Fostering a Company Culture

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 08:00

Developing a positive point of difference into workplace culture is a complex issue. Penny Sutcliffe interviews two leaders who have built cultures in different sectors of the marketplace.

Restructure, change management, new strategies, mergers, acquisitions, resignations, new managers on board - just some parts of the corporate merry-go-round that often demand a reassessment of "company culture". Yet a change at the top does not automatically instil any new values into other members of a team.

A report undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK found that many of the companies studied focused on one "big idea" or some key words, which simply expressed the purpose of the organisation, how it works and what it is like to work there.

However, the report also revealed that a "big idea" on its own is not enough. It found that to be effective and to drive improved performance, a positive culture needs to be embedded, integrated, enduring, habitual, collective and routine, besides being effectively measured and managed.

This process inevitably requires vision, planning, sustained hard work, constant monitoring and evaluation - and organisations spend years and significant amounts of profits in their pursuit of a dynamic and vibrant workplace.

Here's a look at how two leaders from separate sectors drive such success in their culture.

Andrew Barlow
Chief Executive, max Super

Andrew Barlow is a founder of one of Australia's most successful technology companies, Hitwise - an online competitive intelligence service. Hitwise has secured more than $30 million in venture funding over the past five years and employs some 170 people worldwide. But it is Barlow's latest company, max Super, that has brought about the need to implement a new culture into a company.

Superannuation is often seen as boring, traditionally the domain of the older and retiring generation, and Barlow saw a need to create a fresh new product built especially for young Australians, by young Australians, which speaks the language and is focused on the needs of the younger generation.

What are the key challenges you face when building a culture into a new company?

Starting a business from scratch requires a very different skill set to most management positions in mature businesses, which already have a certain culture and protocols. It is less about management and more about leadership.

I guess you could say I aim to be the "chief alchemist", with the first and biggest challenge to bring together all the people and partners, with the appropriate skills and expertise, to make this business work.

It's also important to be very clear on your key mission from the start and communicate this to all parts of the business. For example, at max it is to become the leading provider of superannuation to young Australians - all sectors of the business are very aware of this.

How do you develop and sustain a culture of success in your business?

You grow and develop a management team by understanding what they want as individuals, and figuring out how to give them that in their role within the organisation. Recognising individual strengths and weaknesses is key to creating a role and environment to allow them to grow and thrive.

Building a culture of success is really a three-step process:

  • Setting goals;
  • Realising them; and
  • Recognising and rewarding the individuals involved.

You define what success is by giving it a name (your goal). You do whatever it takes to achieve your goal. And then you celebrate, recognise and reward.

What are the key issues organisations need to consider in building an ethical culture?

Building an ethical culture starts at the top, and permeates every part of the business. Strong ethics need to be consistently demonstrated by strong management. Being honest and transparent are also key drivers. Everyone in our business knows exactly where we are at any given time. No one has any time for politics. If there's an issue, it's dealt with quickly between the parties.

And when you see areas that need to be changed or reassessed, how do you convince your staff to really believe in it?

In a business where everything depends on your ability to build a relationship with your customer, people are 100 per cent your most important asset. How your people think, act and feel will impact how your customers think, act and feel towards the business.

Give your staff ownership in the business. This shows your commitment to them in terms of them sharing in the spoils of the business' success. I know with my earlier company, Hitwise, we were always adamant about our employees owning a decent chunk of the company by way of an Employee Share Option Plan. Those employee options are now worth about $25 million. The employees are sharing in the success of the business they created.

However, introducing an Employee Share Option Plan is only effective if you can convince employees of the value they're creating in real terms. How the plan is sold to employees determines its success in motivating them to achieve great results.

What are the most important skills a manager needs to drive a culture?

Building a culture is all about relationships.

Your relationship with yourself. Your relationship with the people around you. And your relationship with work.

Again, in any new business, it's more about leadership than management.

Leaders need to be able to sell their vision to everyone they work with. They need to engage all their partners, management team, employees and investors in the vision, and inspire them to get behind the business 110 per cent.

Contrary to a lot of early management authors, I don't think a leader should be afraid to show his or her weaknesses.

A great leader isn't afraid of their own weaknesses, but shows strength by readily acknowledging and respecting them, and being aware of them.

Gabriela Ahrens
General Manager, Australia, Lufthansa German Airlines

Gabriela Ahrens began with Lufthansa in 1987 and was appointed as General Manager, Australia, of Lufthansa German Airlines in May 2005. She came on board during what was the best year ever for Lufthansa, seeing a revenue increase of 44 per cent in the Australian market over 2003.

Australia is Lufthansa's biggest offline market in the world. Gabriela Ahrens is responsible for the continued growth of Lufthansa's business in Australia across both the business and leisure travel markets. Ahrens has more than two decades' experience in the airline and travel industry, and her management journey with Lufthansa has seen her based in Germany , Shanghai , Hong Kong, and now Sydney. This has given her vast experience in adjusting to different cultures as well as recognising when or if there is a need to make adjustments to drive business success.

What were the key challenges you faced coming into a new culture?

Firstly, I had to assess the situation. We have been in Australia for a very long time, 40 years, but we have a lot of Germans working for the company, and a mix of Australians amongst our staff - that is a good thing. But within this time a lot has happened to the people and the company, and I had to be clear about what I'm here for. We are a German company with a reputation of efficiency and reliability. So for me it was firstly about clearly communicating a common goal to the mix of people amongst my staff, that is, to continue this German reputation into the Australian market.

It's a challenge to gain trust from them, getting the team to work together to achieve what you have to achieve. Without the right leadership skills, and the ability to manage people effectively, change and growth will not happen.

Lufthansa has done well over the past year. How do you build and sustain a culture of success at such a time?

Firstly, evaluate where you stand. Get back to the basics, get all the information. Ask yourself, "what information do I get?" "What information do I give out?" Managers have an obligation towards the team to give out and retrieve all the facts. Find out what is working and what is not. Recognise and reward what is working, and once you've identified what isn't - question it: how is this adding value?

Managers must also not be afraid of putting themselves into the spotlight. I think there is also an obligation to ensure the information you are giving out is what other people need to get the job done.

What is the most complex part of driving culture into a team?

Getting the balance right between managing the business needs and managing the people.

Again building up trust. It's hard work and puts a lot of emphasis on what you do day-to-day.

Being 100 per cent aware of what is going on, and getting the timing right on what might need correcting. Accepting sometimes things may not work out the way you expected, and knowing when to implement change management.

How do you go about building trust within your team to drive change?

There is not always a recipe for everything. Even if you have used the same recipe for a cake, it may not always work out the same way - and it's the same when developing a recipe for a culture.

Learn about people, take the time to find out how they operate and what makes them tick. If your culture needs adjusting, that change will only be effective if you really believe in it.

Whatever you expect people to do, you should be ready to do yourself. Then you need to communicate why you believe in it.

You can only build up trust and change if you have good communication, if you're transparent, if you're reliable and stand for what you're saying.

Once you've developed this, the next step is teamwork, get the people involved, get them to believe in what you're saying, provide them with the spice and the fun to want to make it happen.