Culture is a verb

The word ‘culture’ has several definitions.  Most business definitions focus on the noun:

‘the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterises an organisation.’

 I prefer the verb:

‘the act or process of cultivating.’

 Why?  Because the verb implies continuous focus, a sense of care and the need to constantly be aware of variables (environment, resource, incentives etc).  The noun is less instructive.  It implies a formula of a+b+c = culture x.  We’ve all seen it.  New CEO. New values.  New goals.  New culture?  Less often than you think.

Of course, there is no guaranteed formula.  Unfortunately, communicators (internal communicators especially) are often complicit in making people think there is.  Good internal communicators will offer support to the CEO.  You want a new company values launch?  A structured roll out?  Leaders first?  Then middle managers?  Then key influencers among the wider workforce?  FAQs?  Shiny materials?  Pop ups?  Workshops?  A portal on the intranet?  Sure thing.  I can do that.  Tell me how fast and I’ll get it right.  Or, more simply, how high do you want me to jump?  No, you don’t need to tell me.  I’ve got the formula here so I know how high…draw breath.

It’s a great opportunity to impress.  Isn’t this the internal communicator’s chance to shine?  Isn’t this what they are born to do.

No, not really.

Before jumping just so high, a great internal communicator will pause a beat and think of culture as a verb.  They might also delve into some large data analysis of what employees really want to hear about.  One example is Karian and Box’s IC UK 2021 report which found that ‘Culture / Value / Purpose’ was the kind of leadership information employees least wanted to receive but the kind of information they were given most often!

Here are three other things our great internal communicator will consider:

 1.     What went before?  Unless a company is new, no culture starts from a vacuum.  By necessity, it has to recognise what went before, no matter how dysfunctional, how arid, how fertile the previous environment was.

 2.     What’s competing for air?  This previous environment is usually a complex place full of values and well-meaning initiatives that former senior executives have launched.  Some of these, at least, need to be either swept aside or (if they can’t be) aligned to support the new thinking.

 3.     How can growth be sustained?  New ways of working and thinking take effort over longer periods of time.  They also require patience and a willingness to wait for results before a new initiative is attempted!

And this, hypothetical, best-in-class communicator knows that this change will take far, far more than just an effective communications plan.  It takes all those at the ExCo to show up, to set example, to live the new values and to coach their own direct reports (and their direct reports to coach their teams in turn).  It takes HR (often the ‘owners’ of culture), it takes Strategy (direction and goals), it might take a temporary Chief Transformation Officer to re-structure and re-align.  Communications must take its place as part of this team – often as a key enabler, adviser or convenor among this group – but cannot lead the change with comms plan alone.

I hesitate to be seen as ‘soft’ but – especially in a post-pandemic world – culture as a verb also implies a willingness to tend, nurture and appreciate the pressures and strains on teams.  This is no longer a culture imposed but a culture that emerges through empathy, understanding, occasional harsh pruning and an authenticity of care.

So, before internal communicators leap too quickly to please the new CEO, it’s worth putting that MBA style formula away, consider what it is employees really need, and think about what cross-functional effort ‘to culture’ will take.  Inevitably, the answer is broader, deeper and more persistent than the traditional approach.  Advise new boss accordingly.


6th September 2021

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