How can culture support your business strategy? Follow these 3 steps

How can culture support your business strategy?

There are three ways in which HR leaders can make a real difference in aligning culture with business strategy, writes Jerome Parisse-Brassens

Great leaders develop a clear vision for the organisation, share it with their teams and design a compelling strategy for success. They go one step further and use culture as a key enabler of the business strategy they have developed. HR leaders need to play a critical role in making sure the culture of the organisation is fit-for-purpose. How can they do that?

Help leaders define the target culture
The organisational culture that leaders choose depends on the business results they want to achieve and the type of organisation they want to become. One size does not fit all in the culture space. What matters is that the culture is fit-for-purpose. Two important questions that HR need to ask leadership are, “Is our culture the culture we need to implement our strategy?” and “Our culture took us where we are today, but is it going to take us where we want to be tomorrow?”

Many factors can be taken into account in the definition of the target culture: the business outcomes that are sought (financial, technical, people), the company attributes (collaboration, excellence, innovation, customer focus etc), how employees are expected to behave, as well as the values, the beliefs and assumptions. I recommend going simple and ensuring that two critical elements are identified: The first element is what I call the DNA of the organisation and is less dependent on the business strategy.

It consists of the values that will be sustained over time and the key behaviours that bring them to life. As a rule of thumb, three or four values, and three or four behaviours per value are plenty. The second element is directly based on the business strategy and is what the organisation needs to flex to be successful for the next few years. To describe this particular key focus I recommend using two or three simple attributes such as “easy to do business with”, “faster”, “one-team”, or “bold”, and the two or three behaviours that underpin each one.

“One size does not fit all in the culture space. What matters is that the culture is fit-for-purpose”

Assess the culture
Most organisational leaders think they know their culture, but what I find is that they have an understanding of their culture. This is not the same. Seldom do they have the deep knowledge that is necessary to build a roadmap for change. I often encounter two mistakes: The first one is to use engagement as a proxy for culture. The people survey gives an indication of how committed employees are and the extra effort they are ready to make. It does not however describe the behaviours that build the culture. Engagement is an outcome of culture, so measuring engagement does not equal measuring culture. The second mistake that I see is that the cultural description stops at what the culture looks like but ignores why it is the way it is. What leads people to behave the way they do? What beliefs and assumptions lie below the water and explain what you see? HR leaders must have a deep knowledge of the drivers of their culture because these drivers are the target for change.

Develop the culture plan
How is the business going to bridge the gap between current and target cultures? What is the roadmap for change? This is what HR teams are often the most proficient at The purpose of the culture plan is simple: align all messages sent by the behaviours, the symbols, and the systems across the entire organisation. The plan is centred on the critical shifts that need to happen. Focussing on those shifts will ensure that the plan only targets a few elements for change, is easy to understand and implement, and easy to adapt when required. The plan is at the core of how HR leaders are able to shape culture. A solid governance system for the plan will be developed, underpinned by clear metrics for measuring progress. The plan will be reviewed on a regular basis, at least every year, but preferably every six months.

The real trick for HR leaders and their teams wanting to make a move on culture is not to start the conversation on the culture itself, but on the business strategy. This will anchor the discussions in the business, deeply engage the various stakeholders, ensure the culture is fit-for-purpose, and move culture away from an HR initiative to a business initiative that everyone is committed to.

“Most organisational leaders think they know their culture, but what I find is that they have an understanding of their culture. This is not the same”

In summary: how can culture support your business strategy?
There are three ways in which HR leaders can make a real difference in helping business leaders align culture with business strategy.

Help leaders define the target culture: The first element to define is the DNA of the organisation. It is the values that will be sustained over time and the key behaviours that bring them to life. The second element is directly based on the business strategy and is what the organisation needs to flex to be successful for the next few years: the key focus attributes and behaviours.

Assess the culture: Two mistakes should be avoided. The first one is to use engagement as a proxy for culture. Engagement is an outcome of culture, so measuring engagement does not equal measuring culture. The second mistake is to assess what the culture looks like but ignores why it is the way it is. HR leaders must have a deep knowledge of the drivers of their culture because these drivers are the target for change.

Develop the culture plan: The purpose of the culture plan is simple: align all messages sent by the behaviours, the symbols and the systems across the entire organisation. The plan is centred on the critical shifts that need to happen. A solid governance system for the plan will be developed, underpinned by clear metrics for measuring progress. The plan will be reviewed on a regular basis, at least every year, but preferably every six months.

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