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On the Balcony and on the Dance Floor

January 30, 2017

As leaders you participate in the businesses’ culture every day, and influence it in everything you say and do. It is vital that you maintain an awareness of your influence at all times. Business experts Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky explain that as the leader you have to be able to “move in the dance and to watch the dance from the balcony at the same time”. Mostly, we do one better than the other. To be a leader of culture you must care about both.

It is certainly worth investigating what “walking the talk” means and also gathering feedback and reflecting on how long your leadership shadow really is and the impact of that shadow. Recent research by Professor John West at the London School of Economics shows clearly that culture influences a company’s performance eight times more than strategy alone. That is concerning when you consider that most businesses typically focus on markets, understanding the numbers, their competitors and core strategy. Daily, businesses are failing or thriving and it is the culture that is having the greatest impact.


Here are some really important questions to help understand culture: ƒ
-   What is actually expected of people?
-   How are they expected to behave and interact with others? ƒ
-   What are they expected to believe in and commit to? Is it safety, productivity, quality, customer delivery, or       even strong constructive working relationships?
-   What do people in your organisation tell others about their experience of working for you?
-   How engaged and enabled are all those who work in your business?
-   Why do people choose to stay or leave?

Hay Group describes culture as being “what we do”, “what we reinforce” and “what we stand for”. Australasian recruitment firm, Robert Walters recently asked over 2,000 professionals and managers to rank which factors were the most important to them. 29% said remuneration, but the remaining 71% identified cultural aspects such as flexible work and ethical standards. People often cite culture as the key reason for leaving their jobs.


New Zealand has many examples of business cultures that have been transformed by leadership. In 2001 Air New Zealand’s staff and management were demoralised and the company was impacted by massive losses. When Ralph Norris took over as CEO, his major achievement was to refocus company culture and business’ intent specifically to the needs of customers. The key message was: “At Air New Zealand we fly people not planes.” This shift in culture was crucial to their turnaround and ongoing success.

Ask yourself: what do we need to do to create a company culture that engages employees, which people are proud of and that is worth contributing to? You can start by: Building a common understanding of where you are now and where you want your culture to be.

1.   Link strategy and business goals with your desired culture.
2.   Start with your current strengths and use these as building blocks.
3.   Let people know what you expect of them.
4.   Determine the informal influencers within your business and get them on-board.
5.   Make culture an agenda item in management meetings.
6.   Identify a process to measure and monitor cultural changes.

Top performing companies understand that the secret is not to fight the company culture but to work with it and help it evolve in the right direction. People practices and processes have a significant impact; therefore the following questions should be answered:

1.   How do we recruit people that fit our desired culture?
2.   Does our induction process reinforce our desired culture?
3.   Do we have processes for managing performance and expectations, as well as giving regular feedback?
4.   What development and growth opportunities do people have?
5.   How do we show people we value and appreciate them?

As Michael Henderson, Corporate Anthropologist says, “Culture is more often than not, your organisation’s first point of failure, and therefore your most confronting competitor”. By approaching culture as a way to bring your company’s purpose to life and create a brand that uniquely meets customers’ needs, you can build a foundation for outstanding performance. Always remember that leadership is practiced not so much in words, as in attitude and actions.

If you would like some guidance on how to understand your culture and the impact it is having, please contact one of our HR consultancy team; Julie Rowlands, Taranaki; Andrea Stevenson, Hawke’s Bay, Chris Wright, Auckland.

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