Jo Geraghty, the director of Culture Consultancy, has a global reputation as an expert in building high-performance cultures across multinational and fast-growth companies. We recently spoke with Jo about how to sculpt a corporate culture so that it is more effective in accomplishing organizational goals, as well as why leadership training is pivotal to a company’s success.
Tell us about your background. Why are you so passionate about corporate cultures?
It’s quite simple really. From working with a variety of clients from start-ups through to multinationals, I’ve seen over and over again the way in which corporate culture can make the difference between success and failure. I guess because I started out with Goldman Sachs, I am more attuned to the banking and finance arena; and time and time again in the recent decade, we’ve seen far too many instances of culture failures leading to all sorts of things – including misselling.
Those failures and others like them have been a lesson for all of us about the importance of strong culture in driving outcomes. You don’t get strong culture without engaged people, and I’m a firm believer in the importance of people in business and engaging them in the strategy and values in order to deliver innovation and customer excellence. Your engaged employees can be your greatest advocates for success.
What is a “trigger signal,” and how might it indicate the need for a change in corporate culture?
I’ve always believed that if the leadership team feels that there is something wrong, then there generally is. But some of the key trigger points are significant changes in corporate direction (such as mergers and acquisitions), a move into new product lines, or a change of leadership. Then on the employee side, you may be looking at a rise in staff turnover, increased absences due to illness, disagreements between individuals or departments, or sudden silences when a member of the management team walks by. Apart from that, you also have things like increased wastage, a reduction in productivity, customer dissatisfaction, and so on. And even if none of these apply, leaders should still be keeping their finger on the pulse of culture to make sure that it stays relevant in a changing marketplace.
Is it often difficult to effect change at companies in longstanding industries like investment houses, banks, or law offices?
It can be, but you can also see the same challenges in fast growth scale-ups or in businesses of any size or longevity. It’s easy to point the finger and say that for banks or law offices, the challenge to change is harder because they are so heavily regulated; but that’s really a cop-out. When the culture isn’t right, the regulators are not only pleased to see change, they demand change.
Take innovation, for example. The financial regulators in the UK actively encourage businesses to come to them with innovative ideas and look to work with those businesses in order to help them to bring in new products and methods of working. What is difficult is when the CEO and the leadership team don’t assimilate the change into their daily decisions and actions. If it’s not on the top team’s agenda, it’s not going to be in the culture. The desire for change has to start at the top, and the leadership has to create the conditions which will allow change to happen.
How can a leadership team convince employees that a “change programme” is not just a euphemism for massive layoffs?
It’s all about communication and people engagement. Naturally, whenever any change is in the offing -whether it be an internal culture change, merger, or acquisition – people are inevitably going to be concerned. And this is where it comes down to employee engagement again and the relationship between the employees and the leadership. If people are really engaged in delivering good outcomes for the business, and if they trust the leadership to make the right decisions, then they will trust in the changes which the leaders are making. After that, it’s all about the 5Cs of communication; being clear, concise, consistent, continuous, and congruent.
If a new CEO or similar corporate leader wants to change the culture at his or her company, what should he or she avoid doing at all costs
Let’s start with the old adage, “Don’t do what I do, do what I say.” Telling people to act in one way and then doing something completely different yourself is a sure-fire way of convincing people that you don’t really support the change that you’re trying to bring in. This includes launching an initiative and then expecting the business to get on with it while you move on to the next best thing.
Then there is the classic, “From now on we’re all going to be (blank)” You may have spent ages planning, investigating, and drawing up the new shape of the organization, but it is unfair to your people to expect them to be instantly enthusiastic about a new concept which you’ve just thrown at them. You have had time to get used to the idea; so help them to get used to it as well.
Finish this sentence: “The biggest reason to implement a leadership training program within a company is…”
Its future! There is a lovely story that I heard in which one person asks, “Why should I bother to train people when they’re only going to leave?” to which the reply is, “What happens if you don’t train them and they stay?” Leadership is a journey, and if you want strong leaders to deliver a strong future, then you can’t start training soon enough. Apart from that, lots of the skills required for leadership such as communication, listening, taking ownership, seeing the bigger picture, and so on are the same skills which you need all of your people to display within an innovation culture. So by training your people for the future, the business is also benefiting now.
If a corporate employee were to say to you, “I won’t participate in my company’s leadership training initiative because I have no plans or desires to be an executive at this company,” how might you respond?
My first reaction would be that I have failed that person in not helping them to fully understand how they can personally benefit from boosting their own skills. Sure, not everyone is cut out for leadership; but when we stop learning, we stop growing. So the answer is to work with the individual to devise a pathway which helps them to continue to grow and to explore the areas which interest them to the benefit of the organization.
Interestingly, this is an area where diversity, inclusion, and equality come very much to the fore. Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, but it does mean giving everyone an equal opportunity to maximize their personal strengths to do the best they can. When you have a diverse range of people all bringing their talents fully to the benefit of the business, then you increase the chances of having a strong innovative culture and great customer service.
For companies to remain successful in the future, what will their corporate cultures have to emphasize and focus on?
Innovation. It’s a one-word answer, but it can have game-changing consequences. If you have been tracking the surveys over the last few years, you would see that more and more CEOs have been putting innovation at the top of their priority list. But there is still an awful lot of misunderstanding about what innovation really is.
There is a difference between invention and innovation; invention is the process of introducing something new or different, while innovation does so in order to solve a genuine problem, add real value to the customer, and drive growth for the creator. Businesses with a genuine culture of innovation don’t simply look at product or service, but also strive to improve the system, process, outlook, attitude, and every aspect of the business in order to deliver differentiated customer excellence. Corporate culture isn’t just about reputation, profitability, or even employee engagement. It’s about improving the lives of customers and delivering something which they will genuinely benefit from alongside a great customer experience.