Does culture really have to come from the top?

By Narda Shirley, managing director, Gong Communications

In a pressured corporate environment, organisational culture – the purpose, values and behaviours that characterise a business – are widely understood to be a more effective route to decision making with integrity than a rulebook.

From Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why? to Larry Fink’s annual Blackrock CEO letter, we know that we should care about culture to attract and retain the best talent and impress leading investors. A strong culture mitigates reputational risk and adds value.

EY and HBR tell us that culture starts at the top with the Board and good governance and with strong narratives and corporate stories. But not every company can have an activist CEO like Paul Polman or a purposeful founder like Elon Musk to motivate the team and charm the media.

The reality in most organisations is that if the Board isn’t prioritising it, culture isn’t anybody’s actual responsibility. Unless the culture is actively broken (Oxfam, Bell Pottinger, The Weinstein Company) and people are leaving in droves, or the business is on the rocks because of a cultural misdemeanour, it doesn’t usually warrant much pro-active attention. It’s more likely that culture is viewed as ‘just the way things get done around here.’

But external factors like climate change, plastic in the oceans, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and the sustainable development goals are forcing the issue. Organisations are self-selecting into two camps: those that are heads-up and engaged with the world and others that are head down and pursuing business as usual.

We would argue that taking single use plastic out of the supply chain is a cultural as much as an operational issue. It requires a massive effort to make a change like that in a big organisation. It takes determination to push against the status quo, lobbying various stakeholders around the business to get buy-in and support. And there’s no guarantee of any positive outcome other than the knowledge that as a company you have acted with integrity. The reward will hopefully come in terms of customer loyalty and team motivation but that’s going to be quite hard to quantify in absolute terms.

Big decisions that help shape how an organisation’s culture is perceived internally and externally, are at their most authentic and culturally engaging when they are initiated and enabled by cross-functional teams. A commitment to have 8% BAME leaders by 2020 or to stop using plastic straws, help protect endangered species by changing a company logo, or supporting mental health awareness, are powered by HR, Brand and Sustainability, Communications and Procurement all working together.

From our external, agency perspective, we see the challenge most keenly at the intersection of the functions. And perhaps unsurprisingly, given our focus on communications, we believe that it has a lot to offer as part of the solution.

In order for initiatives to have a positive effect on the culture, and to gain stakeholder buy-in, they need to be communicated. That might appear obvious, but we don’t just mean writing a blog for the intranet. Thinking through audiences, messages and channels rigorously and applying maximum strength creativity to the resulting work ensures that it lands with the desired effect. But it takes low ego effort and peer influence to bring about the kind of collaboration between functions that ensures that great ideas get the backing they need to fly.

One example we’ve seen working up close is the Dive In Festival for Diversity & Inclusion in Insurance. This initiative was originally the brainchild of a D&I leader, supported by the HR Director and the Head of Brand and Communications equally. The comms campaign in support of the festival was well resourced and approached the audience of insurance workers in the Lloyd’s market in London as ‘consumers’ with a multi-platform campaign that included media relations, stunts and outdoor signage as well as digital and social channels, an app and internal communications.

The impetus for cross-functional collaboration is the irrepressible and sustained pace of change in our world. If your Board are too busy figuring out a strategy in response, perhaps it’s not essential to have a Chairman or a CEO who can be relied on to prioritise culture. A Board that is smart enough to support a great initiative that is conceived and lived from inside the business is probably culture enough.

Photo by Gabriel Izgi on Unsplash

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree that there is strength in cross-functional working. However, based on my experience at a number of organisations exec support is fundamental. There are so many ways to approach culture from big programmes to chipping away (with a plan of course) at some of the low hanging fruit. I believe convincing our senior leaders of the value often comes down to the terminology one uses. We need to listen to our execs/boards and figure out how they describe culture and all that goes with it.

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