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Materialise your corporate culture through leaders

"CORPORATE CULTURE" is normally perceived by many executives and employees as a soft, subjective and intangible topic. To keep it short and simple to understand, corporate culture is defined as "the way we do things around here".

It acts as strong guiding principles on how employees interact with each other, how they communicate, how they take action in terms of making decisions or solving problems, how they thrive to get things done and how they believe their career advancement will be evaluated against others.

Although corporate culture seems invisible and subtle for understanding and communication, it always sends strong messages as well as directs employees' behaviour on a daily basis.

Due to my experience in working with clients over the past five years on both establishing and reinforcing corporate culture, I have come to realise that a group of leaders - especially the top of the house - is one of the few critical success factors for any organisation to successfully cultivate its culture.

Even if you have already identified the desired corporate culture with a well-written description posted throughout the organisation from the entrance, down to the hallway and every meeting room, you still cannot ensure that employees will have a common understanding or belief in that clearly defined corporate culture statement. Your leaders from the top level down to the frontline supervisory level must really behave and act as role models through their words and deeds in line with those statements of your corporate culture on a daily basis.

In other words, corporate culture needs actions. As the old statement says: "Action speaks louder than words". Some client companies invest a huge amount of time and money hiring consultants and marketing agencies to craft the gripping statements describing the desired corporate culture and making those statements attractive and professionally visible both within the company and externally. They also put in lots of effort in communicating and reinforcing the corporate culture through a variety of activities, events and channels.

Unfortunately, the investment of time, effort and money is at risk of no tangible return if the behaviours of leaders are conflicting or not aligned with the statements.

Employees would believe and look up to actual leadership behaviours whether they are modelling the behaviours that are supportive of the intended culture. They expect their leaders to understand the rationale and need for the company to identify the culture, clearly communicate and provide real-life examples of stories and actions of the desired corporate culture in action, consistently adopt the corporate culture as the guiding principles when interacting with employees and key stakeholders (aka walk the talk/practice what we preach) through the way they lead, guide, make decisions or solve problems on a daily basis.

Your corporate culture will remain as a "statement" that is not realised by your employees throughout the company if:

l Employees ask why the company has decided to identify that corporate culture and their leaders cannot provide a sound rationale for how the desired culture could address the existing plan or potential business opportunities, as employees would start questioning whether it would be just another fad.

l Leaders cannot provide a clear explanation on how the identified culture directly links or relates to the company's direction, as the importance or the necessity for cultivating that culture will be instantly diminished.

l Leaders provide different interpretations of and meanings for the identified corporate culture, as it creates confusion among employees.

l Leaders' behaviours are not consistent with the identified corporate culture, as employees would not see why it was important to change their behaviour to align with the desired corporate culture.

Leaders need to become "change leaders", starting to demonstrate new behaviours first, to be followed by their employees.

To cultivate the corporate culture, there are many dimensions that the company needs to take into account, such as a clear definition of the desired corporate culture, plan of communication and reinforcement, development programmes to assist employees at all levels to live the desired culture and integration of the desired culture into HR systems.

Last but certainly not least, if building and/or reinforcing a corporate culture is one of your company's strategic initiatives this year or in the near future, I strongly recommend starting with your leaders - understanding, buying in and aligning actions. The rest will come more easily.

Piyada Thanataweeratn is a senior consultant specialising in leadership development and competency assessment at APMGroup, a leading organisation and people development consulting company. She can be contacted at piyada_t@apm.co.th


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