No Culture, No Identity

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The coronavirus pandemic has changed how I think about many things, particularly the meaning and value of corporate culture.

A strong culture encapsulates elements of your organizational purpose and core values. It leaves us in no doubt about why we come to work every day, what our priorities are, how we collaborate with colleagues, and how we can express new ideas and innovate. It’s a powerful tool in shaping your organization to be what you want it to be, attracting and retaining talent, and driving performance.

But what is it? I have always thought of culture as how an organization’s people behave when no one is looking, and since we’ve all mostly been working in the isolation of our homes for many months, it’s never been more important.

It is harder for us to cultivate a strong culture when we work remotely and meet in person less frequently, especially when new hires come on board.  As a result, culture should be at the top of your agenda in figuring out how to succeed over the long term, as the ongoing global health crisis appears to have permanently changed how we work.

Before the social distancing and lockdowns changed our world, life in the office revolved around face-to-face interactions in meetings, over lunch or casually at a desk. Personal connections were also often developed in social situations after hours. In fact, some of the strongest workplace relationships result from extended conversations with colleagues outside the office. Strong relationships reinforce good behaviours and help eliminate bad ones. But times change. Our old way of working now seems like a distant memory.

Without being able to build or sustain relationships in the same way, we need to rely on our culture to glue our teams together. But we cannot order our colleagues to implement a positive culture as if it were a new dress code. After all, at its heart, culture is a set of beliefs and behaviours. It is developed and strengthened through easily understandable articulation of what is expected, and leadership by example, every day, at all levels of the organization. It’s all about buy-in.

As CEO of Legal & General Reinsurance, I’ve learned three rules about culture that can help turn it from corporate speak into a working reality:

Make it visible: Do the people you interact with outside your business know anything about your culture? Can they distinguish it from someone else’s? The answer is probably no. To make culture a working reality, it has to be visible.

We often think of our brand as our identity. But you can’t have a powerful brand without a strong culture. Brand and culture are closely related. Both are intangible assets of potentially high value. Each frames a story about who we are and what we do. The difference is that brand is aimed at those looking in from the outside. Culture is effectively our internal brand. And since you can’t be exceptional on the outside without having something special on the inside, culture needs to be as visible and consistent within the organization as our brand is externally.

Communication is key. When we distil our culture into a phrase or short paragraph, we need to project the essence of our purpose, our core values, our company ethos, what makes us unique. We have to steer clear of buzzwords that do not accurately portray who we are. A clearly defined culture aligned with your purpose and strategy sends out an attractive signal to the talent best suited to strengthen your organization.

And if your culture isn’t something you can communicate clearly and simply, you need to think again.

Make it personal: Your people have to live it, all the time. When was the last time you mentioned culture in a meeting, or pointed out that a piece of work or a conversation didn’t live up to the expectation set by your culture? This needs to happen all the time, and it starts with your leaders. I used to talk about culture only in meetings that were about culture; now I talk about it every day and ask all my leaders to do the same.

Words reinforce the cultural message, but only in our actions does it become reality. As a leader, you need to live the values of the culture, not merely pay lip service to them. Culture exists only within the group and authenticity is what holds it all together.

Your leaders must set the tone by calling it out when they see it and, more importantly, when they don’t. It has to be part of our daily conversation, and part of how we think about performance for everyone in an organization. All your people should have the personal objective to promote the culture so that it is clearly in focus, and not an afterthought. Having mechanisms to drive accountability across the organization is critical to your cultural consistency.

Make it last: This one is simple. Make it real today, six months from now, and a year from now. Strong leaders can create a culture that outlives them and becomes ingrained in a company. Consistency is your key ingredient. Anything less and you will have achieved nothing. You cannot drive uphill with your foot off the gas.

Culture determines how we interact with our colleagues, our partners, and our customers. It shapes the impression we leave after every meeting, especially now that we are often just voices on the end of a phone or an avatar on a screen. The companies that will succeed in the post-pandemic world—by attracting and keeping talent and being able to really differentiate themselves from their competition—will be the ones with a clear and strong culture.

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