Recently I was at a speaking engagement in Austria with The Marketing Academy and, amongst others, there was a really fascinating and profoundly inspirational speaker – John M Neill, Chairman and CEO of Unipart.  I consider that one of the most important things he said out of the whole hour was when he pulled his talk together at the end saying “….. the most valuable asset of your company is the culture and spirit of your company ……”.

To me that is the absolute crux of leadership – what do I need to do to create an environment where people are valued, feel safe, able to think for themselves and listened to when they come up with suggestions for improvement.  They come to work bringing not just their mind and body but their whole heart as well – they care.

I have some clients who know and believe this absolutely passionately – they recognise that if they are to get the strategy through the organisation so that everyone is aligned, the very first thing that has to happen is to create the culture to enable this.  Without this the words are just rhetoric and no one truly believes it.  To work with a CEO who comes into a new company and starts this way and truly gets this shift in culture is a complete joy.  I can remember working with an MD in a division of a very large corporate and he knew the importance of this so this was one of his first things he wished to do after deciding on the strategy.  It was a fairly small division so only about a thousand people and we managed to get about 400 of the top people (starting with him and his team!) through a leadership programme aligned to culture change, in about 4 months.  When the CEO of ‘Best companies to work for’ interviewed people in that corporate he said that he could physically feel the difference when he walked into the building housing that division – it was palpable.  And guess which division came in as the highest performing?

Other companies sometimes struggle to ‘get’ this and when I listen to some of the conversations, even at senior levels, they talk about things that they want or need to do and then say things such as ‘yes, that would be really good but I don’t think the culture will support it’.  This amazes me as it almost seems that they see culture as something that is outside of them!  Ludicrous of course, as it is they that actually are the culture – if they don’t like it, then change it!

So – how can you go about changing culture as I make it sound very easy?  Actually, it is not difficult and it means having the behaviours very well embedded and it really does have to start at the very top.  That is where the culture begins – right from the CEO – and leadership behaviours have to be lived and breathed all the time.  A very simple example where it can so easily go wrong – imagine that someone a coupe of levels below you comes forward with a new and possibly radical idea to get rid of some of the bureaucracy. You listen intently – because you know that is one of the behaviours that you need to be demonstrating – and you then proceed to tell them what to do about it!!  One really good behaviour then invalidated by the follow-up.  Alternatively when they come up with a good idea you could forget to get back to them to tell them what the outcome of their suggestion is, worse yet you could reproduce it without giving credit for where the idea has come from.

There are many things that come together to define the culture of an organisation and time and again I hear people say that changing it – is difficult, takes too much time, can’t be done quickly etc. etc.  All of those statements I fundamentally disagree with and have been able to disprove them time and again.  If you can take a group of ten people from the top of a company and clearly demonstrate to them the impact of three things – how they think, understand responsibility at a far deeper level than they may ever have explored it before plus shown them the consequences of the way they can inadvertently communicate you can get lasting behaviour change.  The results from those behaviour changes can be truly extraordinary and when we first worked with that small division of the large corporate the culture changed totally in a few months and in that year employee engagement went up 16% – it didn’t just ‘feel’ different, the results followed and fast!

Let me quote John one more time – “the most valuable asset of your company is its culture and spirit”.  If you want to get the strategy successfully through your company and people truly living and breathing the values this is the most critical thing to focus on.

If there is anyone reading who wishes to understand how this can happen I am running one programme – and only one – next year.  Please do check my website –  I would be more than delighted to see you there.