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Building a Winning Organisation. Why is it so hard

Building a Winning Organisation. Why is it so hard?

Every business leader wants to lead a winning organisation, so how come so many fail?

A great line is ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The point being that a poor culture will kill stone dead the very best strategy. A Bain and Company survey has shown that 68% of leaders believe their culture is a source of competitive advantage, 81% believe that an organization that lacks a high performance culture is doomed to mediocrity – yet fewer than 10% actually succeed in building a winning culture.

So where is the disconnect and what makes for a winning culture?

Guess what, it starts at the top.

The culture of an organisation follows the CEOs personality and values.

If you have a CEO who is dominant, tough, and financially savvy with a win at all costs approach then that leader will surround themselves with people who share the same values. These are the values that will become the culture and norms across the organisation. Organisations that have these values in extreme have been some of the most spectacular business failures . However there are plenty of examples where these attributes are spectacularly successful over the longer term and underpin great organisations.

If you have a CEO who is a classic level 5 leader, as per Jim Collins, then that person will surround themselves with an appropriate mix of talent and values that reflect the values of the level 5 leader. The results are the long term outperformance that Collins has made himself famous for discovering and writing about in his many books.

If you have a CEO who is not very good with people, avoids difficult decisions, does not have a clear aspiration for the enterprise, and tolerates mediocre, then that’s precisely the culture that the organisation will reflect (weak, lacking performance, poor place to work, not so happy customers).

Most leaders I work with are well aware that a great workplace culture will be strong, performance-oriented and accountable. They also know that staff satisfaction is the lead indicator of customer satisfaction which the lead indicator of organisational or financial performance. It is pretty well documented that a leader needs to create a vision, and inspire the team towards achieving the vision (see Simon Sineks great work on “Why”). Leaders also need to turn the vision into a strategy and in turn that strategy into action through the executive team and the organisation. Ultimately it is getting the right people lined up in pursuit of a common purpose, having the jobs split into bite sized pieces that individuals and small teams can chew on and deliver to on agreed time frames.

Easy? Of course not.

The what to do is easy – we pretty much all know it and try to practice it with different levels of success and failure.

The gold is actually in the how rather than the What.

This hit me a couple of years ago after a session with my TEC group. We had a level five leader in as a guest speaker for the day. Under his leadership the company had grown from a market capitalisation of $30million to well over $3 billion over 12 years (since he retired it has continued to thrive and is continuing to outperform). Everyone wanted to know how he had done it and what was the secret to success. The group all listened intently and engaged for four hours. After this legend left a member said how disappointed they were. All the things our speaker talked about were the things we ordinarily talk about- there seemed to be no gold at all- was it pure luck?

Another member said you missed the entire point ‘didn’t you hear him talk about HOW he engaged with the people, HOW he treated them, HOW he valued all of them and HOW he valued his customers ensuring that from the top to the bottom the people all valued the customers and served their needs. It was all in the HOW not the WHAT’.

This leader had a very clear vision, was very ambitious, financially savvy and great  with people. People loved him. Why? Because he genuinely cared and it reflected across the business. He cared about the janitor as much as he cared about the chairman of the board and he showed that care by engaging with each person at their level on issues that mattered to them, whilst not losing site of where he was taking the organisation. He managed to build an enormous reservoir of trust from his people and that trust became the heart of this enterprises success over a very long time.

This trust factor is a common theme in successful organisations.

The people at the front line feel that they trust their leaders and the organization and so are willing to work hard for the greater good and go the extra mile rather than just turn up for the pay cheque.

A recent speaker suggested that it is our job as leaders to give our people winning experiences,-show them how to win and enjoy winning through their everyday jobs.

Most people do take pride in a job well done- whether it is driving a tractor and creating straight furrows, building a tank that is properly formed, nursing a sick patient, keeping the peace, or trading bonds.

If you as a leader find someone doing their job well it is incredibly powerful to notice this, and say well done in a sincere way. It is amazing how this builds trust however if it is disingenuous ,people see straight through the phony and the trust factor is diminished.

This works better than well formed bonus schemes in most organisations.

However there is much more in building a winning culture than trust. People are employed to do a job and create some kind of output. There must be performance and accountability for jobs well done and not done or done poorly. A clear set of expectations driven from the top with clear consequences for non or poor performance is also a major element in creating a winning organisation. The reality is that people respect and expect clear guidelines for what’s expected of them. If they know exactly what they are expected to do and are held to those expectations consistently then morale will increase and a winning edge will be enhanced. Careless guidelines which do not require top performance will erode a winning attitude.

There are times when the leader needs to be quite directive in their approach and other times when the style should become supportive. Having the self and situational awareness as to when to be supportive and when to be directive is something that sets the really good leaders apart from the ordinary and ultimately this leads to a performing organisation and culture which drives customer satisfaction and in turn drives shareholder returns and value.

When taking an organisation through a period of change it is highly unlikely that a supportive leadership style will succeed. What is needed is strong direction to get a failing organisation moving in the right direction- only when it is moving can any thought be given to using a more supportive style of leadership.

Creating a winning organisation starts with the leader. The culture is a pure reflection of the leaders’ personality, values. True care for the people will engender loyalty and trust. This, together with a clear set of expectations and positive direction (including vision, plan and details to be delivered- who does what by when) will help build a winning culture.

The HOW is just as important as the WHAT.


Ian NealBy Ian Neal, TEC Chair