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TINTalk – Building Cultures That Inspire and Succeed

04 June 2015, by Duncan Mitchell

I’ve always been interested in how some companies focus on their culture to help them succeed, and particularly how the physical workplace can support a culture change.

To find out more, I attended the TINTalk event at the ASB Cube in the Wynyard Quarter in Auckland at the end of April. 

The panel, facilitated by NZTE’s David Downs, included a mix of CEO's and People and Culture leaders from six successful New Zealand companies such as Mel Roswell from Vend, Deb Bailey from Fisher and Paykel Healthcare and Ian Clarke from Fronde. Highlights of the discussion were:

How much time do leaders spend discussing culture?

It was generally agreed that the topic of organisational culture and people behaviours is important enough for a leadership team to dedicate around 10 to 15% of their time to. It was also apparent that the leadership teams of those companies present understand the importance of a great culture and actively devote considerable time nurturing and shaping it.

How does a successful culture contribute to the bottom line?

The panelists found this difficult to answer as culture is such an intangible aspect of an organisation. Business performance is also influenced by many factors. Ian Clarke best got to grips with the issue saying that at Fronde they notice a difference in business performance when they neglect culture for a period of time.

How do you measure culture?

Again, with culture being so intangible, it appears difficult to measure. These businesses use a combination of engagement surveys, staff attraction and retention metrics to measure their cultures. But everyone agreed that these were really de facto measures that only touch the surface of an organisation’s real culture. Observing how staff act as they go about their work is the best illustration of culture.

How do you reinforce culture in fast-growing companies?

A big challenge for these fast-growing companies is not to dilute a successful culture with so many new employees starting every month. Mel Roswell described how Vend’s two-week induction process helps ingrain the right cultural behaviours into new staff from the outset. Such time investment is required to get new staff up to speed quickly with expected behaviours. An important part of spreading the culture of an organisation is to observe the daily behaviours modelled by staff, especially leaders.

I've also come across an interesting illustration of the power of modelling behaviours in groups in Eddie Obeng's ‘Fable of 5 Monkeys’.

Should a successful company culture be like a high-performance sports team or more like a family?

This proved another difficult question, with the panelists grappling with the diametrically opposed ideas of ‘survival of the fittest’, while helping the lower-performing team members improve performance. There is obviously no right answer here as the best cultures are a blend of both. Mel Roswell liked the family analogy, but when I chatted with her after, she said that doesn't mean you don't fire people (my words!) for poor performance. 

The link between organisational culture and premises and workplace

While the impact of the physical environment on organisational culture wasn’t discussed – and we know that the right physical workspace is not a ‘silver bullet’ to fix a poor culture – a move to new premises can certainly be a catalyst for many people and culture initiatives that will ultimately impact on businesses performance.

The lesson from this is that the move to new premises is a once-in-a-decade opportunity and needs to be used for more than modernising your existing workspace. Where you locate your premises and the type of workspace you provide for your staff needs to be thought of strategically as it is an important lever for improving business performance.

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About the author

Duncan leads our Wellington team and has been the driving force behind our workplace strategy practice since 2003. He continues to challenge how the workplace (physical environment, technology, people and process) can best support organisational performance.
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