Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Bending the rules?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Yesterday it came to light that Toshiba had been cooking the books to the tune of £780m and as a result the CEO & Chairman were forced to resign.  They are not the first Japanese company to run into trouble after the global financial crisis earthquake in Japan, Olympus also had problems.  It seems that failure was a loss of face and therefore unthinkable, and rather than change what they were doing, and admitting it wasn’t working, they decided it was easier to ‘adjust reality’.  I have written before about company culture and the importance of being able to admit to mistakes and learning from them.  History teaches us that the most successful companies constantly try new things and some of these are bound not to work. Think of all the mini-projects and services that Google launches and then pulls the plug on such as Google glass.  If it isn’t safe to admit that you have failed then inevitably people will lie, attack and cover-up the truth.  This is a failure to create the right culture rather than just a business failure.

Change is always frightening but it starts from a place of admitting we want more or we want something different.  If we can’t say this then all we can do is stay on the rails and inevitably the light ahead is an oncoming train…

Culture – the reality versus the myth

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

You may have read about the sad death of Moritz Erhardt, the young intern at Merrill Lynch, who seems to have met his death as a direct result of the pressure cooker environment created by the bank he hoped to join.  They take on about 30 of the brightest and hungriest gradates each year as interns and let them ‘duke it out’ throughout the seven week period in Battle Royale style to see who can survive the process. Polly Courtney, author of ‘Golden Handcuffs’, who also went through this process wrote in the Independent today, wrote:-

“The firm ticked all the boxes on the HR front. We were assigned “buddies”: full-time bankers to whom we could go with any questions or concerns. (Nobody I knew ever approached their “buddy”; bankers didn’t have time for questions.) We attended lectures and talks on the values of the firm (Client Focus, Respect for the Individual, Teamwork, Responsible Citizenship and Integrity) and we were taught the procedure for surfacing concerns. (We found these laughable at the time; with hindsight, they were ludicrous.) The reality was that we had all signed away our right to the statutory working week; for one summer, we were the property of the firm.”

I first came across the concept of company culture in the 90’s when my company was part of the biggest corporate merger ever.  I was astonished at how different the cultures of the two companies were and impressed by their willingness to create a brand new and better one.  That was the start of my personal journey into this work.  Back then we were all taught the importance of values to underpin this culture and how they were meant to guide our decision making.  However, since then, as the vogue as spread, every big company can spout out this kind a stuff but most, like in the above example are nothing more than meaningless platitudes.  If your values don’t guide your behaviour, then they are worse than useless.

They can be hugely powerful tools to build your team and guide your decision making but if you don’t lead by example, if you are seen to not let them guide your actions then forget about them because everyone else will…. and worse, they will be used in evidence against you.

A tale of two cultures…

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

I read two interesting and contrasting articles today talking about two corporate giants, Microsoft & Google.  They both have very strong cultures and it is interesting to examine the impact of them.  I’m not pretending this is an in-depth analysis, just an interesting raising of the corporate veil to give a glimpse at what lies behind.

Here is an article which talks about the leadership style of Steve Ballmer and their use of their R&D.  Former Windows sales senior VP Joachim Kempin says in an interview that Ballmer apparently sees up-and-coming talent as a threat rather than a resource, and seeks to protect his position rather than nurture the opportunity it might represent.  He also talks about how the highly innovative Microsoft R&D department fails to exploit its intellectual wares because of fear of getting it wrong.  They apparently had a working tablet years ago, but let Apple make a fortune from that market.  The more senior you are there, the more attention you have to spend on corporate politics and arse-covering.

By contrast I read about Google, who are constantly trying new things, many of which they pull the plug on, but some are game changing such as their Android mobile system.  They didn’t seek to control this and keep it close; they made it open source and threw it to the four winds.  It is arguably the most important mobile platform today and has huge support in the influential and growing Far East markets. 

They are a data-crunching business and apparently they monitor their internal data with equal interest.  Their HR department, known as People Operations, noticed that they were losing more female staff than male ones and set out to find out why.  It was to do with their maternity leave policies.  They changed them, on-the-fly, and allowed new mothers five months leave with full pay to be used as required.  This stopped the leaking of female talent from the business. 

I’m sure there is much more that can be written about both cultures but the attitudes and fears for the those at the top has a huge impact on the rest of the business.  If the boss does it, then you can bet your bippy that others will do so too.  People talk a lot about leadership and it is usually talked about as a positive thing, it also casts a long shadow and can distort behaviour in very costly ways.  Be sure you look behind you to see what is growing in your shadow

Cultural lessons from HTC

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Peter Chou, CEO of phone maker HTC, according to Bloomberg, recently sent out an email to employees complaining that “we have people in meetings and talking all the time but without decision, strategic direction or sense of urgency,” and he also said that when HTC employees did decide to do something, they “either didn’t do it or executed it loosely.”  Also, that employees needed to unshackle themselves from the culture of bureaucracy and just get things done regardless of whether they’re done exactly according to company rules and regulations.  “Don’t let the processes, rules and norms to impact our important goals,” he wrote. “Of course we have to follow certain rules and criteria but don’t let small things kill the major goals… Please make sure that we kill bureaucracy… Stay firm with the hero innovations and make them even bigger and deliver them.”

It isn’t unusual for people to feel that meetings are a waste of time or that rules get in the way of productivity but I can’t recall a CEO publicly saying so before.  Clearly there is a culture that encourages conformity and avoids risk-taking, and it is his job to change that to one that is more productive.  HTC have a good reputation and a good product line that in many ways rivals Samsung’s very successful phones, but it has been having financial problems despite this. 

Far too often in business leaders, as well as workers,  lose sight of what is important, and why they are doing things and how these contribute to their overall goals. 


  1. Bloomberg

Change Lessons from Harlequins – Tony Copsey (ex MD)

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

This is the second in a series of interviews where I interview a number of the people who played a part in Harlequins remarkable turnaround from the team that was relegated in 2006 to the team which won the premiership this year.  This was a 10 year journey and it can teach us come interesting lessons.

Tony was a professional player for Llanelli, Saracens and Wales.  He came to Quins a few months after Mark Evans to help him in the transformation, with Tony focusing on the off-pitch aspects of the change.  Whilst one might imagine that a rugby club is all about winning on the pitch, the interesting thing is that in order to do this they require resources to invest in players and facilities, both for the team and the spectators.  Unless you have an owner with deep pockets, there is therefore a very strong link between their ability to generate income and the on field results.

Tony’s job was to ensure that the Stoop (their ground) was a place that people wanted to come to, where they enjoyed their match day experience regardless of the result on the day, because this bought the Director of Rugby time to get the right players in place.  Over their tenure Evans & Copsey drove the gate up from 3,000 to nearer 12,000 a game.  He also pointed out that he had to try to make the facility make money during the week when there was no game from things like conferences and events.

Effectively, there was a team behind the team on the pitch who sold the tickets, did the marketing, wooed the sponsors and did the PR, in addition to feeding and watering the public on match day.  Tony explained that a lot of work went into ensuring no one was more than 40 yds. from a beer or a sausage (metaphorically speaking) and that they didn’t have to wait too long to get served.

They did a lot of work on what the brand Harlequins stood for and what their values were and how this translated into the day-to-day behaviours of the staff.  He also explained the importance of senior players in helping to model the ‘right’ way to behave and help discipline the youngsters about what it means to wear a Quins shirt.  There is a lot of talk about their exciting brand of rugby, and the press is full of people singing the praises of Chris Robshaw, their captain, who now also captains England.  He is a walking embodiment of these values and is fine example of what Tony was describing.

An interesting observation was that emotion is a powerful force in buying decisions where sport is concerned so if you want to attract sponsors, you have to create a club that people care about, and are excited by. 

Tony was also constantly reviewing the back office team’s roles and tuning them to the needs of the club as their situation changed.  Getting the right processes in place and the right people was key.  He aimed to try and make his staff the kind of people that got headhunted.

I hope to be able to continue this analysis over the coming weeks

Previous interviews:

  1. Mark Evans

Cultural lessons from Amazon

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

A client of mine has been working with Amazon, and shared some very interesting things about the company culture.  It is definitively American.  People are told when they are taken on that their work will be measured and assessed, and the if they fall in the top 10% then they will be promoted.  Conversely, if they are in the bottom 10% they will be fired.  If they are fired they are eligible to try again another time.  There is no ceiling on those who rise through the ranks.  You may feel this is a fairly brutal system, but the clarity of the message and the precision of the measuring means that it tends to be well accepted.  It isn’t personal, it is just the system and applies to everyone. 

If I had the power to make this kind of decision, and the systems to back them up, I don’t know if I’d do this, but the there are a number of valuable lessons on culture:-

  1. Be clear
  2. Be predictable
  3. Be consistent
  4. Be universal (in other words, treat everyone the same)

The Power of Love

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I had a fascinating meeting yesterday with someone who is researching the impact and power of love in businesses, and today I was listening to a spokesperson for The Campaign to End Loneliness, which is apparently as deadly a killer as smoking or obesity.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the link between these two topics.  If loneliness can actually kill, then what is the impact of a demotivated, unappreciated workforce?  So perhaps it is not airy-fairy for directors to be considering how to use love as means to improve performance.

Having spent a year without a life-long partner, six months of which I was an effectively confined to my house, I understand just a little of the effect of being on your own.  The thing is, it is easy to be in a crowd and still feel lonely.  It is all about having a sense of belonging.  We can belong to a number of ‘tribes’, there is our family, our football club, our school or regiment, and our work.  I have heard much about corporate culture over the years but I have never heard anyone recognise the positive impact of creating something that people want to belong to.  Mostly, when I was inside companies, there was an overwhelming sense of cynicism  about the company, and that was from the middle management!

Perhaps today is the day to open the door to someone else and invite them inside. Building this kind of bridge enriches and nourishes everyone and perhaps might make you a little richer too!

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”  Jimi Hendrix

“I will greet this day with love in my heart. For this is the greatest secret of success in all ventures. Muscles can split a shield and even destroy life itself but only the unseen power of love can open the hearts of man. And until I master this act I will remain no more than a peddler in the marketplace. I will make love my greatest weapon and none on who I call can defend upon its force… my love will melt all hearts liken to the sun whose rays soften the coldest day.”   Og Mandino

Out of the box

Friday, May 8th, 2009

A scientist set up an experiment with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, he hung a banana on a string and placed a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touched the stairs, the scientist sprayed all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey tries with the same result – all the other monkeys were sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, the monkeys have been conditioned to prevent any other monkeys from attempting it.

Then a monkey is removed from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Then another of the original five monkeys is removed and replaced with a new one. The newcomer is attacked as soon as he attempts to climb the stairs. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

One-by-one, all the original monkeys are all replaced, till none are left. None of the new monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water, but they still participate in the beating of the newest monkey.

Eventually no monkey will approach the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because it isn’t safe, and as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done….

This is one of those social studies that you might have heard of. It does capture very neatly the power of social programming and the dangers of ‘Group Think’. Every team, every company and every business has a set of preconceptions that they don’t challenge, and a group of norms by which they judge each other and each others’ ideas.

This does perform a useful purpose (which is why it is perpetuated), it saves us having to evaluate everything from first principles. However, from time-to-time it is important to do just that…. Go back to first principles.

We need to ask ourselves, collectively and individually:-

  • What is really important?
  • What are we / am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I sacrificing to do this, and is it more or less important than the immediate objective?
  • Is there a better way of achieving this?
  • Who is losing in order for us / me to gain; and what could be done to mitigate or avoid this?

Whether it is a company strategy, or a midlife crisis, or even just time to review things, it is vital that periodically we take stock and ensure that we are headed the right way, and using the best means to do so.

How many of us just pitch up to the office on Monday morning, and are confronted with hundreds of emails awaiting our attention, a pile of post, a diary that is crammed with meetings, and all of this to be got through before we can really start work? Friday night arrives and we leave (often late) having waded through all this ‘stuff’, having fielded a few crucial ‘catches’, prevented the wheels from falling off on a variety of occasions, but how much time have we spent leading? Making decisions that are important (as opposed to just urgent)?

It is hard to do all this for ourselves. We are all, and always too busy, and even when we aren’t we are too close to the problems. This when the value of a coach (for individuals) or a facilitator (for teams) proves their value. They can challenge assumptions, ask ‘dumb’ questions, check that what we are doing fits with our values.

Companies, like individuals have values, but too often these are forgotten, and relegated to a page in the corporate literature. If they aren’t helping you to make good
decisions, to prioritise, to decide which is the better course of action then they aren’t worth a thing.

I’d be a wealthy man if I had a pound for every businessman who told me that his family was most important thing and then got home late & tired most nights.

Is it time for a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, to challenge a few habits and assumptions, to make sure that as a business and a human being you are on the right track?

If you were to discover that you only had 12 months to live would you still do the same things? Alternatively, if you were going to have to live forever with the consequences of what you are doing, would you still?

Take time to stop, challenge and reflect. Better still; get someone to help you do so on a regular basis.

“Some men see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”” George Bernard Shaw

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” M.Scott Peck

100th Monkey Syndrome – How change happens?

Friday, May 8th, 2009

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, had been observed in the wild for a period of over 30 years. In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkey liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant.

An 18-month-old female named Imo found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.

This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists. Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable. Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes.

Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes — the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let’s further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes.

THEN IT HAPPENED! By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough!

But notice: A most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea…Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes. Thus, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind.

Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people.

This is an excerpt from the book by Ken Keyes, jr. “The Hundredth Monkey.”

So what can we learn from this story? Well it seems to me that there are a number of important lessons:-

  • We can not tell where an important new breakthrough will occur, so it is important that communication is encouraged
  • Conversely, even if communication is not encouraged (or even actively discouraged!) it will still occur. There are few secrets in any organisation so think about what is said behind closed doors. If you wouldn’t’t be happy to express yourself that way in public, perhaps there is a better way to say it (or even NOT say it!)
  • Culture changes when there is critical mass behind it. It is important to take advantage of peoples’ natural enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and energy and let these people lead Change
  • People will change when they understand the benefit of it to them.
  • It is hard to anticipate the impact of an apparently small change
  • You can build on the energy and success of one change to seed the next one.
  • Don’t try to over control; allow space for things to happen

Do you have a culture that encourages experimentation and innovation? Do you have a forum for sharing new ideas? Do people feel safe to be ‘different’? If you don’t then your culture probably is a little stale. What are you going to do to change that? Corporate culture is a bit like yoghurt, if it isn’t living, it doesn’t do much good! A good culture is the result of doing the right things, if you don’t think your culture is right It is probably time to do something different… Time for a Change!

Ain’t What You Do

Friday, May 8th, 2009

‘It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results….

It ain’t what you do it’s the time that you do it
And that’s what gets results’

Old pop song

Those are the words of an old song, that has been covered many times. They came to my mind the other day as a reminder of a deeper wisdom. Doing the right thing isn’t enough, it has to be done in the right way too. This is true in many environments but I was thinking about corporate culture at the time.

There are two complimentary elements to this idea. Firstly, as a leader you have to do things in the way you want things done. We are all familiar with the almost clichéd piece of wisdom “Walk the Talk”. However, if you say one thing and do another people always believe what you do! We are virtually hardwired to respond this way. We only take around 7% of the meaning from a person’s words, the rest comes from what they are doing. Also, people need to understand how to ‘do’ the new behaviour so you have to model it. There is another component of this thought; if you introduce a system which, say, is meant to look after people in a way that disregards their interests or feelings, you have already lost before you have begun!

Stephen Covey said, “The way you spend your time is a result of the way you see your time and the way you really see your priorities” and people understand this!

Organisations as well as people have ‘body’ language. People are adept in reading this; it is what they talk about by the coffee machine and notice board. This apparent gap between words & deeds is often why they are so cynical.

“Culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart” Mahatma Gandhi

The way we do something speaks to what is important to us, to what is in our hearts. So we need to make sure that our intent is the right one and that we communicate it in the right way; that we do so congruently.

Like the song says, timing is also crucial. Doing the right thing, in the right way at the wrong time still leaves you with a problem! You have to act soon enough to make a difference, but not so soon that people can’t see the problem you are trying to solve. You have to act when the organisation has the energy, will and resources to act. If you wait in order to make sure that you make the ‘right’ decision, you may well have left it too late. As a leader you need to have a finger on the corporate pulse and move in harmony with that rhythm.

If you are tempted to hum along to this catchy little tune “It ain’t what you do it is the way that you do it, it ain’t what you do…”

Think about how much of this applies to you today, are you acting congruently?