Shaping Organizational Cultures Is a Leadership Essential

Posted on January 17, 2024
Shaping Organizational Cultures Is a Leadership Essential

Among the many expectations of strong leaders, ownership and accountability of organizational culture deserve their rightful place at the top of the list. Frequently delegated to HR for stewardship, the age-old adage, “It starts with the tone at the top,” has never been truer. Culture must be “owned” by the senior-most leader of an organization and visibly and actively supported by the entire senior leadership team.


Urgency in Prioritizing Organizational Culture Today

While COVID-19 served as a catalyst of sweeping implications for organizations as they were forced to rethink models for delivering work, wellness programs focused on mental health, and overall organizational engagement, these and many other contributors to culture have also increased in their importance.

More than ever, employees have options to choose from when selecting where they will share their expertise and invest their time, and organizations that don’t amplify their commitment to a strong organizational culture run the risk of not attracting the talent they need, losing talent they want to keep, or both.

Despite this, a recent survey in the US found employee confidence in how much their employer cares about them dropped significantly to 48% in 2023, down from 56% in 2022 and 59% in 2021. Thus, while many companies may have stepped up during the pandemic to ‘show their love for employees, that approach must be sustained.

In the same survey, when asked what the biggest challenges were facing organizations, training and development placed a close #2 just behind compensation, but improving organizational culture was not far behind at number six.


Overcoming Challenges: A Comprehensive Cultural Plan

The challenge for many leaders when it comes to culture can be the narrow view that is held. Take organizational and leadership behaviours that are critical to shaping a culture. While there is often a significant emphasis on educating employees about what these behaviours look like, in action, a comprehensive plan to embed them across the full operations of an organization doesn’t always follow. What does a ‘comprehensive plan’ look like?

It means an honest assessment of key company operations and processes to ensure that the culture being sought permeates all aspects of the organization. Because when a culture is really embedded, it leads to powerful results. Consider the actions of a professional sports team to illustrate this point.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a player for the Dodgers – Andrew Toles – “tore his anterior cruciate ligament sliding into the wall while trying to make a catch” in 2017 and missed the rest of that season. He returned for 17 games the following season, but in 2019, after missing spring training, it eventually became learned that Toles had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

A year later, Toles was homeless and found sleeping behind a building at a Florida airport and was taken to a mental health facility.

So how did the team management respond? By renewing Toles’ contract every year so that he can keep his health insurance. Although he hasn’t played in five years, supporting Toles like this speaks volumes about the importance of “how.” Many organizations will state – and often emphatically – that ‘our people are our greatest asset.’ In this case, the Dodgers have truly leaned into that commitment.

Statements on their website about the organization being “built upon tradition, history and a strong foundation of effective teamwork” have been powerfully amplified by their actions and demonstrated that they are more than just words on a (digital) page.

However, if an organization fails to adopt a holistic approach to embedding their culture, as occurred with a trendy home furnishings store, the results could negatively impact productivity, customer satisfaction and retention.


The Tale of an Unyielding Order Cancellation Process

The trendy store in this case is West Elm, where according to their website, “we’re here to help you create a space that reflects you and what you love. That means forward-thinking, problem-solving design that unites value, quality and responsible manufacturing.”

That’s a strong position from a product standpoint. I mean, who doesn’t want “forward-thinking, problem-solving design that unites value, quality AND responsible manufacturing.” But what about lending some of those “forward-thinking, problem-solving” capabilities to their order and fulfilment operations?

A few years ago, my wife and I ordered a product online, and the company immediately sent a form email outlining the timing of the fulfilment process with particular emphasis on key milestones such as ‘your product has been picked, your product has been packaged,’ etc.

However, as is wont to occur in my household, there was some immediate shoppers’ remorse, so we went online to cancel the order. A fairly simple task – or so we thought – since it had been less than 90 minutes since the time of order. The challenge was that there was no process to cancel the order online even though the order was placed online. Wait! What?

So, we tried a few more times and then called the customer contact line and explained our predicament. To our disappointment, we were informed that not only was our experience valid (in fact, one cannot cancel online for an order placed online), but that the internal order of operations within West Elm does not allow for orders to be verbally cancelled either. Huh? Correct and true (at least at the point in time this occurred).

The representative explained that it was a rigid process that did not allow any interventions to stop, interrupt or modify the “workflow.” The entire order had to be processed, shipped and then returned in order to cancel the order. I was astonished. Why would a company want to expend all this effort and allocate costs to deliver an order to a customer who then had to spend time and effort shipping it back?

Whether your organization is a professional sports team or a trendy home furnishings store, it’s not enough to say “what” you stand for. You need to focus on “how” your culture impacts the way your stakeholders experience it.

This means ensuring it is embedded to the point where it drives decision-making, operations and key processes. So, while you are focused on strategic planning, robust financial management, effective sales and marketing, and productivity improvements, make sure creating and fostering a strong and healthy organization is added to the list.


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Written By

Jordan Berman

Jordan Berman has helped play an instrumental role in leading change throughout his career. He has held executive leadership roles at Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Apotex, where he led profound organizational change as well as smaller-scale change. He also spent eight years as a consultant providing counsel to some of the world’s leading brands, including SC Johnson & Sons, Kraft and Pfizer.

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