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Leading Culture with Intent


What if the post- pandemic organisation needs something very different from our leadership?

The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have. The last year has taught us this. We have faced challenges we could never have imagined and many of our beliefs about work have changed for ever. Our teams have faced into sudden and dramatic changes that disrupted the rhythms and patterns of their lives. We have found depths of resilience, creativity, empathy and kindness that we never knew were possible.

On the plus side, we have largely welcomed not having to commute for hours every day, dinner with the children and the productivity of uninterrupted desk time. On the other hand, the pluses come at a cost; screen-fatigue, work-home life boundaries challenged, tensions around space and Wi-Fi, lack of social interaction with colleagues.

Most of the organisations I work with are looking forward to a future with less office space, more remote-working, and extensive use of technology tools for communication and training. They are designing the future of work around what the last year has taught them; but is that going to be enough?

What if the post pandemic organisation needs something very different from our leadership?

Leaders adapted, took decisions under pressure and reacted to an emergency in the pandemic. As we emerge from the pandemic, we can’t assume that what got us through is fit for the longer term. There is still much more to learn if hybrid working is to be a permanent success. For example, how do leaders become more intentional about maintaining and growing a positive culture in a less socially connected world?

What is Culture?

We can’t talk about culture without first talking about Purpose; to what end does your organisation exist? When purpose is clear and meaningful to the team, the team will be aligned and engaged; able to self-manage and optimise its contribution to results.

Culture both enables the delivery of Purpose, and provides boundaries on autonomy. Where Purpose signposts where we are going, Culture tells us how we need to be to get there. Culture defines where we focus our attention and how we behave. It is the true expression of our purpose, vision and values

How is Culture Assimilated?

Your recruitment, on-boarding and induction programme no doubt refer new employees to your Purpose and Culture statements. They will also learn your values and many other formal totems of Culture. This is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not enough to maintain and grow your culture.

Culture is assimilated by being around colleagues as we work towards our Purpose. It is demonstrated every day in our relationships and behaviour with stakeholders and work-mates; what we celebrate, tolerate and sanction. It is evident in our leadership style, meetings, communication, systems and processes.

We assimilate Culture by living within it, adopting its norms and taking collective responsibility for it; because it serves our Purpose.

So, how do we assimilate and sustain a great culture, when we will be spending less time living in it in the office?

Leading Culture with Intent

Trust me, you will get the Culture you deserve. The organisational psychologist and thought leader, John Amaechi is quoted: “Culture is defined by the worst behaviour that you tolerate”. So, regardless of what you express in formal documents, it’s the lived experience of the reality that creates Culture.

Working remotely means that we do not bear witness to our Culture in the way we used to. We are losing the opportunities to show appreciation for the positive expression of our Culture and to model the way. We also cannot always “call” people on inappropriate behaviour. We can no longer rely on an informal approach; Leading Culture has to be intentional in the hybrid world.

Intentional Steps

Here are some of things I have learnt about being intentional about Culture in the world of hybrid working.

  • What is the Culture you intend to co-create?

Ask yourselves this simple-but-difficult question in your leadership team; you are the architects of the Culture.  Allow everyone time to think about it and then give attention to everyone’s views. Use this insight to craft a description of the culture you aspire to. Make sure that Purpose, Values and Culture are aligned; Values and Culture must serve your Purpose.

  • Make time for Leading Culture

When I ask senior people how often they spend time and attention on their leadership impact and culture, the answers range from “never” to “when there is a problem”. Imagine if you got these answers when asked about customers or products or performance?

Setting aside regular time to reflect on the quality of your leadership (individually and collectively) is essential. Time to talk about the good and poor examples of the expression of culture, to craft stories to share and appreciation to show.

It is also critical to never “walk past” behaviour that undermines the Culture; if you do, you are saying “it’s OK”.

  • Make Culture Everyone’s Responsibility

You are the architects, but it’s everyone’s home.

Share and discuss Purpose, Values and Culture with your people and encourage their stories. Take a little time at the end of every meeting to discuss how well you are living the Values and anything to do-differently. Model appreciation and the “calling” of behaviours with calm respect. Use the precious face-to-face time you do have to focus on Culture.

  • Culture needs Connection

Connection means having a sense of belonging, of community.

We protect and nurture what we care about. When we care deeply, we are emotionally invested. Organisations and teams often describe themselves as “family”; demonstrating a very high level of emotional connection.  

When we were all in the office, we could allow connection to develop naturally; through shared experiences, the meaningful moments, the social events and the cross-functional projects. We could occasionally encourage more connection with away-days and company conferences.

Leaders will have to work harder on this in the hybrid world. However, there are some simple and practical ways to intentionally grown connection in our teams;

  • Recognising people for their individual and unique contributions, talents and value to the team.
  • Inviting everyone to contribute their thoughts, views, perspective or advice in meetings and showing that these are valued.
  • Bringing your whole self to work and not who you “should be”. Make it OK and safe to be vulnerable and also to be yourself. This is not an excuse for “bad” behaviour towards others, or not adapting behaviour to the situation, but about the psychological safety to express yourself/ have a point of view.
  • Making time for shared experiences; work, charity, community and well-being oriented.
  • Culture and Creativity

Creative thinking is essential in all organisations and increased remote working can really impede the creativity of teams.

On the one hand, no-one ever had an “Ah Ha” insight sitting at a laptop. Our brains are at their most creative when they are background-processing while we are doing something else. This is why our best ideas come to us in the shower, washing the car or running in the park.

At work, many of our new ideas come to us while we are “playing” with our colleagues; chatting over lunch or a drink after work or during informal discussions. Leaders are going to have to create these opportunities for people to hang-out together in a creative environment. We can’t leave creativity to chance anymore.

One could argue that leaders should always have been intentional about culture – that is true. We’ve probably been getting away with a lot and leaving much to chance. Adopting a more intentional approach to leading culture could be a real source of edge and differentiation for those leaders who choose to master it.


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