​Why organisational culture is the new business superpower

Culture is the tone the leadership sets for the organisation

While many organisations still consider culture an afterthought, savvy organisations increasingly know culture can make or break commercial success.

CMO spoke to Havas Creative global CEO, Chris Hirst, about organisational culture, cynicism and some tips to align culture to purpose for a better bottom line.

“There has certainly been some cynicism, frankly, around the idea of culture. In some cases, it is possibly considered by leaders to be an afterthought,” Hirst said. “Cynicism is that gap between what you say and what you do. There is a very big gap between in what business claim are their cultural values, for example, and what the people in the organisation or customers may think.

“And actual culture is different to what most people think. An organisation's website stating it has a really great culture because of stated policies, values and lunchtime free fruits – this has nothing to do with culture. Culture is the tone the leadership sets for the organisation.”

For Hirst, who has written a book about culture, good culture can be a superpower for a business. “If you do create an environment that allows your team to grow, that gives you a huge competitive advantage in a business context. And this flows to marketing and purpose," he continued. 

“If this gap exists between what one organisation may claim is their purpose and the reality within their organisation, then this is a problem with authenticity. It used to be the case you could have a brand that had a certain set of values, and that brand was owned by a company that had a completely different set of values. Brands were considered to be things created and held at arm's length from the company. That is not possible anymore.

“I think everything is so open and publicly available to scrutiny, it is very difficult to not align brand and culture and be authentic now." 

Hirst spied a big opportunity for organisations to grow their brands with this, noting consumers are demanding greater authenticity within brands and demanding a sense of purpose.

"Similarly, I talk about culture primarily in the context of the experience of an employee. You can make the same argument about authenticity from the experience of the people who work within those organisations," Hirst said. 

“Most organisations, are actually trying to do a common thing better than the competition, and a strong culture is allowing more business to find ways to outperform competitors.”

To get to this point, leaders need to exhibit vulnerability, Hirst claimed.

“Vulnerability is a very personal thing. We have to be very careful about not being preachy about right and wrong ways to feel about stuff, we're all individuals. But I think it is an important subject because it’s back to authenticity," he said. "People want authentic leaders. Part of being authentic is admitting all of us feel vulnerable sometimes. Some people might be more comfortable expressing it, and some people might deal with it in different ways.

“It's important in a leadership context because it’s vital you acknowledge the human, and that being a leader can be disorienting, and can be frustrating, and certainly can be quite stressful. You feel like you're building on shifting sands, and leaders are continually having to make difficult decisions with imperfect information. That is the task of being a leader.”

Other tips Hirst provides to establish a winning culture within any organisation include having an honest conversation about where your culture is now; what kind of culture you want to have; and being ambitious.

“In any organisation, the first thing to do if you want to really create effective cultures, you have to be able to have an open, honest conversation about the culture that already exists. I know that’s not as easy as it sounds, because I think sometimes in organisations, being able to be really honest is difficult. People can find that quite difficult, because obviously, you might say things people don't want to hear.

“I often say to people, a good way to find out about culture is when joining the team, ask the person at the next desk over what they think.

“You have to have a dialogue around the table about what kind of culture you want to have. Organisations talk a lot about values, but honestly, I find a lot of them not that useful. I think behaviours offer more. So try and talk about what kind of culture you want to have in terms of behaviours."

The classic leaders’ journey is then to travel between those points.

“If you really believe, as I do, that culture is a superpower, then culture is the environment you actively create," Hirst added. “I often talk about culture as being like concrete. So, you when you want to pour concrete, you set the mould and the shape you want, and you pour the concrete.

“Over time, the concrete sets. Culture becomes like that. But if you want to change the culture, you have to smash it. You have to do powerful things, because a PowerPoint presentation isn’t going to change culture, you've got to use high impact things in order to change it.”

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