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Culture Matters: Key habits leaders cultivate to harness the power of their culture

Part 3 of a 4 part blog to help you shape the culture you need to accelerate your Post Covid recovery.

By Alistair Brown, Principal Associate Consultant

In my two previous “Culture Matters” Blogs from this ongoing collection I focused on

  • Why now may be the perfect “Jumping off” point to really shape the culture you need to prosper post Covid

  • Defining culture in a meaningful and practical way to enable honest and open leadership conversations

  • Why aligning strategy and culture are one conversation

  • 8 questions to kick start the senior leadership discussion around aligning culture

In this blog I’d like to start looking more deeply at the role of leaders in shaping culture and some of the good habits and practices I have seen really make a difference. In my experience there is a wide spectrum of understanding and attention in senior leadership groups around where culture sits as a problem or opportunity.

Our world will never be the same again and the radical changes and adaptations we are all immersed in having to make, will either be helped by the power of a strong culture, or dramatically exposed by the barriers raised in a poor one. An organisation’s culture is the most powerful enabler of adaptation and performance during disruptive times if tackled with rigour and insight and, not surprisingly relies heavily on competent and empathetic leadership. Leading cultural change is easier said than done and needs much more than a good checklist but here are 6 habits I have seen help senior leaders successfully steer their organisations through cultural change. I think they apply under any circumstances but have even more relevance right now.

1) A belief in the power of culture Successful CEO’s see shaping culture as a key part of their role and their commitment tends to be built on a number of critical personal beliefs. They believe that culture is….

  • A matter of choice, not chance….

  • Measurable and connects to sustainable £ performance

  • Shaped from the top….and built from the bottom…

  • Involves everyone, everyone can have an impact and a role

  • Something you influence every day that you shape and facilitate …rather than drive.

  • A key and unique differentiator which is difficult for your competitors to copy

  • Strong when you have clarity, consistency and alignment.

They prioritise providing the evidence and external support to support these beliefs developing within their teams in the early stages of a journey. A journey they see as being challenging, long term and critical to taking performance to another level that requires a high level of commitment from a united team…and also one that never really ends.

2) Being a role model for the desired culture ….”More doing, less telling and loads of listening”

Current and past leaders typically have the biggest impact on the prevailing culture and successful leaders know they are on camera and that their behaviour is contagious, good or bad. Everything you do and say delivers a message and builds or erodes trust….probably the most important thing you need to navigate through a crisis like now. Employees need to trust your intentions and direction, you need to trust them to deliver and get out of their way to move quickly. The recent public reaction to a senior government advisors ill-advised decision to “do one thing and say another” makes this point very strongly and the failure of his leader to react appropriately when this came to light massively reinforces the importance of trust and integrity.

So the behaviour change underpinning all cultural shifts needs to visibly and demonstrably start with the senior team, with no exceptions. When leaders accept inappropriate behaviour in their teams the cause is lost and it often requires courageous decisions to restructure senior teams to send a powerful message about behaviour and culture.

You not only have to role model the behaviours of the desired culture, you also have to challenge inappropriate behaviour in others. The inappropriate behaviour we accept in others, particularly your peers, kills the culture. This is critical in safety leadership.

3) Treating culture and strategy as one “Iterative” conversation

Alignment of culture and strategy starts with treating them as one conversation or process with the end game of enabling strategy execution by understanding and removing cultural barriers over time. They design the strategy to be easier to implement by respecting the prevailing culture when making strategic choices while keeping an eye to the longer term culture desired.

This can mean adapting your strategy and “going with the grain” of a strong culture depending on the alignment gap in short term as you shape the culture for the long term. A sort of “Slow down to move faster” mindset that accepts the notion that “Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast”

4) Stop talking about culture….start telling stories!

Successful leaders recognize the challenge of culture and frame the early conversations carefully to be about performance. They set the context carefully and root the culture discussion firmly in the role of culture being in service of executing strategy and change faster, hitting performance targets and solving deeply rooted operational problems and creating value for customers, service users etc. This is a language everybody in the boardroom is comfortable with but may not always associate with culture

Without this practical, issue led context/frame; early culture change conversations can become vague, frustrating, confusing and difficult to measure the impact …. a bit like nailing jelly to the wall. They talk about shaping rather than managing or creating culture and see it as an outcome of the many levers available to you to change the behaviours and attitudes at the root of operational problems. In other words, you “Get” rather than “Do” culture change through how you communicate, develop, appraise, reward, structure, react on a daily basis.

They also recognize the power of storytelling. I’ve seen great examples of where senior execs through to line managers use day to day stories of great success and crippling failure to bring the strengths and weaknesses of the culture to life for people in a way that is highly engaging and memorable. It’s a great way to unmuddy communication and taps into something very central to all our histories and experiences regardless of culture and background. Humans have always told stories.

They also invest time in establishing a common language, often a simple framework or model for culture that helps identify the key drivers of cultural change and measure the impact of the levers you pull in a language everyone understands. There are many models to choose from and the best one is the one everybody in the senior team can relate to at a practical level and builds commitment. We have found the Denison model very helpful in this respect

5) Start talking about Habits and Routines

Dan Denison, a key source of inspiration for me, dedicated his career to understanding culture and wrote the best book I’ve ever read about culture change….full of simple models, explanations, actionable tips and strategies; and case studies

He has a great tool to ground culture discussions by focusing on the habits and routines that define “How we work around here”….our culture, the stuff that’s baked into how we experience an organisation. This simple model can be focused to develop an understanding at an individual, team or organisational level and I find the grid below invaluable in framing “Habits discussions”…all organisations have stuff in each box.

We all know if the external environment changes, or disrupts in todays language, you have to adapt quicker to survive and that means changing both your strategy and your collective habits and routines (I.e. your culture!). The external environment has been changing faster than company’s internal environment for years, very few can keep up so the risk of mis-alignment or having a culture out of step with your strategy is growing. The Pandemic was an almost overnight forced change, unique in our generation that will impact government, consumer, organisational and societal behaviour for years to come.

I strongly believe delaying understanding and shaping your culture, as you seek a new direction of travel, in your efforts to survive and thrive is a luxury we no longer have. The need for intentional culture change is now a “How” rather than a “If or When” question.

In the last 3 months people’s habits and routines have changed dramatically and as we emerge out of lockdown there will be some old habits that you want to leave behind and new ones you want to take with you. I’ve used this tool several times to engage teams in an open and honest conversation around what they have learned about their culture and explore the real meaning around “Back to normal” and a way of focusing on the positives and lessons learned. For many Lockdown has been a massive experiment in virtual/home working with years of learning, consensus building and progress crammed into a few months. What other ways of working have you been resisting or slow burning trends you can ramp up?

I prefer the phrase “Shaping a better normal” to “Back to normal” or “New normal”. They say it takes 6 weeks to change a habit, so in some senses the Pandemic is a prime opportunity to pause and reflect and accelerate the embedding of some positive new habits.

6) Slow down to move faster…and be comfortable with not knowing

Successful culture change is shaped from the top and built from the bottom and as such needs the involvement, engagement and commitment of employees at all levels in the organisation. Top down, imposed, prescriptive culture change efforts always fail.

Surveys are often useful to start the conversation and leaders who “Go up, down and out”….engaging widely and deeply to understand the prevailing culture develop the empathy required for culture work. You almost have to seek permission in a way and go beyond “Tell or sell” to “Ask and involve” to shift culture and it changes one person at a time.

The rank and file often understand the culture better than the senior team and the old maxim that “People commit to what they help create” is very true in the business of culture shaping. Creating a safe space for people to come together and tell their stories, share their ideas and bring to life “The way we really do things around here” and create a picture of “How we need to do things around here” to deliver the vision, is a stage not to be rushed.

You really don’t have the time or the answers to persuade a critical mass of people to follow your “Top down” path, so maybe time to focus on creating the “Vision” and environment where people find the right path themselves and unite behind developing “A better place to work”.

What next…… Let’s Talk Culture…18th of June

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

  • Why culture is often misunderstood and overlooked as a key performance driver?

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

  • 8 simple Questions to “Kick start” the process of culture change in the boardroom?

  • Key habits of successful culture change leaders

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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