Author: activedirections

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


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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”.

Meet Kate Frost


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As an experienced transformational and organisational change management leader Kate is passionate about relationship building and revenue generation that delivers increased returns on economic, human and social investment. Kate has also been instrumental in building a culture of collaboration within Active Directions and has a personal focus on coaching and mentoring.

What problems do you consistently solve for your clients? 

What their real problem is!  Often clients believe they know (and can articulate) what their ‘problem’ is.  Sometimes it’s just a symptom of the underlying issue or concern. I’m not afraid to ask difficult questions, and I take the time to listen. This means that I’m able to draw out, what the source of the issue really is. The challenge is how to share that information in a sensitive, yet pragmatic way.

What are you happiest doing, when you’re not working? 

I’m happiest travelling. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to take two long breaks away from my professional career.  Once in 2000, when we travelled around the world to 12 countries in 12 months after my husband had a heart attack, and then in 2018 for 3 months in Italy.

Otherwise like most of us, it’s a month here, 2 weeks there….Turkey is my favourite country with Japan and Italy a close second/third! 

What would your personal motto be?

Be prepared! (I’m a bit of a scout)

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is

In the early 2000s, I had the joy of having a personal business mentor.  He is a professional business man, who is very generous, humble and very successful.  He used to say to me…”Trust in yourself – you’re not going to get it right all of the time, but you’ve got enough smarts to get yourself out of trouble!” – Maybe not the most ‘classic’ advice but really important to me (and tailored to the person I am).

Why your business needs a Sprint Plan.


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After many years of building customised, cloud-based Sprint Plans for our clients, I’ve seen firsthand how effective they are in helping organisations successfully turn their strategic goals into reality.

With a Sprint Plan, ambitious strategic initiatives can be broken down into more manageable, bite sized chunks that can be easily tracked and reported on. They really are a simple, effective tool that every business should be using.

In fact, the events of last year solidified for me their real power. When the COVID curveball hit, Sprint Plans played a critical role in helping the businesses we work with reassess and pivot. They were able to park their established strategic initiatives and add COVID-specific activity across the entire organisation that they could track week to week, making sure nothing got missed in complex, fast-moving conditions.

In this article, I’m sharing how to set-up a Sprint Plan and some tips for making sure that the data you input gets you to where you need to go.

How to develop a Cloud-Based Sprint Plan

1.Identify and articulate your big, ambitious strategic goals and the different projects or initiatives needed to achieve these. It’s important here that you assign one person, as Project Lead, to be accountable for keeping the projects and initiatives on track.

2. Choose a 90-day or 120-day period. This might be dependent on how many people you have in your team, how often you get the opportunity to work together, the business priorities. Choose whatever rhythm works for you.

3. Identify and articulate the specific, measurable activities that need to be completed within the set timeframe. It’s important to remember that these activities shouldn’t be Business as Usual. The Sprint Plan is about tracking the key strategic initiatives that are going to move the dial for your business. These milestones and tasks also need to have a person assigned to them to ensure that things move along.

Bad Task 

Good Task

4. Every week those assigned to specific milestones and tasks need to report on the progress. They do this using a simple traffic light system:

Green is on track

Amber is delayed but on track

Red denotes a serious issue that’s causing a delay and that needs to be resolved.

Setting up a weekly meeting will mean that everyone can see what’s going on across the teams and resolve issues collaboratively.

5. We also recommend 15-minute one-on-ones every two weeks with the Project Lead and each person responsible for specific tasks and projects. This is an opportunity for any concerns and issues to be raised in a supportive space.

6. The Sprint Plans that we build for clients also automatically generate weekly scores so that you can get an overall picture of exactly how everything is tracking. This enables topline visibility and the ability to quickly see where more resources or support may be required.

7. My strongest and final piece of advice is to make sure you use a cloud-based Sprint Plan that multiple people can access and edit rather than a static spreadsheet, to encourage buy-in and make your strategy as “live” as possible. When built well, Sprint Plans can be a user friendly, intuitive single source of truth that reduce distractions and enable businesses to deliver strategic projects on time, on budget and within scope.

If you want to deliver strategic objectives, allow for resource sharing and realise efficiencies reach out to us today to learn how we can help you create customised Sprint Plans for your business.

About the Author

Damian Barlow is a Senior Consultant with Active Directions. He specialises in financial modelling, forecasting and strategy implementation.

Sprint Plan Case Study


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We have built a sophisticated, cloud-based collaborative way for organisations to track and implement their objectives.

Our Sprint Plan tool is easy to use and effectively tracks progress using a simple traffic light system. We recently customised this tool for a diversified global portfolio of for-purpose and not-for-profit organisations.