When businesses want to grow, their first instinct is often to advertise. But there’s an easier, equally effective and longer lasting way of increasing sales.
Most owners of small to medium sized enterprises/businesses (SMEs) have an underlying desire to grow their businesses. It’s born of a material wish to make more profit, but possibly reinforced by an emotional wish to nurture something they can be proud of.
If you were to ask them how they’re going to achieve that, the answer invariably will be to sell more of what they do. Ask them how they expect to sell more, and the answer will usually be by advertising. Ask them what else they will do to help them sell more, and the answer will be to advertise even more (hence the abundance of people offering to help you grow your business by marketing and/or advertising through Google Ads, or Facebook, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or some other social media platform these days).
This is all well and good, and may indeed bring your business a temporary boost in sales. But there is a part of your business that could also bring you more sales, and not just for the length of the advertising campaign(s), but for months and years to come. And, even better, there won’t be a need to hand over your hard-earned cash to advertising agencies or whichever platform you choose to use, because it’s within your own business.
And what is this often-overlooked source of sales, you ask? It’s using good, old-fashioned customer service for growth, or rather, adopting a customer focus.
Customer Service – A Hidden Source Of Growth
You see, a successful advertising campaign (and let’s not forget not all campaigns are ridiculously successful), could bring a flood of enquiries into your business, but then it has served its purpose. You then have to convert them into actual customers, during which a fair portion will fall by the wayside.
Having a customer focus will not bring in the volume of enquiries that an advertising campaign possibly will, but good customer service will lead to growth in the business. You see, when a new customer deals with a business for the first time what they have done, at its simplest, is given the business an opportunity to show what it can do.
The business can then: a) disappoint the customer by falling short of the customer’s expectations; b) satisfy the customer, by simply meeting their expectations; or c) delight them, by exceeding their expectations.
Needless to say, the failure to adopt a customer focussed approach will leave the business struggling in type “a” or at best type “b”, while adopting a genuine customer focussed approach will lift the business into type “c”. In fact, a customer focussed business is one that will, by definition, delight their customers.
A type “a” business, having disappointed its customer, is unlikely to get a second chance, meaning that customer is lost, possibly forever depending on the availability of alternatives, and the benefit from advertising ceases there and then. To bring in another new customer the business must rely on more advertising, with its associated cost.
A type “b” business, having satisfied its customer, may get a second chance, but could just as easily lose the customer who is open to trying an alternative supplier to see if they can do better.
This constant flow of bringing in new customers only to lose them and then have to replace them with more new ones is often referred to as “churn”.
In contrast, a type “c” business, having delighted its customer, will likely keep the customer should there be a need for a subsequent, similar purchase. We all know how difficult it is to find good, reliable suppliers and once one is found, there’s often a reluctance to try someone else, even if they are cheaper. And even if they are significantly cheaper the customer is still more likely to give a type “c” business the opportunity to improve their offer rather than risk using an unknown party.
Once the customer makes a repeat purchase, customer focus has played its role in keeping the customer and bringing in additional sales, and there should be no reason (as long as the customer focussed approach is maintained) for that customer to look elsewhere in the future. So not only is your customer focus and good customer service leading to growth through repeat business, it is (based on common estimates of the costs involved) doing so at something like a sixth to a twelfth the cost of running advertising campaigns.
But even if you are providing goods or services that rarely give rise to a second purchase, or only a handful in a lifetime, customer focus can still play its part in bringing in sales through a different channel.
A Growing Reputation
In marketing one of the most compelling tools in convincing someone to make a purchase is that of a recommendation from a trusted source. If a customer has dealt with a business and been ‘delighted’ they are likely to tell three of their friends or acquaintances of their experience (as opposed to ten friends or acquaintances when they’ve been disappointed).
These three will then tell three more each and so it continues, causing word to spread quite quickly. Before too long you have the equivalent of a minor advertising campaign in terms of ‘contacts’ made, but one that is backed by personal recommendations (i.e. more likely to turn into sales) and has cost little more than caring for your customers.
However, while this illustrates how powerful a force a good reputation can be there unfortunately isn’t an equal and opposite impact when disappointing customers; it’s actually far worse than that!
When customers are disappointed, they tell more of their friends and acquaintances (around ten) of their experiences, which means that word of a poor level of service spreads considerably faster and more widely than word of a good level of service.
The outcome of this is that there’s a good chance a type “a” business will lose most of the new clients their advertising campaigns bring in, and consequently they have to run a new advertising campaign to bring in the next period’s sales; and this is just to stand still, let alone grow! So now they’re on the treadmill of continual advertising with its recurring cost(s), constantly having to advertise to bring in new customers to replace those lost. I think I can best describe this situation as equivalent to trying to fill a bath without putting the plug in.
Plugging The Hole
So, how do we put the plug in the hole? This is the role customer service plays. When done properly, customer service leads to growth by helping you keep most of the new customers you bring in for repeat business, and/or bring new customers in through very effective word of mouth recommendations. While there is no harm continuing to advertise occasionally to boost your sales and growth, it does mean you’ll be getting the best ‘bang for your buck’ each time you do so. And it does translate into securing a ratchet-type growth, where the movement in sales is always one way, i.e. steadily increasing.
The challenge, of course, is in the phrase “when done properly”. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, many businesses profess to be customer focussed, but when it comes to actually delivering against that implied promise, most of them fall sadly short. In most cases it appears while they are quite happily using the term ‘customer focussed’, they rarely give the impression of understanding what exactly it truly means.
But that, I feel, warrants a separate article of its own ….
Businesses have been trying to improve their efficiencies for over a hundred years, but few have actually reaped the full benefit from it. Here’s why …
The pursuit of efficiency has been one of the major objectives businesses have adopted over the last hundred years or more. In fact, you could argue that this has been a regular aim of management ever since F. W. Taylor determined to improve industrial efficiency at the turn of the 20th century in what came to be known as the “Scientific Management” movement.
Taylor’s “Scientific Management”
Prior to Taylor, work was generally carried out by skilled craftsmen responsible for completing the whole range of tasks involved in the production of things. Taylor broadly broke down these production processes into a series of simpler, inter-related tasks, one feeding into the next. Management then designed the quickest, most efficient way of executing each task and trained a less skilled worker to do it.
The major benefit of this approach was that as each unskilled worker became more proficient at their task, it took them less time to carry it out (i.e. their productivity increased). Add to this the fact that lower rates were paid to the unskilled workers, and the result was that the overall cost per unit produced was reduced, even though the earnings of the individual unskilled workers (now based on piece-meal rates) were increasing.
With such an incentive this idea was eagerly taken up by industrialists of the time, most notably Henry Ford whose early adoption of the method, together with his introduction of the moving production line, played no small part in enabling his company to produce a motor vehicle cheaply enough to be within financial reach of ‘the masses’.
However, by the mid-20th century arguments were being raised against this approach, centring around the ideas at the very core of Taylor’s reasoning.
Efficiency at all costs
Taylor had broken down a start-to-finish process into a series of subprocesses and focussed on each one to improve its efficiency, focussing on the ‘cost per unit of production’ as its measure. The underlying assumption was that the sum of the efficiency gains over all subprocesses in the total process would equate to the gain in efficiency over the whole.
The later views, however, believed this often not to be the case as some improvements in efficiencies in subprocesses could have adverse effects elsewhere either in, or outside of, the overall process. And the eager pursuit of efficiency purely in cost terms had similarly adverse impacts beyond Scientific Management. So, for example: –
In production runs, the less frequently you change setup, the less time is wasted in non-productive activities (i.e. setups), which leads to longer production runs being used whenever possible. This was often leading to over production, over stocking and ultimately writing off obsolescent stock (with larger than necessary storage facilities used as a side effect).
Executing relatively mindless tasks with an emphasis on number of units produced can lead to a lack of focus and attention on the part of the worker who, while producing more units, produces units of lower and less consistent quality. The impact was being felt later in the process or, worse still, by the customer.
Reductions are made in resources needed to service the customer (without a redesign of the process – the reduced resources are simply required to “work harder”), resulting in inferior customer service. (If you’re unsure what this means, think back to the last time you called a business and were left on hold, listening to a looped message telling you how important your call was to them!).
When the push for efficiency extends to the purchasing function, the search for the lowest unit price often leads to purchasing in bulk, and over stocking (similar to over production), with wastage due to obsolescence and storage facilities.
Likewise, the search for the lowest unit price also can lead to a compromise in quality (not always avoidable through specifications), again causing issues either later in the production process or in the hands of the customer.
So, while each individual subprocess is improving its measures of efficiency, the wastage generated in the business as a whole, together with poorer service to the customer, is offsetting these gains, quite possibly completely.
While this can be managed by exercising stronger control over the process in its entirety, this very rarely happens effectively in practice. When each supervisor/manager of each subprocess is concerned primarily, if not solely, with their own subprocess and is measured on the results within their subprocess (and quite possibly is rewarded on that basis), this encourages a very blinkered, self-centred approach. Plus, it’s easier to manage in this isolationist way in practice as coordination over several functions requires greater thought and effort.
As a consequence, the way improving efficiency has been carried out in practice over the past decades (and to this day, in most circumstances) has had an adverse impact on business profitability, both through inferior customer service and lost customers, and through additional waste, which is exactly the opposite to what the business originally set out to achieve.
A better approach to efficiency
So, how can you increase efficiency and raise profitability? First you must ensure you put the satisfaction of your customer ahead of your efficiency drive, accepting that otherwise what you gain in efficiencies (and probably more) could easily be lost through losing customers and/or your reputation. By all means you should look for efficiencies, because a lower operating cost will help you compete with alternative suppliers and/or boost your profitability, but only look for these efficiencies after your customer service has been safeguarded.
Once this priority has been established and customer service has been retained, you then have to ensure that the ‘silo’ approach to subprocesses is kept in check by taking a more holistic view of the total process. This can be achieved by introducing a mechanism that evaluates any proposed improvements to subprocesses in the context of the whole process prior to them being implemented. This will ensure any adverse consequences that would be felt elsewhere are addressed and avoided before any damage is done.
If you can manage to do this (no mean feat, which is why many are not up to the challenge and take the lazy way out) you’ll be providing a better service all round, and at a lower cost … something very few can achieve, but by no means impossible … and worth its weight in gold!
Thankfully the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths appears to now be subsiding here in Australia, and “the curve” is flattening. Now is the time for businesses to prepare for the brakes being slowly released and to ensure they are in good shape to steal a march on the competition when the lights turn green.
After the Storm
The past few weeks have been truly horrendous for many businesses and owners have no doubt been putting their minds to how they could survive such a massive hit to their business. Hopefully the government assistance at both state and federal level, together with a little ingenuity on the owners’ part, has eased some of the pain and opened up a way through this.
But for those of you who thought now was the time to simply hunker down until the storm had passed, then think again! Just as some of our sports teams are talking about training more intensively ready for when the season restarts, so you need to be putting similar effort into preparing your business for the restart. And ideally, you should be aiming to go back to work in better shape than when the restrictions took hold.
You see, any owner worth their salt will know that they have been running a business where parts of it could have, and should have, been improved. So why didn’t they do that? Why did they choose to “live with it”? It’s because they always felt they didn’t have time, or there were other, more important things to do (even though rarely are there more important things to do than improving your business!).
Well, now you have time to make those changes you’ve been putting off. Seldom do these times where you can stop and think seriously about your business come around, and seriously thinking about your business is exactly what you should now do. And you need to attack this with a complete ‘root and branch review’ approach, going back to square one.
Rethink your business
Think carefully about what it is you do, why you do it, and how you can do it better. Then (in case you didn’t do this first time around) rethink all that, but from the customer’s point of view. Don’t think about what is convenient for you, but about what is most convenient for your customers. Think about helping them solve their problems, or meet their aspirations, more effectively, and as easily as possible for them.
Too many businesses forget that they exist to serve their customers, and that the profit they’re looking for can only be generated after customers have been, at the very least, satisfied. No happy customers leads to no customers, and no customers is what many have been experiencing for the past few weeks; I’m sure no-one wants a repeat of that!
Once you’ve decided what it is you should be doing, then apply yourself to working out the most effective and efficient way of doing it … and in that order! Your first priority should always be, at a minimum, meeting the customer’s expectations, and only then should you work on how to deliver that without wasting time, effort and money in doing so. This way you should be creating happy customers and at lowest cost, ensuring you’re still competitive in the market.
Then rise above
So, look at your business with a critical eye, plan out what improvements you should make and how, and start implementing them as soon as you can. Remember, very few businesses actually serve their customers well; many profess to really valuing their customers and tell you at every opportunity how important you are to them, but then don’t match up to that in delivery. If you can sharpen up your business in this respect, and before the restart, you’ll be several steps ahead of, and head and shoulders above, your competition.
After all, how many businesses, big or small, genuinely impress you when you deal with them? I can only think of one or two who stand above the rest.
In all my experience, in businesses from small, family owned to household name multinationals, across a variety of industries and across three continents, that is what stands out as the most common, most persistent and toughest problem facing all businesses.
At the root of this is the fact that all people are individuals; they’re all different and, since most businesses are environments that thrive on routine and consistency, the two factors are naturally in conflict. But if that’s the case, how is it that some successful businesses (and very large businesses at that, where the diversity of employees can be huge) are able to meld together high performing teams when most others struggle? And if we want to emulate such teams, where can we find examples to follow?
When the internal workings of businesses are generally hidden from the average onlooker this can be a challenge, yet if we broaden the pool slightly, we’ll usually find examples that are far more visible. Where might this be? Why, in the field that we most frequently associate with teams …. the sporting arena!
This is an area where teams are the norm and, when teams are followed by avid fans, their inner workings (certainly as far as matters pertaining to the players in the teams are concerned) are exposed to – and analysed by – the general public far more than is the case with business.
I have to confess that I raise this issue now prompted by the success of a team I have followed loyally for more years than I care to remember, through thick and thin (mostly thin, I’m afraid), but who are currently riding high; far higher than has been the case over the past 50 years or so, and certainly far higher than we supporters have any right to expect.
So how have they achieved this rush of success? It certainly isn’t that the club has suddenly become exorbitantly wealthy, allowing them to ‘buy’ success to a large extent as some other teams have done over recent years. But if we look into the club’s background a little this may give us some idea of what is happening there.
The Club’s History
My beloved club is Sheffield United, currently competing in
the Premier League in English football (or soccer, as my adopted home of
Australia insists on calling it!), generally accepted as the top tier of
football in the UK, and quite possibly Europe.
The club has a long history, having been formed in 1889, but
by and large any glory it has had was in its early years, and was well and
truly over by the late 1920’s. Since then it has struggled to retain a presence
in the top tier of English Football and fell as far as a lowly fourth tier for
a season in 1981.
While things did subsequently improve, the club has bobbed
up and down between the first and third levels for some years, rarely in the
first for more than one or two seasons at a time, and as recently as mid-2016 back
down as low as the bottom of the third.
At the end of the 2016/17
season (each season runs approximately August to May) the club won promotion to
the second level, and two years later, at the end of the 2018/19 season, won
promotion to the Premier League, having last departed from it some twelve years
Possibly due to this long absence, combined with its rapid rise, before a ball was kicked in the new 2019/20 season Sheffield United were every pundit’s guarantee to be relegated after only one season. But the club has confounded all expectations and is currently sitting sixth in the table (of 20 teams), having so far played 26 of the 38 games this season.
They are still by no means a
wealthy club but are venturing into the market to buy more players in order to
strengthen their playing squad, and have broken their modest record on transfer
fees paid on more than one occasion over the past six months.
They remain, however, one of the tier’s poorer relatives. No more clearly was this illustrated than in a recent game when one of the opposing team’s players who was sitting on their reserve bench had cost them more than the whole of our first team combined. Minnows in a tier of several giants indeed!
So how have they managed,
against all odds, to achieve what they have when so severely handicapped in
The Change in Fortunes – Management, Teamwork and Culture
Without doubt the club has benefitted from the recruitment of a tactically sharp manager in Chris Wilder in mid-2016, with his able assistant Alan Knill. Together they have developed a system of playing that is creating problems for teams who are well established at this level and are managed by some of the most revered football managers in Europe, who are themselves expressing admiration for how difficult beating Sheffield United is proving to be.
But this isn’t the full answer, not by any means. The bigger factor, and one that I believe is crucial to explaining the team’s success, is how the manager has been able to get the team to execute their plans and tactics consistently at a level way beyond what any student of the game would expect from the individual players at his disposal. What is it that makes the total greater than the sum of the parts in this case?
The answer to this question lies in the environment Wilder has created within the club since arriving there in mid-2016. He has created a culture where the whole club, from the front desk staff in the ticket office, through the players, up to the owners, and extended to the supporters, has been brought together with the sole focus of bringing success to the club.
The environment is one where everyone feels they have an important role to play in helping bring that longed for success to the club and are consequently motivated to ensure that happens.
As a boyhood supporter of the club, then a ballboy, then a player, and now its manager, Wilder has a deep understanding of what is at the very heart of the club and epitomises all it stands for. And he plays to these strengths to galvanise everyone involved in the pursuit of the success that has eluded them for so long.
The foundations of the club lie
in its working class roots in the late 19th century when Sheffield
was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, with the vast majority of
folk who supported the team through the next hundred years spending most of
their working week in the harsh, grimy
conditions of Sheffield’s ubiquitous steel mills and ancillary
businesses (including coal mines), looking forward to a much needed break at
the weekend when they could watch their local football team in the open air.
The manager has taken the historical spirit of those tough, straightforward, plain talking, determined workers operating in the most challenging of conditions all those decades ago, and given it prominence within the present-day club. So successful has he been in having people buy into his crusade that whoever the press choose to interview associated with the club, regardless of what role they play or where they originate from, they speak with one voice, all well aware of their common aim/purpose and fully focused on achieving something significant, against the odds, through hard work and commitment.
Wilder has also extended this approach to his recruitment of players since assuming the manager’s role. Most of his recruits have been players who had achieved limited success at previous clubs (many having been released by their clubs) but who were assessed as having potential that needed to be coaxed out of the player. But equally importantly they were required to have the determination to prove their earlier clubs wrong in choosing to let them go; most felt they had a point to prove, consistent with the ethic of succeeding against all odds!
He has also applied across the club a refined style of man management, setting aside the common approach of ‘one size fits all, take it or leave it!’, acknowledging that everyone responds differently to praise/criticism and taking the time to identify the differing personalities under his care.
This has been demonstrated in his dealings with players when, on two recent occasions two different players were personally responsible for goals being conceded by the team. On one occasion the player (a confident young individual) was rebuked and publicly told “He has to do better and cut out these mistakes …”, while the other player (a more reserved, but determined character) was told to “keep at it and things will improve”. Importantly, the two differing approaches both resulted in no loss of motivation by the players and were followed by improved performances.
What has strengthened the culture even more is that the players who have responded to the manager’s faith in them and ‘upped their game’ in response to the new challenges thrown at them have been rewarded by being retained in the team even as they have risen to the dizzying heights of the Premier League and new, more expensive players have been brought into the club.
None of these new players are ‘big time Charlies’, they do not have the red carpet rolled out for them and they have to work hard and prove themselves before they can secure a place in the team based purely on merit and performance as opposed to reputation, regardless of how much they cost the club.
When the club experiences
success Wilder takes it upon himself to negotiate with the CEO for improved
financial packages for the players and staff, without them having to initiate
the process. As the manager reaffirms his faith in his players his players are
repaying that faith by choosing to stay with the club when other clubs are
showing interest and no doubt offering more attractive financial packages to
tempt them away.
Notably on the sole occasion when one of the players (who played a major role in the club securing promotion to the Premier League) felt he could insist on an improved contract, Wilder gave him short shrift; he believed the demands made by the player (or probably his agent) were too great for a club of Sheffield United’s limited means and it was apparently made very clear to the player that he was not in a position to make such demands. After some probably ‘frank’ discussions that player has since not played for the club and has spent the season out on loan to other clubs, currently playing in the Dutch leagues.
As a consequence, the player’s
long-term dream of playing football in the Premier League has not materialised
despite him being only a matter of weeks away from achieving it, and any notion
of giving preferential treatment to anyone at the expense of others who are
‘committed to the cause’ has been dispelled before they were even considered.
In his handling of this matter
Wilder has made it perfectly clear for all concerned that sustainable success
for the club is the prime goal and anyone who acts in a way that jeopardises
that will have no place there.
Conversely, when people do demonstrate their total commitment to the common cause Wilder is fiercely protective of them (whether players or staff) and is at pains to direct praise to where it is due, always referring to ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ when accolades are called for.
Finally, throughout the success of the past few years Wilder has remained authentic and sometimes frighteningly honest in his dealings. He remains eminently approachable to all and has adopted no airs and graces. He even, on occasions, still takes public transport to get to work. As a consequence he is truly seen as ‘a man of the people’, so much so that when the team play their home games the supporters sing the chant that Wilder is “one of our own”, bringing all ‘stakeholders’ (for want of a better word) of the club together.
Lessons to be Learned
So, what can we take from this story, of minnows overperforming in the company of giants, that would be useful in our own businesses? What might be some clear, concise, practical and powerful lessons to be learned?
It is evident that culture can be a powerful, positive force within any organisation; one that can play a major role in achieving success. However, in my experience it also has the capacity to be an equally destructive force if the development of the culture either is left unguided or is misguided.
So, given the two sides of that same coin, a clear framework is useful in informing how a culture should be developed in a way that produces a positive impact on the business. Let’s look at what Wilder has done, how the club has benefitted, and how this relates to business.
Wilder has: –
Created a goal that everyone at the club (from owners to supporters) can relate to. Furthermore, he has added an emotional attachment (‘something the whole city can be proud of’, ‘in the face of adversity’ etc.) such that there is an even stronger connection and commitment to it. It tugs at the emotional heartstrings somewhat more than the “reduce costs by 10%” or similar, that many businesses adopt. Having set the goal, he has made everyone aware of their role in achieving it.
Extolled the virtue of attitude at the club, making it the prime attribute for filling roles there. It has been made clear particularly in the recruitment of players and is reinforced by openly stating that maximum effort and commitment are prerequisites for being a part of the club. It is made equally clear that anyone who does not demonstrate the required effort and commitment has no role to play there. How many businesses carry deadwood because it’s deemed too much effort to do otherwise?
Shown that he will, to the best of his ability, be very caring, supportive and protective of those who do commit to the club. This extends to those players who do not make the grade to be a first team regular, but who still show that commitment. Wherever credit is due it is given, and all successes are shared. The kind of loyalty and respect this engenders in the ‘team’, as a team, provides the backbone and stability that feeds success and sustainable growth in morale, matching positive results and outcomes. How many businesses are truly built and run on that kind of basis?
Shown a rare level of man management through personally making the effort to understand the personalities of those under his care and using that to identify how best he can motivate them, thereby drawing the best performance out of them. It is this kind of individualised, personalised approach that business needs to learn from and apply. In business, it is also rarely a case of ‘one size fits all’.
Made it perfectly clear that he manages in an impartial manner. All decisions are made against the backdrop of how they will impact securing the overall goal. This level of consistency allows everyone both to know exactly where they stand and to be able to predict how the manager will react to issues in the future. How often is the opposite the case in business where internal politics are often a significant part of decision-making?
Been very open throughout his tenure and does not succumb to ‘spin’. He says it as it is, and his honesty is appreciated by all concerned. His word is valued, and his integrity is there for all to see, leading to an open, trusting environment.
Retained the traits of a ‘man of the people’ who everyone can relate to, support and respect. He has done so while still being acknowledged as holding the final authority in decision-making (other than at owner level), but also openly taking responsibility for those decisions he makes when they have less successful outcomes. The resulting sense of camaraderie, loyalty and (literally) ‘team spirit’ are all too often lacking in businesses where the leader/manager is less attuned to the morale and spirit of their tribe and the organisation as a whole, and is more concerned with their own personal agenda, benefits and perhaps their own personal vision of what they may see as their rightful career trajectory.
Ultimately, established himself as a true leader who people will willingly follow.
Leading on from this, and integrating aspects I have observed over many years, I suggest any attempt at developing a culture that plays a positive role in helping an organisation reach its goals should be built around the following key elements: –
Set a clear, aspirational goal that everyone can relate to, focus on, and rally around.
Spread the word
Make everyone aware of the goal, how it is to be achieved, and each person’s role in making it happen; emphasise the importance of everyone’s contribution if the goal is to be reached. (Employees generally want to feel they can contribute to the organisation and be valued beyond simply receiving a wage/salary).
When everyone is clear on their role give them the support they need to enable them to successfully play their part (and definitely don’t tie one hand behind their back!); heighten their sense of involvement and responsibility by actively encouraging their feedback.
Share the benefits
When goals are reached (or progress is made) everyone must benefit accordingly with credit and/or reward shared across all those who contributed throughout the operation.
Recruit with a focus on attitude and character that is consistent with the desired culture – skills can always be taught (“Hire for attitude – train for skill” Richard Branson has said, quoting Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines). Reinforcing the values (i.e. culture) of the organisation must be a key element of the induction process to ensure ongoing consistency.
Beware of tolerance
Actions that hinder the achievement of success must be addressed and rectified immediately; deliberate or persistent behaviour inconsistent with achieving the goals is not to be tolerated; clearly demonstrate what is unacceptable behaviour to avoid undermining the efforts of others.
Little is more divisive than an atmosphere of hidden agendas and secrecy. An open approach promotes trust, which is essential when asking the workforce to commit to the common good. It also goes hand in hand with the advice of W. Edwards Deming to ‘drive out fear’, which demands an environment that encourages the workforce to feel able to raise issues before they develop into major problems instead of trying to hide them.
Set the tone
Ensure that your actions, as leader, are absolutely and clearly in accordance with the goals and how they should be achieved day-in, day-out. Remember, as a leader your actions are interpreted as being what is both acceptable and desirable in the organisation, so be seen to be living by the rules you set.
However, it is important to remember that while we want the culture to become deeply embedded in the organisation to the degree that it will, in effect, be self-managing, it is the role of leadership to ensure that the culture does not lose direction while still retaining a capacity for managed change when called for, such as in adapting to a changing environment. Indeed, a willingness to be responsive to changes in environment and to constantly improve (with the workforce playing a key role here) should ideally be built into the culture as a means of achieving the established goals.
Finally (and this point is absolutely crucial), be acutely aware that simply paying lip service to this approach will have disastrous consequences … it is essential that there is total commitment by the leadership team to the cause and that this is seen to be the case through the actions of leaders. Once this ceases to be the case then credibility will be lost, the workforce will lose its trust in its leaders, and it will be perceived as just another project that was ‘flavour of the month’ for a short while, with the leaders’ lack of commitment being reciprocated by the workforce.
If you can take this framework and genuinely apply it to your organisation, you will be developing a motivated workforce committed to working together to produce the best possible outcome for everyone. In doing so you will be going a long way towards harnessing the power of a strong corporate culture that will bring you closer to realising your ambitions.
Not only that, the self-managing nature of a strong, positive culture (because everyone knows what everyone is aiming for, what they should be doing, how they should be doing it and is carrying it out) means the time often currently spent solving daily problems is now no longer needed or, at the very least, is needed to a lesser extent.
Surely these two issues alone justify making a conscious effort to ensure you nurture such a culture, don’t they?