by Rene Carayol

WHY CULTURE IS MORE POWERFUL THAN STRATEGY

Not so long ago, the lack of a burgeoning talent pool was Africa’s perceived biggest challenge to long-term economic prosperity. Today, that is no longer the biggest issue facing the continent—there is still serious room for further development, but there is now a rich cadre of talent in many countries, writes René Carayol

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The battleground is now shifting to leadership. There are many graduates joining the workforce and many entrepreneurs starting their own businesses. These developments are making for exciting times, but even in start-ups we are still witnessing an obsession with strategy, with little attention focussed on the culture of the organisation.

A high-growth business must be both performance-driven and values-led and, at the same time, wear its heart on its sleeve. We’re in a time when allowing your corporate culture to drift or to ‘find its own way’ may just be the start of serious problems.

We're in a time when allowing your corporate culture to drift or to ‘find its own way’ may just be the start of serious problems

In an African context, it can be tempting for a business to over-emphasise the focus on strategy and, consequently, inadvertently underplay the power of culture. My argument is especially provocative today, as many businesses are being forced to transform themselves by the compelling nature and force of the available disruptive technologies.

We meet charts, graphs, nine-box grids and very full and complex looking slide decks, all overused and overemphasised in the executive committees of both our established companies and some of the newest enterprises. Don’t get me wrong, strategy is very important but, on its own, it cannot transform the business or deliver sustainable success.

Companies that just continue to push products will wither away; those who put the customer clearly at the heart of all they do will thrive

It’s the culture of the business that provides the key to unlocking sustained and positive momentum. Progressive cultures are fuelled by engaged and inspiring leaders. These leaders tend to be visible, connected and trusted. Their behaviour, values and role modelling are essential fuel for progressive cultures.

The culture—the psychology, actions and beliefs of a group of people—is much more powerful than strategy.

I believe there are two definitions of the kind of culture that creates momentum for any business. The first one is that culture is “what happens when the CEO leaves the room”. The second definition is “the way we get things done around here”. It’s all about the attitude of those working for your company.

The most important thing about culture is that it’s the only sustainable point of difference for any organisation. Anyone can copy your strategy, but nobody can copy your culture. So, why would you leave it untended?

The best businesses are the ones whose culture has grown bigger and stronger than any individual in the team. A strong culture gains power through inspiring your people to conform to it.

Culture is the key weapon of all progressive, high-performing businesses. When employing new talent, you have to be discerning in what you’re looking for. Take attitude over skills every time. Hire for attitude, train for skills. It’s far more beneficial to hire someone with the right, positive mindset who will fit in with the culture of your company, than someone with strong skills and great experience, but an inappropriate attitude.

Many feel very strongly that some of the banks went wrong because they were far too focussed on individual success, rather than a team-based culture.

Some businesses have become a little too profit-centric and dangerously less customer-centric. If people weren’t already aware of the importance of culture, then the current turmoil that many of the banks find themselves in has certainly brought it to light. As mentioned before, companies should be values-led and performance-driven—but most banks completely forgot their values, and consequently lost their moral compass.

But it’s not just the banks, no industry is exempt from the importance of culture, which is a key part of a brand’s reputation. Mergers and acquisitions need careful and positive understanding of the desired cultural outcome. It will take leadership, determination and perseverance in order to ensure the culture starts to take shape in the required fashion.

Are we starting to see a big shift? Nowhere near enough. If you were to ask people the question, “Who would you want to bank with, Standard Chartered or Google?” most would instantly choose Google. If you said, “Investec or Apple?” most would scream for Apple.

We are going to see some interesting collaborations in banking in the near future, where the ‘front end’ that the customers have regular contact with might well be a supermarket, and the ‘back end’ that nobody sees until something goes wrong, a commercial bank. But it will probably take many years before some banks begin to lose the stigma of recent years.

The biggest shift we’re seeing in more traditional and the newer economies is the forced move from product-centricity to customer-centricity. Companies that just continue to push products will wither away; those who put the customer clearly at the heart of all they do will thrive. The rise and rise of the discerning customer and the concurrent growth of social media have made culture even more important. Anyone with a smartphone or tablet can also tap into a culture that they may be physically some distance away from.

The messages individuals and consumers are exposed to have changed massively and are so much more influential today.

Before, if one customer was really upset with your product or service they might write a strong letter—that kind of complaint was containable. One tweet, however, can easily hit 100 000 people. You can no longer simply say, “Oh we’ll deal with that next week.” Businesses must now be absolutely clear on what they stand for, and prove it by demonstrating their values openly and honestly—every day.

The culture of a company relies on there being a clear set of values, strong leadership and a sense of transparency and honesty within the company and vitally, this needs to remain consistent externally with all their stakeholders. These values will be what will differentiate your company in times of austerity and increased competition.

Don’t get me wrong, of course strategy is important, but it is vital that it is accompanied by a strong and well-fuelled culture if lasting success is to be attained.

Most successful and enduring businesses have managed to infuse and inspire their people with the appropriate beliefs, leadership role models and working environments, which deliver a unique culture that drives the strategy forward.

When things are going well, we call it ‘culture’, when things are not going so well, we call it ‘politics’. They are one and the same thing, but it’s up to your leadership as to whether it’s a competitive advantage or a reason for leaving.

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