Forge a lasting culture in the fires of crisis
By Alex Cleveland, Partner and Strategy Director at fst
“If you did not want much, there was plenty”.
This is Harper Lee’s description of the fictional Maycomb County in “Go Set A Watchman”, the sequel to the iconic “To Kill A Mockingbird”. It’s always struck me as a particularly brilliant and human description of the place, and in the midst of the Coronavirus madness, it came back to me as a brilliant summation of where we are as an economy and as an industry.
We are in a situation that demands we totally change our mindset. As individuals, as businesses and as a society, it has never been so important that we all commit to a path that allows EVERYONE to make it through. Our economy will continue to shrink and as the volume goes down, we have to ensure that whilst earnings and profits will inevitably drop, continuing to conduct business to some level will ensure the survival of thousands of businesses and with that, the livelihoods of millions of people.
In short, the wheels can and will slow. We just cannot afford them to stop.
So, the logical next question is, what can we do during this unique period, in which we may find ourselves with time and resource on our hands? How can we best prepare to be absolutely chomping at the bit once we have beaten this thing and we start to see the green shoots of recovery?
There is no one answer, as industries are affected differently, and every business will have its own challenges to overcome. But one key area that is thrown into the spotlight in the current climate is internal engagement. As the world scrutinises how businesses are treating their staff, all of a sudden, we might have a little more time to take a serious look at the culture of our businesses. It shouldn’t take a crisis of this magnitude to bring the focus on to employees and equally, it is not only during hard times that employers should do everything they can to create and sustain a vibrant, resilient culture.
So, with that in mind, what steps can we take to work on building culture and increasing employee engagement?
1. Identify and articulate your purpose
There is one MASSIVE golden rule here. ONLY YOUR OWN TEAM SHOULD KNOW YOUR BRAND PURPOSE. Having a “purpose”, has become an irritating way for disingenuous brands to market themselves. The truth is when used right, your purpose will act as your guiding light, working to protect the very values on which you want to base your culture. It will direct every decision you make and work to rationalise even the toughest of choices.
Your purpose should go well beyond what your brand practically offers, and also shouldn’t take into account commercial goals. Above and beyond these things, why should the world care that your brand exists? What contribution do you want to make? What change do you want to create? What’s the trend in your industry that you want to buck? And for what reason? These are the kinds of questions that can get you started – but the quest to find your purpose can be long and challenging. Ultimately, I actually think it helps that you are looking to create something that won’t be utilised externally. It means that you are not looking for a sexy sounding strapline or soundbite. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s authentic, tangible and from the heart.
2. Put everything in the car park
Now you have your purpose, your guiding light, you can assess every single element of your culture against it. Your wage structure, your benefits package, reward schemes, social activity, the clients you take on board, the type of work you want to do – EVERYTHING. It may be that you already have much of this aligned, but now you have a purpose, you can check it against something tangible and know for sure. As you bring every element of your business back in from the “car park”, examine it, challenge it, improve it, align it.
3. Launch it, communicate it, live it
The manner in which you launch new internal engagement initiatives can have a profound effect on how completely they are absorbed by your team. Just dropping it into a regular team meeting is not enough. Announcing your purpose and all associated changes is a HUGE deal. It will change the way decisions are made within your business and provide a fantastic guide as to the type of people you want within your team. Close the office, take a day out and show your team how much internal engagement means to you. Culture is about so much more than words and you have to continually prove in the way that you lead that you mean what you say and that you are prepared to stand by your principles. This needs to be absolutely clear from the start.
Having been through this process myself with fst and with some of our clients, I can’t tell you enough how influential it has been in cementing the direction of our business, maintaining our fantastic culture and building a special team that makes me feel like we could take on anything. Never has that been more apparent to me than during our current situation, in which everything about our physical lives has been turned upside down, and yet every day I see this amazing team working for one other, totally united in driving us through this period of uncertainty.
So whilst I’m not saying that I have all the answers, if you do find you have more time and space in the coming weeks, I am of the strong opinion that using it to focus on your culture is a fantastic idea. It could lead to you emerging from this dark hiatus in better shape than ever.