Reading time: 14 minutes

Sharon Newey: Welcome to the Learn Grow Succeed conversations podcast. I’m your host, Sharon Newey. If you want to be the extraordinary leader that today’s organisations need, then listen now to this special conversations episode. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Ruth Sanderson who has a longstanding relationship with Excel as a specialist leadership trainer and coach. Today Ruth and I are going to be talking about how to create a culture shift – fast. Welcome, Ruth. Great to have you with us.

Ruth Sanderson: Hello. Thank you for inviting me.

Sharon Newey: Just before we get into our culture conversation, I just wanted to ask you to share a few words about your experience working with Excel Communications and the kind of work that you do with clients.

Ruth Sanderson: Yeah, sure. I’ve worked with Excel for several years now running leadership programmes typically made up of many modules, helping the leader look at themselves. How do they get the best out of the team, get the best out of the business, and  – the subject that we’re going to be talking about today – culture. That’s basically what I’ve been doing with FMCG and pharmaceutical companies.

Sharon Newey: Fantastic. Just thinking about culture then, it’s a term that is used an awful lot within organisations and sometimes can have different contexts as organisations can be multicultural, multilingual. What’s the context of what we’re talking about when we use the term ‘culture’ for this particular conversation?

Ruth Sanderson: For me, culture is made up of unspoken behaviours, mindsets, social patterns and habits. Culture in a way is very unconscious, which is why it is often difficult to manage. But it is possible to manage it, and I often turn around and say to people, “If you aren’t managing your culture, your culture most certainly is managing you,” which is why it’s very important for leaders to understand the culture that they are operating in, and asking themselves the question, ”Is it still working given where we want to go?”

Sharon Newey: Yeah. I guess as leaders we read an awful lot, and we hear an awful lot about the importance of creating the right culture in a team, in an organisation. I’m sure many listeners are wondering “But why is culture so important?” I wonder if you could just start off by expanding a little bit for us about the importance and perhaps benefits of creating the right culture.

Ruth Sanderson: Having said it’s quite unconscious, it is the hidden force that drives the behaviours in the company. It therefore drives the choices or the decisions that people make to do something or not to do something. Your business depends upon its culture to get the most out of what it is you want to achieve. Very often people can look at other organisations and go, “They’re doing this technique, that tool, this framework, that approach, et cetera, et cetera,” not actually looking at [inaudible 00:04:21]. Given the culture of that organisation and the phase of growth it’s in and those factors, we could take that framework; but put it in a different culture, it’s not going to work.

If we take something very simple as the culture of a country. For an example, I go out and I train in Southeast Asia. Now this is a generalisation, but you go there. If you turn around and say to somebody in a training course, “Do you understand all of this?” you’re basically asking them yes or no. That culture there, particularly in front of trainers, isn’t to turn around and say, “No, I don’t understand” because to say, “No, I don’t understand” does two things. Number one, there’s them with their peers, but the other thing is basically turning around and saying, ” I’ve just insulted you as the trainer. I have just been rude to you as the trainer. It must be my fault for not understanding, not the fact that you as the trainer hasn’t explained it very well.” Whereas, of course, in England we could ask if they understood, and they turn around and say, “No.” They wouldn’t think they were being insulting, and we wouldn’t think so because we know sometimes we don’t explain it so well.

Sharon Newey: Yeah.

Ruth Sanderson: That’s a facet in terms of understanding the culture and therefore how you operate to get the best out of that [inaudible 00:05:40]. We can’t just take one framework, plug it into another culture and expect to get the same results.

Sharon Newey: Yeah, okay. Understanding then the culture of a particular country that you might be leading a training programme in is key as well as the organisational culture that is operating in that business.

Ruth Sanderson: Absolutely, yes.

Sharon Newey: Yeah, okay. I guess when there’s real success, it’s getting those two blended and coming together as smoothly as possible.

Ruth Sanderson: It is. From a training point of view, we’re looking at the country culture. We’re looking at the company culture. Then you look at the subcultures within the company. As a leader joining an organisation, this is what you see more and more with large organisations, multinational, multidisciplinary, people are expatriated to different countries. Very often, one of the challenges they have is because they go, “I worked in this company,” so the company culture they’re familiar with, but then they move to the other side of the world and they go, “This country culture that’s also running with the company culture is sufficiently different,” and it can disorientate them.

Sharon Newey: Right. Okay, yeah. There’s some adjustments that obviously need to be made there.

Ruth Sanderson: There are, yes.

Sharon Newey: Yeah. Just thinking then about the fastest way to create a culture shift, which really is the real nuts and bolts of our conversation today, I guess, we’re living in a world where speed is key. What would be some of your suggestions then around fast culture shift?

Ruth Sanderson: It’s really about taking the time to discover the underlying thought patterns that are actually driving the culture. Then you’re going to know where to start. I said right at the very beginning, “Culture is derived from unspoken behaviours, mindsets and social patterns.” As a leader, it’s like when you go in and it’s like, “well, what am I observing now?” There’s the really easy stuff to observe, which is what you see around you. What are the behaviours? Is it an open plan office, or do people have offices? What’s the dress like, formal, informal? Are there mini football tables? What’s the art like on the wall? What’s the way the phone is answered by the receptionist? Are you greeted when you go into the organisation. In all of those is a surface presentation of the culture.

You don’t really know until you start digging deeper whether it is the strongest part of the culture. I remember visiting a client’s new office space, and they were showing me around. There was some artwork on the wall, and I asked about it. It turned out the only reason that piece of art was on the wall was because there was a white wall. It was quite a large space, and so that person went and purchased the piece of art that they like. It didn’t necessarily fit with the culture of the rest of the organisation. It’s only by asking questions, that you can discover whether something really means something or not because you go to other organisations, and they’ve got the values on motivational posters on the wall. Again, what we have to discern is is this the desired future values? Is this just something to stick on the wall because we’re supposed to have something like values stuck on the wall, or is it actually the values that the company is living the best it can right now? Again, you only really get to sense that through conversations.

Sharon Newey: I guess, through conversations, but also how you experience people operating in the business, because their values will come through in their behaviours, how they interact with each other, how they interact with external people, external stakeholders, clients and partners. I guess that’s when some of those words on picture frames on a wall actually come to life, aren’t they, and is the organisation living and breathing the values of the culture?

Ruth Sanderson: Yes. You observe things, but yeah, you see where it works and where it doesn’t. Very often, for example, you can see values working inside an organisation or as you say, it’s then how do they handle suppliers? How do they handle customers? How do they handle the external facing element of the organisation? Are the values still visible then?

Sharon Newey: Yes. Following on then, Ruth, what would you say is the fastest way to create a culture shift?

Ruth Sanderson: Being aware of what your culture is, you then go, “What do I need the culture to be in the future? That will give you the gap, so then you can see what’s still working, and what’s outlived its use. What are people very strongly attached to that they are going to be very reluctant to let go of, and what’s actually going to be required to support the desired culture? Now there are times when a leader can step back, look at what’s going on. In the team, particularly, they can step back, look at what’s going on, observe, discover, have conversation, and they could do this themselves. Sometimes it’s like when you’re in it, you don’t necessarily see everything.

It could be that this is where an external third party is very valuable. It’s one of the reasons we come in and do what we do is because we … Sometimes I kind of joke about the fact that we ask the stupid questions, but they’re not really that stupid. The odd one is, but then we have that fresh perspective. We’re not quite in it as much. We don’t have the same shared assumptions. It is in asking these questions and the observation that we can bring this fresh perspective, but can then help shift the culture a lot faster than somebody trying to do it all by themselves.

Sharon Newey: Talking about the fastest way to create a culture shift, I guess, is appreciation that not all culture shift initiatives will succeed. Perhaps, it will be just worth expanding a little bit on why do many culture shift initiatives actually fail?

Ruth Sanderson: I guess the short answer is, invariably, because no one considered the culture and whether the change would be required. I can give a few reasons why they failed. The first is there’s insufficient clarity on the purpose and the vision of the company, so then everything just gets lost. The second one is that the leadership team don’t think that they need to be part of the culture shift. Sometimes they just don’t think that they should be. It’s like they hire in externals. I said a third party, a fresh pair of eyes, is good when we have the experience of how to manage all of this. They go, “We hired you and you’re going to do everything.” It’s like, yeah, but you have to be part of it. They’re like, “No, just go and do everything with everybody else. We’re all right,” so sometimes that can happen. I have to say when we find out that’s going on, that’s when I tend to walk away because I just know it’s not going to work.

Sometimes it fails because it was never managed as a culture change. We’ve said culture is quite unconscious. It’s very deep stuff. Consequently, it brings up strong reactions, both positive and negative. You’ve got to be able to handle this. Look, sometimes what I’ve seen people do is they either put a lid on perfectly valid conversations and stifle them, or they just mandate this is going to happen, and neither is going to be successful in the long-term.

One of the other elements that means a culture shift can often fail is that culture doesn’t exist in isolation. There are also the systems and processes that need to align to the new culture. For example, let’s say part of your new culture says teamwork and collaboration is vitally important. The KPIs are actually set for your function, which means you’re not collaborating as a whole in a business. You’re just looking at your function. The silo still operates, or your bonus is based upon your individual performance. Then you’re not going to get the teamwork in the way that you really should have teamwork. You’ve got to be able to look at it holistically.

Sharon Newey: Yes. If you’re wanting to bring about change to system process, ways of working, then I guess what I hear you saying there is the culture has to underpin that in order for that change to truly happen and for the business and the organisation to get the results right. Is that right?

Ruth Sanderson: Yeah. I remember one project, I was actually leading it. It was related to an IT system. The IT system was perfect for what we wanted to do. There were many, many benefits to the business, to the people involved. The project, unfortunately, ended up dying because there was a cultural shift that needed to happen. People weren’t prepared [inaudible 00:16:35] and the leaders didn’t want to engage in that conversation either. As it turned out, the IT system was blamed as being an inappropriate IT system rather than actually looking at the culture that needed to shift, and that wasn’t happening. Therefore, the IT system then looked like it was the wrong IT system.

Sharon Newey: Yeah, because it wasn’t allowed to do the job it really needed to do.

Ruth Sanderson: Yes.

Sharon Newey: Yeah, okay. I guess just sort of like taking that concept then one stage further, organisations will very often have visions that they’re aspiring towards. Of course, as they start to move closer to that vision, then the vision can extend itself. What’s the relationship between vision and culture?

Ruth Sanderson: It is your past and your future. The vision is where you want to be. The culture is keeping where you are now, alive. If the culture fits your vision, perfect. All your ducks are lined up. You can have the best vision in the world, you can have the best strategy. But if the culture doesn’t align itself with that, it just gets very, very messy very, very quick.

Sharon Newey: I guess this idea of where vision and culture collide then begins to hold the organisation back from realising that vision.

Ruth Sanderson: It does, yes.

Sharon Newey: Okay. Are there any obvious signs, or what would be some of the early signs where perhaps an organisation is at risk of vision and culture colliding?

Ruth Sanderson: I think, probably, you want to watch the difference, the gap, between what somebody says and what somebody does  – because we’re creatures of habit and culture is part of our habit. Therefore, if you have a vision where as you start implementing the vision, people’s habits aren’t shifting, that will give you some indication. You kind of have to start and think, what are the habits I should be seeing if we were living the vision? Start to watch for the disconnect. The other bit is just listen to the stories that people tell and share. When somebody new joins, listen to the stories that they’re told. That, again, will give you some of an indication as to some of the hurdles you may have to overcome.

Sharon Newey: Yes. Are people’s stories entrenched in the past as opposed to new stories of new culture because of the new vision?

Ruth Sanderson: You see, when there’s a culture shift going on, there is going to be the fact that it’s like, how I make decisions, how I stay safe, how I operate for success, that’s shifted in this new culture. As I’m learning how to do this new way of being, the new way of being successful, I am going to make mistakes. I am going to screw things up. It is going to take me a bit more time, occasionally. What’s the response from the leader around me? If the response isn’t nurturing, shall we say, or empathetic, then I’m going to go to the old culture because that’s safe.

Sharon Newey: Yes. Yeah, okay. You’ve touched on there, obviously, I guess how a leader is being through this cultural shift initiative and process. How would you describe the role of a leader in creating successful culture shifts?

Ruth Sanderson: I think there are various facets. The nice thing about the programmes that we run is it’s like like year-long modular programmes, where we start to explore some of these facets for leaders. One is self-awareness. You have to become aware of your behaviours, of your mindset, of your assumptions and notice what do you need to shift. I said one of the reasons culture changes fail is because the leaders think they’re immune from it. You have to look at yourself first. People will make mistakes as they’re moving, and need the nurturing, the empathy. As a leader, you have to be able to connect. Your emotional intelligence is key. You have to have clarity: clarity of purpose, clarity of vision, clarity of values. You’ve got to be really good at acquiring the right resources, so that you can actually make this happen, and removing barriers to change so that your team can get on with doing what they need to do. Quite possibly, there’s going to be something in terms of your style of leadership that’s going to need to shift for you to lead people from A to B, leading them through the transition bit as well.

Sharon Newey: If you were to take all those different elements that you’ve described then from awareness of mindsets, assumptions, the leader looking at themselves first, how might you describe how that leader then uses all those different qualities and characteristics to create a culture shift within their own team?

Ruth Sanderson: Within their own team, first and foremost, have a clear vision and purpose that everybody understands and connects to. Whether you communicate it to the team and they go, “Yeah, I want to get on that bus,” or whether you co-create it together depends on your team. At the end, you have to have a clear vision and purpose that everybody commits to. Have clear values and behaviours that are aligned, and then on an ongoing basis, allow time for individuals to reflect on how well they are adapting to this, living it, but also, as a team, ask how well are we adapting to this and living it? Do we need to do some course correction? You could turn around and say, “It’s drawing upon their coaching skills.” It’s the quality of the conversation at this point that will help them shift the culture.

Sharon Newey: I guess it’s something natural to expect that perhaps some people might go off course a little bit as long as the leader recognises that and can bring people back on track before they get too ‘off tangent’ because the sooner they come back on track, the easier it will be, I imagine.

Ruth Sanderson: It’s true. If you’ve got a clear vision that people understand and connect to, you can turn around and say, “I want that.” This is why the reflection is important, because as they’re moving towards it, sometimes people realise, I thought I wanted this or that vision, but given the behaviours you’re asking me to do, I’m realising that’s no longer me. Part of the conversation is people are going to go off track [inaudible 00:24:55] to work out, but sometimes also people arrive at the decision that this place is no longer going to be for me. It’s asking me to change in a way that I feel I’m being inauthentic. That’s what a leader needs to manage – managing the culture shift but also managing the team so that the vision, the purpose and the values are still met, and people who aren’t a fit in the match any more are supported in finding somewhere else where they are the perfect fit.

Sharon Newey: Yeah. That would be in the context of a leader creating that shift within a team. What about if we go a little bit wider where it might be department… I know that you and also Excel Communications work with the wider teams in organisations, at multi-sites across the globe. What about if you are creating a shift in a department or on a site or across an organisation. Any sort of key things for people to consider there?

Ruth Sanderson: In essence, you’re doing what you would do in a team but on a larger scale. Now there are tools and frameworks that allow you to get some insights as to where you are right now – where the low hanging fruit is – and help you work out what’s the best path to navigate you from where you are where you want to be. As I said, its also because it’s on a much, much larger scale, which very definitely means they need to also explore the sustainability of the culture shift; systems, recruitment, leadership, relationships, the way you do learning, development, growth, product. You have to look at the whole of that and that becomes more important whereas, for example, if you were going to do a culture shift in a team, how long would that take? You could start and see fruits of your labour in 90 days. In an organisational context, let’s say it’s a thousand plus people, then you’re looking at, say, a year and a half, something like that. You’re looking at a longer timeframe as you make it bigger and bigger.

Sharon Newey: Right. Is there value then in perhaps looking at a staged sort of process where you might introduce a culture shift across a department, test it, fine tune it before you then might expand that? Is there value in that or is it about if you’re going to do this, we need the whole organisation to come with us at the same time?

Ruth Sanderson: The organisation needs to know where it wants to go and as a whole, what needs to shift, how you input. This is what I said about the best path to take you from where you are the way you want to be. It is about evolving the culture. It also depends on what are the circumstances driving the culture change because that can also indicate whether we do it in a smaller, channelled piece. Do we have the luxury of doing it like that, or do we need to go, “Right, okay, it’s a more blanket approach, we’re going to do every level.”

Sharon Newey: Yeah. I often think of it as a trainer answer of, “It depends”, but the reality is it does depend, doesn’t it?

Ruth Sanderson: It does.

Sharon Newey: What you’re saying is it very much is dependent upon the circumstances where the organisation is at, what the vision is, what the goals are, and what the timeframe is that the organisation has in order to make some of those changes.

Ruth Sanderson: Yes, that’s it.

Sharon Newey: Okay. If you were to summarise some key points for a leader listening to the podcast around the keys to success, how might you summarise it?

Ruth Sanderson: Does your team, department, organisation, have a clear vision and purpose that everybody understands and commits to? Do you have clear values and behaviours that you live, do you allow time for reflection, and are there quality conversations happening between you as the leader and the people in the team, but also within the team in and of itself? I would say, if you look at that, if you can tick all the boxes, fantastic. If you can’t, then that will give you some indication of where you need to start and pay attention.

Sharon Newey: Okay. I imagine that the quality of those conversations and the content of those conversations also give you clues about, are they reflective of the culture that I’m wanting to realise this vision or not, as the case may be?

Ruth Sanderson: Yes.

Sharon Newey: Yeah, fantastic. Ruth, thank you for that whistle-stop tour of culture and how to create culture shifts. Lots of ideas and suggestions there for people. Really appreciate your time and look forward to perhaps talking to you in more detail about that when we get together at some point in the future. Thank you for your time. It’s been really valuable having you as our guest today.

Ruth Sanderson: You’re welcome.