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3 easy steps to a business culture that delivers high performance

Many corporate leaders seem to think that business culture is a slippery subject that is difficult to measure and difficult to change

Subsequently, many businesses neglect to invest in cultivating a strong corporate culture, despite research that demonstrates a carefully managed culture can have an enduring and extremely powerful effect on nurturing a competitive and productive environment.

As an example, Australia’s ANZ Bank decided to adopt a new path around 10 years ago, to boost earnings and productivity by changing the bank’s culture.

As a result, employees reported noticing a change in the bank’s way of doing things, perceiving more honesty and openness, a more positive atmosphere, and a feeling that the bank was committed to living its values. Simultaneously, staff revenues increased, and the bank became much more profitable, and an industry leader.

To achieve this in your company, the first task is to understand and define your firm’s culture. Studies indicate that cultures which deliver high performance show three indicators of organisational health: execution, alignment and renewal.

Alignment means a coherent approach to staff behaviours, strategy and company vision. Execution is being united to move forward in an agreed direction with minimal discord. Renewal is the process of integrating continual improvement at a rate that outpaces rivals.

By taking these parameters to define your culture, and developing systems for measuring indicators, corporate culture becomes much more tangible.

Secondly, find the areas to focus on that will bring the greatest change and rewards. Research indicates that around five elements of a culture can be altered in a period of 12 to 18 months. Too many objectives will scatter energy and obscure the goals.

ANZ’s first achievements were to create an atmosphere of honesty, make staff more accountable for decisions and results influencing productivity, and ensuring staff were in agreement on where the business was heading.

In the 18 months after that, the bank pursued goals of raising customer focus, encouraging innovation, and investing more in the development of staff. Tackling these changes in stages produced the hoped for results, whereas attempting to do everything at once would have probably been too overwhelming.

The third step is to make sure cultural changes are integrated with any initiatives to improve business. If cultural change is added separately to employees’ duties, this often falls to the wayside. Instead, it can be part of ongoing work. When ANZ entered its second 18-month stretch of changes, the bank incorporated coaching sessions from high achievers for members of the sales team.

Sales staff improved their skills, had their talents further developed, and could put these enhanced skills into developing customer focus. Managers also found ways of highlighting great work, noting coaching results in evaluations, and giving incentives in the form of financial rewards.

When tackled properly and carried out carefully, programmes for culture change that emulate these three stages have been shown to have a significant effect on a business’s profitability. In addition, many employees find their work to be more fulfilling and are more confident and enthusiastic.

Executives often find that leading a programme of culture change is extremely rewarding too, as it blends the imperatives of doing business with human factors that cannot be overlooked.

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