Creating culture – “Who do you want to work for?”

We’re delighted to welcome serial CEO & founder of the European Leadership Forum, Ashley Ward, as a new columnist here at SmallBizPod. He’ll be writing once a month on leadership & the key challenges an entrepreneur faces in managing & motivating people.

10th March 2009 at 12:49 pm

In businesses, the most valuable asset is human capital. Happy workers are better workers, and better workers mean a more successful and profitable business.

It is therefore essential that you determine from the beginning how you want the business to be perceived by its most critical market – the employees.

Whether you’re the founder or a hired gun, whether you have 2 employees or 200, if you as the MD/CEO/owner/boss aren’t clear on what you want your company to look and feel like, then you can bet that the rest of the organisation will feel similarly rudderless. This is because a business’s culture flows from the top down.

For example, the culture at Virgin Atlantic is markedly different to that at British Airways because every employee embodies the culture cascading from the founder Sir Richard Branson.

For a consumer-facing organisation like the airline industry, the happy faces of the cabin crew convey a mood of wellbeing to their passengers which enhances the customer experience, encouraging repeat purchases.

This is part of the organisation’s DNA, and without such a figurehead would have been harder to achieve.

Programmes of change, training and coaching can help communicate and promulgate a desired culture, but they cannot create it. If it’s your business, you have a responsibility to be that creator, because if you don’t you will find that your employees do it for themselves.

This means you may end up working for a company that you don’t recognise – or possibly don’t even like. It is easy to spot the ‘cultureless’ company almost as soon as you meet it. Telltale signs include a high staff turnover, planning that fails to deliver results, mixed brand messages and dissatisfied customers.

This shouldn’t make you afraid of involving your team in defining your culture though, because empowering your employees to give their best, as well as forgiving their mistakes, is crucial if you’re going to develop a unified team.

Think about and share your values and ideals with them. It’s not about mission statements but it is about personality, and as the boss you need to build the company largely in your own image. Are you friendly, open and empowering or perhaps serious, respectable and clever?

Whatever suits you and your industry, it has to be believable, so don’t try to be something you are clearly not. Culture is about intangibles and if what you want to be clashes too obviously with what you are, it won’t feel right for your employees or your customers and it’s disingenuous.

For some people being an engaging, charismatic and energetic leader that embodies the culture and style of their business comes naturally. They ‘walk the talk’ and the rest of the world follows.

For others it is something they have to work at, but it is worth the effort. Ask yourself why you started the company or took the job in the first place, or what sort of company you want to work for, and build it from there.

If you can create a company you like, chances are everyone else will like it too.

Ashley Ward

Ashley Ward is a partner in Nexec Partners and programme head of the European Leadership Programme (ELP), a cutting edge training forum helping CEOs of venture capital and private equity backed businesses sharpen the range of skills required to meet shareholder expectation. As a serial CEO for 26 years Ashley led several businesses to sale or IPO including Wharfedale Loudspeakers, Anite Networks and Orchestream.

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  1. A great first post Ashley, looking forward to the rest of your columns

  2. Ashley,

    Some great points on human asset and creating a culture.

    I think that those managers who are not harnessing the tacit knowledge they have within their business, will find it hard to steer through these difficult times.

    Those who are actively coaching and developing their teams make such a long term difference, as they have the weight of the team with them.

    The successful managers I coach drive this this type of culture. Their credibility and values are high, which results in a team that has clear direction and are highly driven.

    I echo your points made.


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