The unique art of culture-driven leadership

The great leaders of today serve the people who are serving the people. What does this look like in organisations across South Africa?

After ten months of COVID-19 turmoil and trying to find a firm footing in a world of remote workforces, social distancing, strict health protocols and many employees facing financial crises, South African companies are eager to get back to business.

Most businesses are dealing with the devastating effects of the pandemic and many employees are battling with the loss of family, friends and colleagues. The rollout of the first batch of vaccines offers some hope, but experts are warning that it will be many months before we feel the impact of herd immunity, and even then, new variations could take us back to the drawing board.

I have never been one for doom and gloom, and right now, after a really difficult 2020, my hopes are high as the overwhelming impression we’re getting is that business leaders are stepping up, supporting their employees and looking for methods to build stronger and supportive corporate cultures that are sharply focused on customer service.

Culture should be proactive, not reactive

The challenge is maintaining momentum. We’re all familiar with the process. In January we layout our strategy, complete with how we’re going to execute it. By March, everyone is too busy reacting to market pressures and the best-laid plans slip away.

Right now, we’re being asked two main questions: how do we build a strong company culture that unifies our employees with a common purpose; and how can company cultures be nurtured and maintained in the face of so much disruption, personal loss and turmoil?

The answer to both questions is the Culture-Driven Leader.

Culture-driven Leadership is a type of leadership based on a true motivation to grow others through a deep and entrenched business culture that puts people first. When I launched Sorbet in 2005, I already had an idea of what I wanted the business’s culture to be and this became the foundation of the entire group. Over time, we perfected the framework, gave it a name (Cultureneering) and put in place exactly what a Culture-driven leader needed to be.

No-one could foresee a pandemic, or that leadership teams around the world would be faced with the critical role of supporting employees through a health and financial crisis. However, we have always believed that business leaders who work from the bottom up to build a nurturing community culture that has a solid foundation of service and upliftment, and provides support, encouragement, equal treatment, effective communication, and mentorship to employees, will reap the benefits.

People who feel trusted and respected and know their contributions are valued, will develop a sense of belonging, and will, in turn, give exceptional service to customers. This is how to build the foundation of a sustainable business with a strong bottom line.

How to become a Culture-driven leader

The Culture-driven leader believes in the philosophy of Cultureneering, which refers to the creation of a strong culture in a diverse workforce that lays the platform for obsessive customer service. Many leaders struggle to see the connection between culture and the bottom line. The truth is that culture is the bottom line.

Cultureneering has one goal: to single-mindedly build a sense of belonging and a common purpose across the full spectrum of employees, which puts the customer at the centre of everything. Culture-driven leaders develop the skills of their people and build their self-esteem, thus enhancing their ability to continuously improve their service to others.

There are five primary steps to this:

  1. Culture is built around a set of moral values that puts people first and is entirely focused on customer service.
  2. Understanding and navigating the socio-political environment in which we live and work is critical to the success of building a strong culture.
  3. Trust, respect, and community building become the foundation of a culture that everyone can believe in.
  4. Employees have a sense of belonging regardless of their group or background.
  5. Serving others becomes the common focus of the business and is deeply fulfilling for every member of the organisation.

And the result? A sustainable, growing, profitable business that delivers on the moral obligations of South African businesses to lead the charge for change and gives employees the stability, support and respect they so desperately need right now.

Maintaining momentum

Once the process of Cultureneering becomes embedded in a business and the leadership team embraces their roles as Culture-driven leaders, the company won’t slip back into old habits because a service-orientated culture is woven into the business’s DNA.

If this is your goal, be prepared to be consistent. People need to know what to expect of their leaders, each other and the business as a whole. Consistency achieves two key things: Firstly, your employees will feel safe. If you work in a predictable environment, particularly when everything around you is uncertain and even chaotic, you feel comfortable and secure making decisions.

Secondly, if you are consistent as a leader, you are essentially leading by example, giving your employees a clear road map of your culture in action. Great leaders serve the people who are serving the people. Nothing speaks louder than actions.

  1. Build back better

Building back better is all about getting rid of what doesn’t serve you. In the case of most companies, our strong recommendation is to begin with any paradigm paralysis your leadership team has, followed by polarised opinions across your workforce. It is not serving your business, your employees or your customers to ignore this.

Remember, the customer experience will never be better than the employee experience. In a nutshell: if your employees are not happy, comfortable, respected and cared for, they will never look after your customers with true dedication.

The fix: Address the racial tension in your workplace and build a culture based on the foundations of inclusivity, belonging, and respect. We’ve all learnt a bit more empathy over the past ten months. Let’s use those muscles to good effect.

  1. Carry your strengths forward

There’s a reason why your business is still here after some of the toughest months in history. There is something great that you do, or magic solution that you offer your customers. You’re needed. But your employees need you too. The good news is that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If you refocus your energy and put your people first, galvanise them behind a common purpose and a powerful vision, and then let them loose, you’ll be amazed what they will do for you and your brand in the marketplace.

The fix: Stand behind your Reason for Being and live your core values. Then help your employees understand that the purpose of work is to serve and encourage them to define their own Reason for Being. Finally, align the entire organisation behind these principles.

The exercise looks like this – what are you passionate about? What gives you purpose? Now review that against the company’s stated objective and designation. Are the two aligned?

  1. Find your ‘new and better’

Every crisis accelerates new trends. Around the world this is most apparent in technology. Businesses that would have taken years to understand and embrace remote workforces and digital transformation managed to do so in months, even weeks.

I myself, after almost five decades in business, have become well-versed in Zoom meetings and different technology platforms for our online training sessions. We’re all capable of learning something new, but we often resist change. I’ve often heard that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That’s an insult to an old dog!

The fix: Now is the perfect time to embrace change. We’re out of our comfort zones anyway, so let’s focus on hope, which is a far more powerful emotion than fear, and work with each other to create new ways of working and a better country to work in.

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