How to Leverage Your Culture to Weather Any Storm

If we were to ask leaders of organizations around the world what was the most disruptive event or thing to have happened in 2020 that impacted their business, the overwhelming majority would point their fingers towards COVID-19 and the pandemic. However, disruption is a tale as old as time and an inevitable part of any maturing organization’s life cycle. One of the key antidotes to surviving the disruption that was 2020, is the same as it has always been: A strong, healthy organizational culture.

Before we get into that, I’d first like to ground the word disruption into something more tangible. Disruption is not always a world-wide pandemic pushing organizations to pivot to remote work and to adjust to rollercoaster-like fluctuations in the economy. Disruption can be a natural change in the markets, it might be a change in an organization’s structure, a merger or acquisition, a change in leadership, or even a change in strategic direction. If you are a five-person team, disruption can be losing or gaining a single team member.

While there are different approaches to managing change, one thing experts seem to agree on is that it is hard. Regardless of its nature, managing change requires a significant amount of attention and resources. It creates instability and fear for people within the organization, and if it is not tended to, it can negatively impact the change process, leading to its doom.

So with that said, we can agree that organizations need to manage change thoughtfully to survive. While there are several aspects to implementing successful change management initiatives, I will focus on one key aspect that is often overlooked and when overlooked, detrimental to the change effort in its entirety. Culture, good organizational culture.

Culture can be likened to DNA, in the sense that it is unique to each organization. What might work for some, might not work for others; and it shouldn’t given the complex nature of businesses and the people who run them. However, there are some key elements that organizations need to ensure their cultures have in order for them to survive and dare I say thrive when disruption is underway. Based on our countless experiences with clients across industries and regions, here are the three elements of organizational culture that can set your businesses up for success in the face of disruption and save you money along the way:

1) A culture that is a strategic priority.

The concept of culture has definitely gotten its fair share of attention in the world of work. Organizations that have matured their focus on culture have truly transformed how they approach it from annual events to weekly lunches, to an embedded way of doing things. While that is a great success that needs to be acknowledged, there is more to be done in order to leverage culture and reap its countless benefits. It needs to become a strategic priority and a quintessential piece of the organization’s overall business strategy. More tangibly, organizations need to budget for culture-related activities. By activities I mean, organizations need to invest in their cultures by assigning someone or a team or committee to be accountable for setting and implementing their culture strategy. This means organizations need to anticipate and plan how to mitigate potential risks to their organization and culture. Critical culture-focused activities need to be scheduled, measured, and evaluated annually such as culture and climate audits and assessments. These audits and assessments need to include robust culture metrics that tie to organizational performance. Moreover, organizations need to set processes in place for feedback and communication for these activities. Even in a ‘normal’ year, making culture a strategic priority can play a pivotal role in achieving your organization’s strategic goals and on budget.

2) A culture that is intentional and true.

Organizations need to be wary of the cookie-cutter culture. We are bombarded with ideas of what cultures should look like and are pressured into believing that the shiny objects other organizations have are what our own organizations need to be attractive to candidates, partners, and customers. While the concept of having a ‘fun’ culture might be true to your organization, I urge you to think about what that might look like before investing in ping pong tables and beer-on-tap. The only ‘right’ or true culture is one that is intentionally designed yet organically lived. This thoughtfulness will become embedded in how your organization operates and if your culture is aligned with your organization’s purpose and needs, it will be leveraged in your organization’s favor in times of disruption. So, think about your organization and its objectives. Think about what your people need to thrive and deliver on these objectives. Have intentional conversations about the kind of culture that exists and where it needs to be to serve your organization’s mission. And be sure to have a conversation about how you need to invest in building and maintaining that culture. This will be the internalized code guiding your people on how best to respond to and manage the change.

3) A culture that is adaptable or  ‘Passe Partout’.. To an extent.

While many organizations struggled to keep morale and performance up this year – for extremely understandable reasons – others were able to pull through and adapt to the changes. The key is having an adaptable culture. A culture strategy needs to account for unprecedented changes and factor in alternative ways culture can be lived out- i.e., in an office and online and maybe across dimensions. The point is, organizations need to think through what their culture would look like across different modes of work, and plan for how to ensure it will stand when it is time to pivot. Identify what your employees need to live out the culture and budget for it… for some, it might be adjustable desks, for others, it might be regular check-ins. Think about the crucial elements that matter most in how you do work on a normal day and take the time to come up with creative ways to recreate these experiences in different modes of work.

While culture is not the only answer to surviving disruption, it sure is a key to managing the changes in the most efficient and least painful way. In order to leverage your culture, you need to make it a business priority. Always ask yourself what kind of a culture does your organization need to achieve its strategic objectives. Make sure that what it looks like is true to your organization and try it on for size. Then think about all the different ways, across modes of work, your organization can live out its culture. If you have that in place, your organization will be well-positioned to face disruption and manage the change as gracefully as change can be managed.