Culture Change: Getting culture on the strategic agenda

Amanda Fajak

The argument for culture to have a key position on the strategic agenda has never been more compelling.

Linking culture change to your organisation's strategy

In 2015, research conducted by Walking the Talk found that 81 percent of investment analysts reported that their buy / sell decisions were to some extent or a very great extent impacted by the culture of an organisation. These analysts are getting increasingly sophisticated in how they evaluate culture, using 6-8 sources of data on average to form their view. It is clear that the investment community is taking culture seriously and that culture is starting to impact the way companies are valued.


In research published by Duke University late 2015, 90 percent of executives said culture is important for their organisations, and 78 percent said culture is among the top five things that make their organisation valuable. However, only 15 percent said their own corporate culture is exactly where it needed to be, and 92 percent said they believe improving their organisation’s corporate culture would improve the value of the company.


Further to this, two recent surveys also demonstrate the need for organisations to put culture as a key priority if they wish to meet or exceed performance goals. Glassdoor released their study findings which demonstrated the importance of culture when it comes to talent retention – a key aspect of business performance. Company culture was the number one factor that mattered, ahead of employee salary, work-life balance and personal benefits.


The other recent survey came from EY, who surveyed 100 board members from FTSE 350 companies. Over half of respondents (55%) stated that ‘investing in culture has increased their operating profits by 10% or more’. Alongside this, 86% of respondents said that culture was ‘fundamental or very important’ to their company’s strategy and 92% said that ‘investing in culture had improved their financial performance’.


Reading through these surveys and reports, there seems to be a disconnect within companies; while culture is such an apparent high priority, it is still not yet firmly a strategic priority.


Four things seem to be occurring:

1 – Many companies are talking culture management but not walking it (values statements, discussing how culture is important, communication campaigns, etc).

2 – Companies are engaging in culture but doing so superficially (DO level) i.e. putting in place new systems, restructuring the organisation.

3 – Some companies are working on leadership but not systemically on all of the elements that create culture.

4 – A few companies are working systemically on culture and on the beliefs and behaviours of leaders.


We recently asked a group of senior professionals - what does it take to get culture successfully on the strategic agenda? Here are their insights which we would like to share with you.


Key insights

What does ‘culture being on the strategic agenda’ mean?

The discussion highlighted the importance of what Walking the Talk refer to as Symbols, defined as “events or decisions to which people attribute a meaning, beyond that originally intended” (Taylor, C. 2015, ‘Walking the Talk: Building a Culture for Success’, p21):

  • Leaders spending time talking about culture – in meetings, with peers, with their teams.
  • Leaders paying attention to the behaviour that they do and don’t want.
  • Leaders investing time and money into creating the culture that they want.Symbols.png
  • Leaders making decisions in consideration of the culture and values.
  • Leaders explaining why decisions have been made, in light of the culture and values.
  • Leaders taking decisive action. People who do not fit the culture are not allowed to keep behaving how they have historically, with leaders ‘speaking up’ and calling for change or exiting these people.

The ingredients that help to get culture on the strategic agenda

The discussion highlighted a number of factors that, in the experience of the group, mattered in terms of making culture a higher priority.

  • Senior Leader, ideally CEO, buy-in is key.
  • The importance of a crisis to create focus.
     - The group discussed that culture often only becomes the focus for an organisation when it becomes a “burning platform”. It takes decisive leadership to put culture on the agenda and this often happens as a result of a crisis.
  • The influence of a leader who has previously experienced the benefits of proactively working on culture.
  • The contribution of evidence (data) to demonstrate that there is a problem with the culture to address.
  • The importance of linking culture and tangible business needs.

Barriers to getting culture on the strategic agenda

We identified that giving culture a prime position on the strategic agenda can be challenging for a number of reasons:

  • It looks too hard, or it’s easy to underestimate the effort required to create change.
    - There was a general view that this is not an easy process. Unless time and energy is committed to behavioural change and the change is fully supported, the opportunity for transformation can be missed.
  • Insufficient ‘data’ to create a compelling story for change.
    - There was a concern that modern management teams tend to lack confidence backing culture compared to harder evidence-based strategic priorities.
  • Culture is unlike any other change, it requires vulnerability from leaders (do they have the skills and the will for this?).
  • Leaders have short time horizons and culture takes time.
    - Short term priorities often put leaders off investing the energy to behave differently and ‘expose’ themselves personally.
  • Maintaining momentum when the leader driving culture change leaves or when other ‘new’ priorities emerge.


What is needed to keep culture on the agenda

  • Link culture goals into the hardware of the organisation.
    - Invest in measuring culture and measuring performance against agreed culture objectives.
  • Don’t try to do too many things – do the things that matter.
    - Get people to focus on a few key things to unlock the change.
  • Have the honest conversations.


Key learnings / lessons

  • Educate leaders on what it means to make culture a strategic priority.
  • Start with the top team but democratise early to avoid dependence on 1-2 charismatic leaders.
  • Continue to engage leaders so that they don’t become distracted by new priorities.
  • Provide consistent support to enable leaders to become the change they want to see.
  • Focus on a few clear and simple symbols to help highlight the cultural change.
  • Keep linking culture to the strategic business drivers to give it meaning in the long term.
  • A commitment to culture on the strategic agenda creates positive business outcomes.


Is culture firmly on the agenda in your organisation? Or do you feel it isn’t given the priority it deserves? Let us know in the comments below, or get in touch directly by clicking here.


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