mission critical to add a 5th element, Culture, to that meaty list of fundamentals and would like to use this series of 3 blogs to explore the “Why” and the “How” of prioritising intentionally shaping your culture. I will also share some practical tips and strategies to help leaders build clarity, unity and commitment around an area where myths and misconceptions still exist. Think of any business you really admire that has been around for a while and ask yourself “Why”?... I bet their culture and how you experience it will frequently, if not always be on that list. I spent a lot of my earlier career in M&A and leading post Acquisition integration at board level and I would take an average strategy and closely aligned culture over a scintillating strategy and a misaligned culture any day. In mergers, failure to understand and shape the cultures of 2 organisations to support a new integrated strategy and you can forget the synergies you promised at the outset. Too often Strategy attracts 90% of the effort, but 90% of the problems are cultural and behavioural in the final analysis…if openness and honesty prevails. In my coaching conversations, the consulting world and business press; the rallying cries today tend to emphasize the need for cultures embracing agility, resilience, innovation, digital transformation, compassionate leadership, virtual working and collaboration. None these change focal points are new, but all have become mission critical and are fundamentally dependant on aligning culture with a clear strategy.

What is culture? Given the multitude of theories, beliefs and definitions around culture circulating out there, let me briefly share the view that underpins my views in this series of blogs. For me culture is about the often “Unspoken” organisational habits and routines in an organisation .… what people “say and do” ….the stuff you really notice when you join a new organisation with a different culture. These habits or norms of collective scaled up behaviour are shaped by a set of beliefs or values around the way things get done around here. These behaviours typically …

  • Exemplify how you get along here, stay in line or avoid ruffling feathers…that get you promoted or overlooked

  • Become the lessons learned important enough to pass on to new hires.

  • Come to life in the stories and company folklore of success and failure we share.

  • Typify how people behave “when no one is looking”

  • How we show up for customers, clients and suppliers (and each other)

Ironically the beliefs underpinning these collective behaviours exert a powerful gravitational pull, but are rarely coherently or meaningfully written down. They also too often fail to chime with the behaviours of certain leaders who typically “say one thing and do another” or the “Company Values statements” that live on the wall and the Annual Report, but not in the hearts and minds of employees. Your culture can and should be like an internal guiding moral compass consistently informing your tougher choices and “How to do the right thing” in a time of crisis. So for me it’s not helpful to think of culture change as something you “do” and inject into your strategy to help it succeed. I find it more useful to think of it as something you “Get” over time from a multitude of strategic and tactical choices you make on strategy, process, systems, recruitment, development, policies, communication etc. You can be guided in these choices by a clear view of the culture you want and need. If you want to be more collaborative, innovative, agile, customer focused you can intentionally shape your culture by making strategic and tactical choices that will nurture these behaviours over time. How you lead, communicate, recruit, develop, appraise, reward people can be guided by your culture vision. Apple, Ikea, John Lewis, Amazon don’t have the distinctive cultures that set them apart by chance. So intentional and alignment are the key words when it comes to leveraging culture. Do you have the culture you need or the culture you deserve? You can’t not have a culture….but the culture you have can be left to chance or carefully chosen and crafted over time. I find it useful to think of culture as the environment that your strategy lives in. This culture is created over time by a whole host of “Intentional” decisions that ultimately guide how people behave, discretionary effort, engagement and the pace and sustainability of change. Just like the body can reject a major organ transplant after successful surgery, an organisations culture can reject a carefully researched strategy that is too counter cultural to engage sufficient people in successful implementation. A high performance culture is one in alignment with your Vision and Strategy that engages people to deliver your strategy with less friction, more focus and more energy. Maintaining this alignment is a never ending process that demands special, concurrent attention, particularly when you are changing your strategy to adapt to shifts in the external environment.

The cultural alignment imperative….. A deeper dive into “Why now”.

There’s a lovely metaphor, inspired by Damian Barr, which I think frames the importance of culture today perfectly where it feels like ….

  • We are all in same boat (Government Lockdown Policy) but weathering very different storms (depending on the personal impact of Covid, business, role and personal).

  • When the storm settles (unpredictable but it will happen) many will need to set a different course and reset the sails (Revisit their Mission, Vision and strategy/plan)

  • and your culture will feel like the prevailing currents and the winds, hard but not impossible to read but very powerful……

  • and, depending on the course you choose you will either have a tailwind or a headwind and the currents will combine to determine how quickly you can execute your strategy.

  • So if you want agility choose a Vision/strategy that aligns with your culture to get there smoother and faster.

There are 4 characteristics of the current Covid crisis that for me, point towards raising the bar on harnessing and shaping the power of intentional culture change –

1) Almost everything is up for review!

The urgency to discuss culture typically emerges out of a major business challenge/change of strategic direction. Right now the stakes and consequences have never been higher…..there will be no back to normal. Leaders are currently reflecting on the very fundamentals of organisational Purpose (Why we exist?) Strategy (What we do?) and their Values (How we do what we do) that define them and whether they are helping them make the right choices. For many the opportunity, pressure and imperative for a radical strategic change of direction has never been higher…and delaying decisions is a luxury most don’t have.

The world will never be the same again and that covers your customer’s needs, employee’s expectations and behaviours and supplier/partner needs for years to come! The bigger your shift in direction of travel, the more likely your culture (influenced by your previous strategic choices) will need to be intentionally shaped to realign over time. I would argue that the hardest part of successful transformation is more about achieving this alignment than developing the new strategies, systems and processes you need.

2) Speed and agility will be critical.

Agility, the built in capability to respond and adapt fast will be even more crucial to making the changes required to first survive, before regrouping to identify new opportunities and then executing your new plans quickly. Your culture can support you (Tailwind) or derail you (Headwind) and agile organisations typically have developed more closely aligned Vision, Values, Strategy, Business models and Culture. This leads to improved visibility and connection between the top of the organisation and the front line, making it easier to delegate, empower and engage people in delivering change with less resistance/friction when changing direction

Culture change and alignment is easier (and faster) if you work on defining your strategy or new business model and culture at the same time. Introducing a radical new strategy into an unchanged culture can be like “Pushing water uphill”. It’s not an either or, or sequential choice. If you build your strategy to be easier to implement by assessing the “culture you have” and deciding on the “culture you need” to fit the new strategy. You have more choices…”Change the strategy or change the culture” to accelerate implementation. Sometimes it can make more sense to go with the grain of the culture if speed and agility and time to market are important? Some smaller, nimbler organisations will come out of this crisis in a stronger position because they are more able to re-position quickly and overtake some of the sleeping giants with entrenched cultures.

3) You learn a lot about your culture in a crisis.

Right now you can learn a lot about your culture if you take the time to engage widely with employees, really listen to them and reflect more deeply on what they are saying, doing and feeling as a result of your Covid response. A crisis like this really shines a torch on your prevailing Culture and its influence and exposes the true values of an organisation. Crisis provides a great opportunity to reflect on …

  • Whether your values helped (or were even consulted) to help you make good choices during the rapid frenzy of critical decision making when lockdown was first imposed and the impact on customers, employees and suppliers. You will have sub consciously been guided by your real beliefs and values as you reverted to type under pressure.

  • Who felt and feels the most pain? Senior managers, front line employees, customers, shareholders?

  • What do/did we intentionally do to support health and safety and resilience in our people, customers and partners and how quickly?

  • How did you spend your time, what did you give attention to? Cash, people, yourself, others?

  • What did you stop, start and continue spending on?

Values are one of the key pillars of your culture, so take the time to reflect as a leadership team on the clarity of your values and whether they need adapting, clarifying and embedding going forward.

4) Crisis creates a more flexible attitude to risk and innovation

Leaders have had to make some painful business continuity, financial and employee safety choices very quickly in reaction to Covid 19. As thoughts turn to the future, the scale and uncertainty of the changes in the external environment and the need to move quickly and innovatively could influence previous attitudes to risk. I see 3 factors at play -

1. Culture has a major impact on 4 collective behaviour traits likely to be mission critical in the next 6 months and beyond…..agility, change engagement, innovation and collaboration. Can you really take the risk of not paying more attention to shaping your culture if you’re implementing a radical new strategy?

2. When there’s a race on to reposition products and services and re-engineer supply chains to meet different customer needs and expectations first…..then a more bottom up “Change fast, fail fast, learn fast” culture set could be a less risky route than a more cautious top down, high control, overly structured approach to change could spell disaster.

3. The degree of turbulence and disruption and shortage of previous experience and proven solutions could pave the way to more freedom, unity, willingness and urgency to try new approaches…..the case for change will be more visible in terms of both threats and opportunities. Crisis can be a very innovative time if your Mission and Purpose are clear. If you can convince your team “You can only change as fast as your culture” and position ignoring cultural alignment as a greater risk in the face of more radical strategic choices you may have a stronger mandate and coalition.

So if you agree that culture does not improve by chance, and gets better by choice and your concerned that major changes in your direction of travel could be tripped up by aspects of your culture, we would love to understand more and share what we have learned about the power of aligning culture and strategy to help you accelerate out of today’s unprecedented circumstances.

In my next blog I will be proposing 6 key questions you need to answer to be more purposeful and intentional around shaping your culture and exploring some of the winning leadership habits I’ve experienced working with organisations shaping their culture.


What next…… Let’s Talk Culture…..

Why not join our free one hour facilitated “Let’s Talk…..” session in a safe, supportive and inspiring environment where we will be exploring -

  • Why culture is often overlooked or misunderstood in times of transformation?

  • Why culture is critical to accelerating your Post Covid recovery plans?

  • Why aligning culture and strategy should be “One conversation”…not a choice?

  • The 6 simple Questions to “Kick start” the process now.

What you can expect:

  • A space to share your own experiences, test ideas and learn from leaders in other organisations and industries

  • A chance to explore the key questions above and how relevant they are to your organisation.

  • Insight, guidance and coaching from Taylor Clarke facilitators who are experts in aligning culture and strategy.

  • An opportunity to ask the questions that are important to you in shaping your culture for your post Covid strategy.

This is a free one hour live, facilitated discussion and learning session. Places are limited to 12 on each session. The session will not be recorded.

To book your place, please click here. Or if you would prefer a free 1:1 consultation to explore your own culture change challenges then please contact me at


Alistair Brown is an experienced multi sector Business leader having worked in leadership positions in global organisations for over 20 years before moving into consulting roles for the last 15 years. My corporate experience was with Johnson and Johnson, Smith & Nephew, Nestle and Hallmark Cards, which included 3 CEO roles and 10 years at board level and cutting my teeth in post M&A integration and cultural change.

His passion lies in understanding the complex interface between strategy, change leadership, culture and values. Developing a common language, defining the current culture, deeply understanding the key barriers to agile strategy execution and embedding meaningful values are the start point for an end to end process of co-creating a Vision and Road map for enduring cultural change that unites the senior leaders and engages the entire workforce.


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