Organisational Culture – Does it matter and what drives it?

On the bus.jpg

As a Training and Consulting company clients bring us in when they need training and decide that we are best placed to help them.  This might be for example the delivery of our Senior Management Programme, our High Performing Teams Programme, or our Driving Female Progression Programme.  Within these we use compelling insight and lessons from high performance sport, as well as evidence-based research and insight from other arenas. 

However……the ‘Consulting’ bit of how we help is also key. 

Why? Well let’s say you bring us in to deliver our Senior Management Programme. Within this we run sessions on Role and Approach, Attitudes, Behaviours, and key management skills such as delegation and running effective meetings.  One of the central tenets of our programme, attitudinal-based but which resonates all the way through, is the concept of a Growth Mindset. The belief that our abilities and talents can be cultivated and developed through intelligently applied effort, hard work, persistence, good coaching and so on.  This concept supports a certain approach towards effort, challenges, mistakes and feedback, all aimed at driving sustainable high performance.  

However, suppose this happens: we help and support the Senior Managers on the programme to understand the benefits of this approach, both in terms of their own development as Managers, but also in terms of the development of their teams.   They however turn around to us and say, “yes, this is all very well, and I totally get it and have loads of ideas now for how to embed this. But, and it’s a big BUT, I don’t think the culture of my firm/company supports this.”

This is why a firm’s organisational culture is so important, and why we spend just as much of our time consulting on this, as we do delivering actual training.  What if the Firm’s culture doesn’t support risk-taking in any form. What if the focus is purely on the bottom line, and not on the people development aspect needed to sustain this? What if the company’s culture is that mistakes are not shared, discussed and learnt from?

Through working across the business, professional services, sport and education markets, we are privileged to see some brilliant examples of successful organisational cultures.  And conversely, we see some organisations where, despite best intentions with a training programme, implementation and sustained impact are hard to achieve due to the overriding culture not supporting the intended outcomes. 

We also know from our reading and research that there are some fabulous examples from business where a successful culture has driven success (just take a look at some of the case studies in Simon Sinek’s brilliant book “Start with Why”). And of course, some opposite examples, with a key one being Enron, its obsession with ‘Talent’, and the culture this drove within the organisation. 

Elite sport has of course been in the spotlight over the last year for issues around culture, and in particular the ‘balance’ between high performance and a supportive culture.  British Cycling, Rowing and Weightlifting are a few of the sports that have been in the news on this area.  However, if you read more deeply into these situations, and move away from the headlines, you will see a compelling argument that it is possible to have a culture and environment that drives high performance, in a sustainable and responsible way.  Sir Dave Brailsford (not everyone’s cup of tea at the moment we appreciate) has said before that: “you can’t get performance on a continuous basis over a long period of time through fear.”

Along with the negative stories from elite sport, there are some compelling examples where the culture has driven success in a positive way.  One of the key determinants of the GB Women’s hockey success in Rio was the change in culture, and in particular areas that they did so well such as delegation, ownership and responsibility.  The Brownlee Brothers are another great example – Malcolm Brown realised that they needed much more autonomy over their training schedule than he was allowing other members of the Group, and duly gave them this. 

What is it?

Whilst Peter Drucker might way say that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” defining what we mean by culture can be challenging. Yes, there are dictionary definitions, and academic definitions, but how can the average business person understand it?

We tend to find that using the analogy of a bus helps (borrowing from the well-known Leadership guru Jim Collins).  The bus’s destination is your business objective. This might be a particular turnover figure, or some other kind of specific objective/strategic aim. Your business is the bus, and there are three distinct areas that go into achieving your objective.

Having the right people on the bus (and this includes not just their skillset, but also, importantly, their attitude and behaviours).

The ‘vibe’ of the bus.  So is it a green, environmentally friendly bus? Is it a laid back, hippy type bus? Or is it sleek, chrome and minimalist?  This is the environment and culture piece. And finally

Your strategy, and the organisational structure you have in place to achieve this. This equates to the route your bus will take, what type of roads it will be travelling on, what the logistics are, and so on.

Who determines it?

Who (or what) determines a company’s culture is always a topic that drives fierce debate.  Some argue that it’s all down to the leader (whether this be a CEO or a Head in the school environment).  Others argue that it is much more intangible, and set by the amorphous mass of the ‘people’ in an organisation as a whole. Within the funded sports sector, Toni Mincello, Jess Ennis-Hill’s coach, has recently argued that it’s set by whoever holds the purse strings, and secondly by how they choose to use the money to maintain the money! 

From our experience working across the markets and organisations that we do, we have no doubt that the leader, and senior leadership team, are absolutely key in driving and embedding the right culture. 

For more information on this or any of our programmes, we’d be delighted to hear from you at or 01904 737 007.

Catherine BAKER1 Comment