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An introduction to Culture - notes from our webcast

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Culture Uncovered – An introduction to culture

In our first Culture Uncovered session, Rebecca Ireland and Jyn Schultze-Melling from our partner firm Gunnercooke spoke with Patrick Voss about how they define organisational culture and different ways to reflect on it.

How might we define culture If you were to ask: ‘What is your culture like?’, you may well receive many different answers. Culture is effectively ‘how things are done around here’. Culture is therefore based on how individuals feel about working for an organisation. This culture typically flows from the values that you set out. But for employees to really live these, they usually need to be shown examples of what these values mean in practice - and have leaders role-model this in their every-day interactions. Some of the key insights we discussed were:

  • Any board or leadership team needs to be clear on what their culture, or the cultural change they want to happen, mean in practice. Major issues often arise when management consider themselves exempt from having to live the change as well. This dooms any culture initiative to fail as if the top of the company isn’t living the change, this will eventually trickle down the company.

  • Culture may sound like a soft measure for organisations to focus on. But culture can have real-world business impact. A positive culture makes employees less likely to leave, which not only saves a company money but also creates the right environment for stability, crucial as a platform for consistent growth.

  • A recent paper by McKinsey has shown that the most common reason for people leaving companies is a lack of ‘belonging’, with the online nature of today only exacerbating this.

  • A quick check to understand culture at a high-level: Consider the reception areas of the various offices you may have visited in your career. What were the different layouts? How did the brand come across and what did the experience ‘feel’ like. And as you reflect, what might this tell you about the cultures of the organisations represented?

Specific examples of where culture has an impact: A healthy tension: Being aware the pros (and cons) of culture in practice. One example of culture in practice is the emergence of a ‘fail harder’ culture at many firms. The message being that if you don’t fail on occasions, you may not be aiming high enough. But if this is not what the culture feels like in practice (and only successes are celebrated), employees may be too scared to admit they made a mistake.

The office (and virtual) space you inhabit: The lack of a physical office is affecting culture. Replacing the feeling of connection with your company and coworkers that the office gives is difficult through any online medium. It is hard to form the same relationships with coworkers online as it requires significantly more effort to have a chat with people and so less personal information gets shared.

Recognising changing routines post-pandemic: Some routines present inclusivity issues for certain groups within companies, for example regularly scheduled meetings that clash with school pickup and drop off times can present challenges for particularly single working parents. Correcting this relates back to the trust culture discussed earlier and requires employees to be given more flexibility in their schedules.

Pandemic impact on new employees: Many new employees were hired by companies during lockdown. The onboarding process for these employees therefore had to take place remotely, presenting its own challenges. Without a physical office there is a lack of ‘normal’ interactions with colleagues to form bonds with them, leading to these new staff feeling like they don’t ‘belong’. This may lead to a higher likelihood of these employees leaving early, costing the organisation time and money.

Impact on Mergers and Acquisitions: A commonly underappreciated stumbling block in M&A activity is a clash of culture between the involved parties. If the different teams that will now be required to work together have a clash in approaches, leadership, systems or processes this can undermine a successful integration. Understanding culture should be part of the due diligence process to ensure that organisations and key teams will work together well post-merger.

Consistency is key: Within an organisation there may be many different teams which can evolve to have very differing sub-cultures. Left unchecked, these can undermine leaders’ attempts to create a unified company culture. New employees will have a preconceived expectation of the company culture from their recruitment experience and if this isn't mirrored as they begin to work with their team, they can easily become disengaged. So ensure that as you recruit, you understand the sub-cultures candidates may work within, as well as the broader organisational culture so new employees go in ‘eyes-open’.

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