Culture gives the Competitive Edge

By: Shatha Al Maskiry and Joy Abdullah 
visual courtesy @carlarieger
visual courtesy @carlarieger

Culture– that all elusive and hard to describe organizational element that fuels how an organization performs– has had a lot written about itself. Yet there is no one-size-fits-all formula that can be applied, across board, for leaders to have the right cultural climate that results in increasing profitability for the organization.

Change in work culture has become a buzz word for many organizations in the Middle East today.  However the organizations are still challenged to effect change failing to appreciate that a written statement with a handful of glamorous values plastered on walls will not do the trick.

The major shortcoming is that change is greatly undermined in terms of the effort, time and investment required. Change is an organizational wide transformation and we have seen it fail because it is not mandated by leadership nor is it communicated through practice in a consistent manner. Diffusing change requires partnership with the workforce and the organizational values must be closely aligned with the strategy and growth plans. If leadership does not lead cultural change, then the mass would; and in most occasions, they would disintegrate it into a collection of varied sub-cultures that are misaligned. This results in a culture of crumbs.

The reasons why change initiatives, in the Middle East, have often failed is because middle management impede it, and fail to see why they must invest a significant amount of their time as change champions.  They fail to see the necessity of leveraging their interpersonal skills and eloquently communicate what is in it for the employees  in order to create a inspiring engine to make the employees the agents of change; as no real change can be realized without involving all stakeholders.

For industries and their organizations across Middle-East and ASEAN region, business is a colonial legacy brought about through the presence of the multi-national organizations. Independent businesses spawned by employees of these corporates operate with similar cultures as the owners were used to during their employment days.  The result of which is having businesses operating with yesterday’s tools and expecting a different result.  

Aren’t we expecting a bit too much?

The colonial legacy, of Middle-East and the ASEAN regions, passed on what is primarily a very individualistic cultural business style.

Whereas the social culture, of both regions, are more community oriented with rigid hierarchy based on age. In the Middle East, it is also based on a diverse spectrum of factors because of imported talent of various nationalities from various fields and cultures.  

Into this enters behavioural changes which people have had due to the global financial crisis of 2008 and rising adoption of technology. Social media, for one, has made the world a much smaller place and has led to the rise of self-interest based communities. Word-of-mouth referral has become a norm for success and failure of a business.  Yet across businesses in these two regions we are yet to see a concerted focus on culture and its resultant impact on business strategy.

Asia today is the economic growth center for the world.  Along with the twin economic tigers—China & India— the Islamic economy, centered out of Middle-East with its hub in Dubai, is adding to the economic growth and impacting across industries.

The Middle East economies have also put a concerted effort in attempting to diversify away from petro dollars. This is a major challenge that cannot be overcome unless there is emphasis and focus on a new type work culture.

A culture that is highly transformational in nature with a set of values that engages and builds bridges for and with the employees in order to mould a
mind-set that is agile enough to serve the current challenges of the new economy with a special focus on productivity and innovation.

This impact is felt by thousands of businesses, corporate and SMEs involved in generating this economic growth and, in turn, by the consumers in these regions. All of this has a direct impact on the culture that employee, entrepreneurs, leaders and their businesses display today.

Globally we are seeing how established industries are being disrupted by new businesses based on the culture they identify and put in place. The one common denominator for success across these organizations is the culture that they create to drive sustainability of their operations.

 Can we achieve new results with old methods?

With 4 generations—Baby Boomers, Gen X & Y and Millennials all in the workforce now– and each generation having very distinct behaviours, developed through socio-cultural and  educational conditioning, can we expect an organization to have engaged employees who are all on the same page with regards to organizational goals and its linkage to them individually?

There are several cultural gaps in Middle East and ASEAN organizations; hierarchy still exists, lack of flat communication, leadership always runs short of time or spend too much time fire-fighting, and there is a general theme where lack of trust and confidence in each other has become the norm until proven otherwise.

Although diversity is part of what compliments a cultural change, it has been a challenge at several organizations where diverse interpretations of events affect everyone very differently.

We need to look at new scenarios, perhaps disruptive ones, and benefits of the same to each generation, to create a culture that allows for a common purpose to be shared across these generations of people in the workplace. It all boils down to giving the people the value they deserve in developing the business.

How can we create new scenarios that actually work in creating an impactful culture?

  1. Respect: Senior leadership behaviour, in organizations, should communicate equal respect for male and female colleagues.
  2. Voice: Move away from the ‘master & slave’ attitude towards a more open ‘partnering’ attitude which provides an environment for employees to voice thoughts and ideas.
  3. Conversations: Create more opportunities for face-to-face in person, or through technology, interactions or conversations where issues successes and failures are openly discussed for its learnings and not to point blame. The more an organization talks, informally on work, the more engaged the employees get. This creates accountability as people want to do their work so that it helps their colleague.
  4. Trust: Create trust through the conversations, by bringing diverse people and skill-sets together on key business projects, and taking their point of view and making them accountable in delivering the agreed goals for the business.
  5. Passion: Recognise the ones with passion for the business and praise them for their initiatives and drive.
  6. Creating Culture: Culture is created either consciously or unconsciously. It exists. We know of it and actually do something to make that culture behave in a manner that is beneficial to the business or not is what defines success today. One may question and ask—how do I create culture as I am not in a position of authority to do so — the answer is that you can create culture in your unit, department, and work section if you consciously decide to do so.

The collective experience and behaviors of the employee is what sums up the organizational culture.

Culture is just like personality and leadership must create the goals, strategies, experiences, interactions, and rewards from the values it preaches in a consistent manner as every experience is a piece of the bigger puzzle. History forms pieces of the puzzle just like language, events, stories and work practices also shape the desired culture. Impactful change is about giving and taking and it can be achieved through formal strategy, systems, and measures with ownership.

Culture change requires changing behaviors and breaking old habits and this is realized through collaboration, training and coaching. In order to continuously reinforce a strong and successful culture change it has to be modeled, taught, repeated, recognized, and rewarded. The end result should be shared values and productive behaviors to create a healthy and harmonious environment.

 

 


About the co-author: Shatha Al Maskiry is a country managing director of Protiviti in Oman. She has 18 years of experience spanning across various consulting roles from process re-engineering, talent risk management, and digital transformation. She is also a certified coach and active in social services especially in coaching youth and students.

 

The relationships you build provide the organization with strength

courtesy: www.pinterest.com
courtesy: http://www.pinterest.com

Last week I was catching up with my eldest son and a couple of his friends all of whom are millennials. One of them asked me –
how can we contribute, to the organization, as employees outside our functional roles. This post is a result of that chat.

For an organization success is measured by differing metrics depending on the nature of business and industry. One common thread is the fact that employees make all the difference between success and failure due to the extent of their engagement and involvement with the organizational goals.

Whilst employee engagement is the responsibility of organizational leaders, employees, too, have an individual responsibility in developing healthy relationships with their co-workers.

Whilst an organization may have product or service advantages, innovative patents and technology in use, at the end of the day the strength of any organization is in the relationship its employees have within themselves.

It’s the people who make all the difference.

Developing strong and rewarding inter-personal relationships come about from the way we are socially conditioned to make friends, network and influence, communicate and give value to each other. This is where communities and groups emerge from.

So as an employee how do you go about creating beneficial relationships?

  1. Interact: Use the official events, such as team building sessions, training, sports, employee parties and community services, to reach out and connect with employees from other divisions. In large organisations one of the key issues is that people don’t know who does what in which divisions. So provide your fellow colleagues a-face- to- a- function so that they know they can reach you when they have the need.
  2. Volunteer: Step up and volunteer for projects that are not in your functional area. These project teams, usually, are set up to deliver key goals for the organization and is a great way to:
    — Get yourself to interact with the organizational leaders and show       additional initiative that goes into your annual performance.
    — Helps you identify possible mentors and work functions that you may want to move into in order to grow within the organization.
  3. Talk: In any group meetings there are always issues being discussed. Put aside your fears of looking stupid, in front of your bosses and peers, and speak up. Make sure you understand the context, of the issue at hand, and then put forth your suggestion.
    On a personal level, when you see a fellow colleague from a different unit at any time of the work day, stop for moment and ask how he or she is and how their families are.  Share a minute or two connecting on common personal areas.  Be careful when you do this. Do it meaningfully and not in passing.
  1. Help: If another colleague, either from your own unit or otherwise requests for information or assistance, help them. Not only would you be earning respect and gratitude of your colleague but you’ll be communicating to the leaders that the interest of the organization is what matters to you.

 

 

I’d be happy to know if this post is useful to you.  Do share your views on ways in which you have nurtured  internal relationships for the benefit of the readers.

Behaviour Impacts the Choices You Make

Visual Courtesy: The GOODVIBE.CO
Visual Courtesy: The GOODVIBE.CO
Often leaders are in a tough situation and faced with tough choices.

A key role of a leader is to make decisions. In other words exercise their choice based on evaluating all the facts available to them and factoring in the impact of that choice on the long-term strategy. Whilst many are able to have that line-of-sight often times there is a knee-jerk reaction.

This reaction comes about from the individual leader’s behaviour.  A leader’s daily habit is formed through the behaviour expressed. Unknowingly many a leader displays leadership traits that set the cultural tone through behaviour. If the leader is in survival mode—fear & flight—then choice comes across in behaviour as one that ensures self-preservation. What that means is that there is indecisiveness and inordinate delays on critical decisions. On the other hand if the leader has strong engagement, both at the C level and operational levels, then choice exercised would be expressed as a best-case scenario based one.

As leaders how can we ensure our behaviour matches what we say?

As the saying goes—lead by example. There’s no better way than to set an example, by doing what you want others to do. What this means is that one has to get one’s hands dirty but getting into execution and influencing the desired output. This sends a very strong message to all in terms of culture and expected behaviour.

This is more so important in the Asian context where employees behave as they see their bosses do.

As leaders how can we get the engagement?

Getting employee engagement is hard. Not impossible but hard. You can’t make all the people happy all the time. You can make some people happy some of the time. So it is with getting employees to be engaged.

As a leader it’s critical to have an open door relationship with your operational leadership team and actually practice it. If the operational leadership team has to always make an appointment to discuss an issue or an idea, then it’s not open door. On the contrary, the message communicated is that the leader of the organization is not interested.

The impact of such behaviour affects choices greatly.

Lack of regular interaction and access to the C suite leadership coupled with lack of ownership within the C suite, of critical organizational initiatives, leads to:

  • Lack of morale
  • Lowering of trust (in the leadership)
  • Questioning the time, energy & effort (spent) on critical initiatives

Ending in the organization losing the operational leaders and losing its way.

Is your organization showing any of these?

If yes, it’s time to have a very open, no-holds barred, heart-to-heart chat with the concerned leaders and to put the facts on the table for the leadership to imbibe, evaluate and choose wisely for the long-term benefit of the organization.

 

To Be or Not To Be Vulnerable

Visual courtesy: www.pinterest.com
Visual courtesy: http://www.pinterest.com

Classic leadership thinking is all about being stoic, firm, and decisive. Of not having a chink of weakness anywhere in one’s professional behaviour and of not showing any emotions.

Such behaviour is present due to belief in the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittestwhich is usually used to refer to individuals being fit for positions and tasks in comparison to others being unfit. Examples of firm and decisive leaders abound. Simultaneously examples of great leadership in the form of raw courage and humanitarian services and are available aplenty.

Is either leadership approach wrong?

No.

In the last decade our world, especially our societies and our economic environment, has changed tremendously. This has directly impacted on our behaviour in our roles as a citizen, a customer and, most importantly, as a professional.

Behavior forms our habits.

Whilst we may wear many hats every day, under each of those hats, it’s our behaviour that frames our character and creates our identity as an individual and leads to how we are perceived as a leaders in the roles we fulfill. Given our business models and management processes and the fixated need to hit the quarterly ‘profit numbers’, in the corporate scenario, we seem to avoid taking into account the behaviour of leaders and people and its resultant impact on business.

There are tons of great research available that clearly depict the behavioural changes of the past decade as a result of the financial meltdowns  & of technology becoming more user-friendly and more accessible.

The financial crisis’s left us being more prudent in our purchasing decisions and making better choices of our wants & needs. Technology in the form of smartphones and social media has given us the benefit of obtaining an unbiased third-party perspective on any issue and has created a world full of interest-based communities.

This has a huge impact on organisations. 

Within this changed (and still changing scenario) comes the issue of vulnerability (here’s the article that triggered this post) where corporate leadership is concerned.

To be vulnerable or Not to be’.

Corporate leadership has yet to take vulnerability as a positive. A decade back, vulnerability would have been an absolute no-no for a leader. It was akin to being weak, indecisive and wishy-washy.

Today showing vulnerability shows the leader to be humane i.e. caring and wanting the best for the other person; it shows an intent of listeningi.e. willing to take on board suggestions and advice and showing that the leader alone does not have all the solutions.

All of this is can be summed up as people-value.

Today’s leader has to be truly interested in delivering benefits that are valued by his people, in terms of their self-development, in order to achieve the long-term business goals.

Being vulnerable or expressing one’s vulnerability enables people to see the authentic side of the leader and not see it as a weakness.  Vulnerability enables the team to connect on an emotional level and acts as an enabler in the leader & team relationship dynamic. It leads to creating trust and with trust comes commitment that aids the leader in guiding the team to achieve the goals successfully.

Brand experience has a higher impact than advertising

brand+experience+quoteA brand experience is the total experience one has with an entity and the perception one has of that entity. One of the key areas where this experience is strengthened (or destroyed) is the way the brand’s eco system (its’ consumers, partners, vendors) perceive the employees of the brand they interact with.

And this has far greater an impact than the advertising of the brand.

In Asia current corporate cultures are still largely governed by command-and-control practices that alienate many of today’s employees. Whereas employees are (and should be) the key focal point for a brand in developing its relationships.

By putting employees at the center of the brand experience it changes the way senior management think about their organisational culture and the ways that the culture creates rewarding employee experiences which translate into positive and enduring customer experiences.

In-spite of all the talk of ‘people are our main asset’ the road to ‘employee-service-profit chain’ success is mired in obstacles!

If employees are distrusting and alienated from their organisations, what are the chances that they will provide customers and colleagues  with a positive brand experience? And a positive experience is a must in order to have a usage of the brand and, more importantly, to get referrals.

From the organizational perspective employees need to have emotional maturity to understand and align their individual professional goals with those of the business. Often times, emotional maturity is not on par with intelligence maturity in the employee. And knowledge, intelligence and skill are often confused with emotional maturity.

  1. How do we get employees to strengthen and increase their emotional maturity?
  2. How do we get employees to build trust with the brand in order to be  engaged and involved in the organisation’s growth plans?

Engagement programs are one solution. Unfortunately they are just what the term states—engagement, as perceived by the organisation,that is they provide a one-way street of communication. Commanding what should be the perceived brand image communication, providing content to gain a commitment. But not really providing any means of employee development or initiating engagement or involvement from the employee.

The missing element is involvement and having involvement is critical!

Intuitively we all understand what involvement is and how powerful it can be. When we are told to do something, we do it and then tend to forget about it. But when we are involved in something, we tend to be possessive and own it on an emotive level. And when emotion comes into play, passion is there. Where passion is present there is a strong, positive experience taking place.

This is the platform on which trust is built.

When trust grows, through engagement & involvement, the quality of the relationship increases rapidly on the positive scale leading to an enjoyable outcome of interaction between the brand custodians and its stakeholders. The cycle is completed when repeat usage and referrals occur.

This does occur simply because of human psychology. We like being around people who are collaborative, have a positive attitude and are helpful.

Thus when an organisation is managing cultural change a top priority is to have the employees’ involvement.

And this involvement requires that a strong group work process be in place. A process where the meetings and interactions take on a deeper meaning than just to meet in order to agree to the content of the meeting. A deeper meaning where one focuses more on honest conversation, high involvement and participation leading to strong, high trust relationships.

All  simple, effective and, yet in a corporate set up, at times, hard to do elements (for various reasons)

Once a strong group process is in place it leads to strong work relationships based on involvement to a common cause. Then implementing an engagement program, in terms of content and communication channels, is not hard as each independent employee, driving those functions, believes and own it. As a result of which, each interaction is on a more personal, emotive and honest platform.

All of which lead to having a positive brand experience output.


Why good leaders make you feel safe

 A brilliant talk by Simon Sinek on how trust is grown, by a leader, by making employees feel secure.

 

Here’s the synopsis of the TED talk:

What makes a great leader? Management theorist Simon Sinek suggests, it’s someone who makes their employees feel secure, who draws staffers into a circle of trust. But creating trust and safety — especially in an uneven economy — means taking on big responsibility.

 

Manage Change Before It Manages You

Just as shifting city and home and moving to a new place has its initial period of anxiety, a change in business direction or in leadership in the organisation, brings about a period of anxiety, uncertainty and a plethora of questions within an organisation.

Change in any form is uncomfortable for us humans. We are creatures of habit and habit breeds its own sense of comfort and discomfort. Take for example our daily work day routine. If one of the items in our daily ‘routine’ goes out of whack, we get irritated and at times, are at a bit of a loss.

Business activities are managed by humans and thus when an organisation implements a change from what it had done; it brings about a fair bit of response. Some good, some not so good and some downright harmful to the business. The ‘enthusiasts’ (or early adopters) latch on to the big picture that the changed direction portrays and willingly start to move forward in the new direction. The ‘yes sir/no sir’ (followers) goes into a ‘wait and watch’ mode to try gauge which way is the wind blowing. Lastly comes the ‘resistant brigade’! A group who clings on desperately to yesteryears and falls back on the achievements of the past years.

Each of these three groups have an impact on the brand and its’ experience: 

1.   Enthusiasts: In their eagerness to contribute to the new, changed business direction, the enthusiasts rush into action without deeply evaluating the long-term benefit of the actions to the brand and the ability of the brand to deliver on the changed direction. Often more manpower and resources are taken up on these changed new actions if they are not evaluated for effectiveness. Enthusiasts often times end up working long hours alone leading to quick burnouts when operating at very high stress levels due to continuous delivery demands of the added new tasks.

2.  Followers: This group’s indecisiveness and inability to ask for clarity leads them to either do the work activity wrong or to take too long over it and thus deliver well after the timeline is past. In effect, making the task inefficient.

3. Resistant Brigade: Often the largest group, these try to push back through the “this is how it was done” process with the intention that if continuous resistance can be applied by using defunct processes and bureaucratic red-tape  then the enthusiasts would either burn their fire out or leave. All the resistance group succeeds in doing is wasting critical time and damaging the brand image through their inability to move forward.

 

How do we bring groups 2 & 3 around to see the positives in the new strategic direction or change that the organisation is undertaking:

  1. Transparency:  Line managers have to understand the change and explain, at length, how that change is beneficial and tie it back to the individual roles of staff and their function with regards to the effect it has on the brand’s identity.
  2. Top-down Leadership:  Senior management has to have in place, a support team selected from rank & file to ensure successful delivery of key projects that would aid in bringing the required change. This team should be empowered with the required authority in order to put in place new processes to enable change to take hold.
  3. HR in the Forefront: HR needs to be at the forefront in terms of providing senior management the right team, skills and competency wise, in order to help deliver required changes. Internal talent development becomes a priority for HR and is the starting point for staff performance evaluations.
  4. Deadline: An end target date for achievement of certain critical projects needs to be up in front. Critical projects that affect the brands’ reputation should be selected from the pool of projects that is in active stage and be project managed through specific project teams.

Following this 4 steps approach would enable an organisations’ leadership to bring about groups 2 & 3–followers & the resistance brigade— by having them involved in the critical projects, with each individual having a specific task aligned with their respective job-function.

What’s the benefit in doing this?

  1. Easier management of key projects to achieve success leading to revenue growth and establishing the desired brand reputation.
  2. Having in place a core team, a second line of command so to speak,  across critical functions upon whom senior management can depend to take the brand forward.
  3. Having in place efficient processes that aid in forward planning of daily work.