What I’ve learnt about building a thriving business culture.

In early 2000, I hung up my corporate attire to travel the world with my husband who had suffered a heart attack. After many years in senior Institutional banking roles, I remember that one of the biggest adjustments was not having any of the accoutrements of a position in the business world – something that we’d grown quite accustomed to! It was a huge cultural shift and one that eventually led me to a slight career change when we returned home.

As the Head of Fundraising at The Smith Family, I recognised early on that Corporate Banking and Fundraising are actually not that different! You see, sales is all about creating a bond with your client, understanding their needs, listening to what they want to achieve, and taking a product and tailoring it to what is important to them. And of course, Fundraising follows this exact same path. It’s about taking a cause, telling a story and creating an experience for someone so that they want to invest in it. In the early 2000s, this was a very different way to think about Fundraising within the Not-For-Profit sector and I was able to lean on my strong network and years of developing robust business relationships to approach corporate fundraising in a completely different way. This was all happening at a time when the organisation was also undergoing a wider transformational change and one of my roles as a leader was to ensure that this new corporate culture was embedded, functional and actually made sense.

Over my 30 years of experience in working in ever changing business environments, I’ve come to recognise a common thread – those businesses that have succeeded have focused on working with their people in a way that is meaningful to them. Helping them managing their ambition, supporting their values and goals and underpinning their learnings and experience whilst delivering value for the clients and customers.

Today, I’m sharing my top three lessons for building a thriving company culture.

  1. Find tangible ways to bring your values to life.

A culture which is aligned with the values and expectations of the people who work there is critical. Successful cultural alignment is the continuity of your business’s vision and purpose so begin to develop your culture in line with expectations, ethos and values of your company. Start by identifying what works well, what doesn’t, understand what’s important to people and don’t shy away from the hard discussions.

Once you’ve documented your values and purpose think of simple ways to bring them to life. When I was working with The Smith Family we created round paper medals that represented each of our values and gave bundles to our employees so that they could ‘award’ them to colleagues whom they identified as reflecting a particular value. It was a simple gesture of peer recognition and at the end of the first month, employees proudly displayed their rows of medals and our values were being consistently recognised in the day-to-day operation of the business.

  1. Take everyone on the journey with you.

I always say “Don’t deliver the solution without consultation!” and getting buy in from your Board, management and staff at every stage of your journey is a critical factor in any cultural change. Use interviews, surveys, imagery and informal discussions to build out your path and once you’ve set your direction it’s all about communication, communication, communication!

I personally love the power of story-telling and telling it in as many different ways as you can. It’s all about creating a common story which brings people together and improves a sense of teamwork. At The Smith Family we did a lot of face-to-face – calls and workshops. But we also relied on emails and regular newsletters as well as lots of surveys so we could get a clear picture of what was working and what wasn’t and address the challenges early on. I think that one of the biggest tells of a thriving culture, is when people can see themselves as active participants who have agency and accountability.

  1. Don’t do too much too quickly.

Culture is not a ‘do it once’ thing. It really is a journey and let’s be honest you’re not going to get everything right all the time, but consistent focus and continued implementation is key. And because it’s a process it’s really important not to do too much too quickly. It can be tempting to announce change after change or initiative after initiative but taking the time to strategically plan your roll out, embed the change and acknowledgement from the outset that it will take time and dedication will set you up for success.

What’s more, the obvious benefits of a strong culture include happier staff, improved recruitment and retention, less sick leave and reduced costs. It also results in higher client satisfaction, lower business development costs and improvement in overall financial performance*. Through my experience I’ve also noticed that Clients are more willing to provide honest feedback (good or bad) which feeds into the customer service and product development cycle – as they say “Feedback is a Gift”.

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