The CFO: Your culture’s secret weapon for change that most executive teams ignore

The CFO: Your culture’s secret weapon

HR has always appeared to be the natural home for the mechanics of leading culture change. In recent years, however, I’ve observed another human resource in the executive team. A person whose influence over culture is potentially the most powerful of all: The Chief Financial Officer.

At Walking the Talk, we focus our culture advisory and executive coaching work more closely on the role that each leader plays, rather than the more traditional link to their leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses. This work has further reinforced our belief in the importance of the CFO’s role—and indeed the whole finance function—in sponsoring and leading culture change. After all, the finance function is responsible for the money. And as we have learned, the way in which an organization uses its most finite resources (money and time) will send powerful signals about what it truly values. It follows then, that if the money agenda changes, the culture will most likely change as a result.

All leaders have three opportunities to influence culture and therefore performance. The first is through their own behavior. Leaders must ask themselves, “Am I role-modeling the behaviors I seek to embed and are my decisions symbolic of this change?” We refer to this as the “I” dimension.

The second opportunity involves encouraging those behaviors in others and discouraging behavior that is not aligned. We refer to this as the “WE” dimension.

And thirdly, an executive must analyze whether the systems and processes they control or influence will cause the desired behavior in others. This is called the “IT” dimension.

Let’s apply these three to the CFO and her or his finance team, imagining that the culture goal in this instance is to build a more externally-oriented organization.

Culture Roles

“I” Dimension: Role-modelling behavior

What does external-orientation look like to a finance function? Perhaps it means talking to competitors or partners and setting up mutually beneficial deals or acquisitions. Or maybe it’s finding out who the most externally-oriented competitor is and poaching their best finance people to discover what they do differently. It could also involve talking to frontline sales people to better understand how Finance can help to free up their time (e.g. by simplifying expense form procedures to give them more time face-to-face with customers.)

“WE” Dimension: Encouraging and discouraging behavior in others

How can Finance encourage more external-orientation? They control the agenda of business reviews. What if those reviews focussed on market share data rather than profit? Surely different conversations would follow, along with different behavior. Then imagine if Finance asked for every business case submitted for investment decisions to include evidence to demonstrate its impact on customers. It would certainly engender different thinking and calculations. What if the organization is too risk averse and wants to encourage leaders to better understand their market, and be prepared to stand up, be accountable and back their judgment by investing in new ways to satisfy the customer? Who better placed than the Finance team to help those leaders mitigate the risks and be prepared to back their own judgment? The Finance partner is best placed to encourage this through the way they coach business leaders to prepare their budgets.

“IT” Dimension: Aligning symbols and systems

Finance controls many of the key processes through which the business is managed: the budgeting process, capital allocation, and the business performance review process. If the goal is a more externally-oriented organization, then how can each of these be redesigned to encourage the desired behavior across the organization? A savvy CFO will figure out how to do this, and, having changed the process, will then notice how performance goes up because people are focussing on the right things in the right way. For example, in the monthly business review dashboard, Finance can include metrics which reinforce the target culture, such as Net Promoter Scores, or the number of new customers acquired. Finance can change the budgeting process to encourage more empowerment or more cross-business collaboration. Just insisting that product and customer people review each other’s targets to encourage alignment will change behavior.

This same thinking can be applied to any culture goal: more collaboration, openness, and accountability; or a higher degree of innovation. In each case, the Finance function plays a unique and pivotal role.

So how does an organization activate this secret weapon? We find that finance people will start to listen more intently once they can answer these three questions:

  1. How do we need people to behave to deliver better performance? This item defines the key culture goal and behaviors.
  2. What kind of quantum performance improvement is possible? A 10% profit upswing? Or 20%?
  3. How can I, as a finance person, cause those behaviors to become more prevalent in the organization?

Most of us expect Human Resources to be advocates of building the right culture. But when the CFO lends their ear and weight to a culture change initiative, the whole process accelerates exponentially. Which begs the question: can any of us afford to leave Finance out of the culture change equation?

How does the way that money is controlled, allocated, counted, influence the culture you have today?

How well does your CFO understand the link between culture and performance, and what can you do to better demonstrate that link?

What is the one process, controlled by Finance, that, if changed, would change the culture?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

The Unseen Force That’s Shaping Your Culture Every Day

And What You Can Do About It

The Unseen Force That’s Shaping Your Culture Every Day

There’s a silent power within your organization that’s quietly moulding the patterns of behavior that will determine your culture. A survey probably won’t detect it, but identifying and shifting it will have a significant impact on performance. We’re not talking about values or behaviors here, but something far less universal and more specific to individual organizations. The dominant, but tacit, influencer that has the capacity to both limit and liberate a business: our shared organizational beliefs.

I spent many of my early years as a culture consultant focussing on values and their relationship to culture. It is only in more recent years, however, that my colleagues at Walking the Talk have dedicated significant energy towards identifying and understanding the impact that beliefs have on culture. Although limiting beliefs can be more challenging to locate and shift, when it comes to business outcomes, the process is well worth the effort.

What is a belief?

A belief is a conclusion about how the world works. Once formed, we use our beliefs to direct our future actions. For example, if I believe that coaching helps people to become more effective, then I will invest in coaching for myself and my employees. However, if I believe coaching is a waste of time and money, then I will not invest in it. My beliefs about coaching may have been formed by a negative personal experience, or from something that I read about coaching, or even by what my peers have told me about coaching—based on their own experience, or what they themselves have heard from others.

Beliefs become particularly potent once we have persuaded ourselves that our beliefs are actual truths, rather than our opinion. When this happens, we tend to close off from new information that could challenge or negate our belief. Once I have formed the belief that coaching is a waste of money, then if someone tells me about a good experience they have had with coaching, I might conclude that they have been brainwashed, or that the benefits won’t last.

Beliefs can be about trivial things, such as the best restaurant in town, or they can be more deeply embedded, such as the belief that “I am not good enough” or “if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.” Either way, our beliefs are the framework on which we base our day to day decisions and the way we behave. From a cognitive point of view, beliefs can be incredibly useful: If we were to evaluate every situation with brand new eyes, then we would never get anything done. Beliefs free up mental real estate because they offer us a go-to shortcut for knowing the right thing to do.

Whilst beliefs are applied by individuals, they are also formed and applied by groups. And it is in this regard that they play such an important role in organizational life and culture shaping. Most organizations have a set of values that describe the aspirational features in the culture: integrity, teamwork, customer focus, accountability, innovation, and so on. But few organizations describe the beliefs on which they want to build their organization. Fewer still can describe the beliefs on which they are currently operating. Beliefs are subtle and often invisible, but they can be very persuasive when it comes to directing group behavior.

Cause and effect (on culture)

The shared organizational beliefs that impact performance can take many forms. Over the years, we’ve uncovered some that were particularly powerful in shaping behavior. Here are a few anonymous examples. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • “We can do anything we put our minds to” – this belief generated a willingness to experiment and move into new markets. Sometimes with unrealistic goals and plans.
  • “We are too big to fail” – this shared organizational belief bred arrogance and lack of customer empathy.
  • “Sheer willpower and brute force will allow us to push things through” – although this led to strong execution, it also produced bullying behavior both internally and externally.
  • “People either have what it takes, or they don’t” – created an “up or out” culture with little development or coaching.
  • “More is always better” – this belief brought about continuous stretch, as well as poor prioritisation and high burnout.

If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that a good thing?
-Somerset Maugham

Diagnosing beliefs

Identifying core beliefs takes patience and forensic diagnostics. Unlike behaviors and values, people find it hard to articulate beliefs because they are often simply seen as the truth. Sometimes you need an external eye to spot them. At Walking the Talk we have not found surveys to be effective at uncovering the most powerful shared beliefs. Instead, we favour qualitative research techniques to extract the subtleties of deeply held organizational beliefs.

When we do unearth a core belief, we know it, because it engenders two strong responses: some gasp in shocked recognition, others start arguing that it is not a belief, but rather “just the way things are.” The strength of both reactions is often the test of how close you are to a core belief.

Want to change beliefs? Get marketing!

Changing beliefs requires time and a co-ordinated process of communication, conversation, education and presentation of new evidence. We liken this process to a successful marketing campaign. Following good research, you’ll need to form a ‘campaign’ whose goals are very clear. Once the new, or reframed belief has been defined, you can then enroll a large group of leaders, opinion influencers and viral techniques to seed new thinking in the organization. This is not an easy process, which is why it is important to treat it with the seriousness with which the marketing department would treat a major campaign. Changing the shared beliefs held within the culture is just as difficult as changing beliefs that customers hold about a particular brand or its products. But if the beliefs do not change, nor will be behavior that they drive. The culture will continue as it did before.

How will you know that shared beliefs are shifting? Evidence comes in the form of changing behaviors and decisions, as the new beliefs start to drive a new approach. That approach then starts producing a different outcome in the market. In this way, a force that was once insidiously limiting can become an agent for transformation and growth organisation-wide.

What is one dominant belief that drives how people behave in your organization? Is it useful or not useful? How could that belief be reframed to drive more productive behavior? 

I invite your comments on social media.

When it comes to culture, tolerance is no virtue

When it comes to culture, tolerance is no virtue

Leaders will often ask me what they can do to accelerate a change in their culture. As someone who likes to find ways to provide simplicity on seemingly complex and theoretical topics, I’ve long been searching for that mythical ‘one thing’ that will make the most difference. I think I’ve found it. I’ll be interested to hear if you agree with me.

“Culture is the patterns of behavior that are encouraged and discouraged by people and systems over time.”

At Walking the Talk, we’ve always found this definition from the book ‘SwitchPoints’ to be a powerful one to work with. Over the years, however, we’ve found it necessary to add another key element:

“Culture is the patterns of behavior that are encouraged, discouraged, or tolerated by people and systems over time.”

Tolerating behaviors is the enemy of good culture

In many circumstances, to be tolerant is seen as a virtue. And certainly, when aspiring to greater open-mindedness and diversity, it is. But when it comes to culture management, the act of tolerating becomes far more insidious. What you tolerate will always become the lowest common denominator in your organization. It will determine the culture you create around you. Tolerate mediocrity–or worse–and that is what you will end up with. Walk past point-scoring, blame, or arrogance, and they will become prevalent in your culture. Master the art of not tolerating such things, and you will witness rapid culture change.

Simply choosing the behaviors you want to eliminate from your culture and focusing relentlessly on not tolerating them should be fairly straightforward, right? But this process hits at the heart of something most of us would prefer to avoid – the difficult conversation. It’s so much easier to say nothing, especially when performance numbers are good. It takes courage to speak up, but it becomes easier when those at the top are clear on the standards and values they expect within their culture.

When former Toshiba Corp chief executive and president Hisao Tanaka was forced to resign last year due to an accounting scandal, it emerged that Tanaka himself was aware of the financial malpractice that had been going on for years. He also knew that the culture was such that employees were too afraid to question it. By ignoring this from the first moment he had an inkling of bad practice, Tanaka tolerated the issue, allowing it to snowball.

What does this mean for leaders?

We all enjoy focusing on strengths encouraging good behaviors. And although beneficial, I’ve found that encouraging and discouraging is not enough. Calling out behavior that doesn’t meet the standard is a fundamental part of leading culture. Each time a leader sees an unsafe practice, for example, and does not point it out, they are sending the message that the behavior is tolerated. In this instance, the impact of neither encouraging or discouraging a behavior can have disastrous, even life-threatening consequences.

Tolerating becomes even more tempting when pressure gets applied. Let’s say collaboration is a cornerstone of the culture you need to create success. Someone delivers a difficult project on time, but has skipped key collaborative components in order to achieve this. What do you do? When do you tolerate low collaboration in the name of short-term deliverables? And when do you not?

There are many things a leader has to focus on if they want to change culture. Walking their own talk and modeling the behavior they want; selecting good culture metrics and holding others to them; painting a picture of the desired future culture and communicating it whenever possible; assigning resources to building the skills and infrastructure that will support the desired behaviors. But if you asked me to pick one thing, it would be this: learn to be intolerant in all the right places.

Above board behavior

Boards have long tolerated a whole range of behaviors, simply by not paying attention to behavior at all. Up until very recently, boards of directors considered behavior as a topic for management, rather than directors. Even now, many boards are motivated by pressure from regulators, rather than by a deep-seated belief that behavior is as much a part of performance as financial measures. But boards today can actively show their lack of tolerance for certain behaviors. They can request data on key behavioral metrics, or on factors such as how strongly behavior is considered in performance review, or how often behavior is a cause for promotion, reward or dismissal.

Take it personally

And what if you’re an employee whose span of influence is seemingly quite small? What behaviors do you tolerate in yourself? In your colleagues? Do you care enough about certain behavioral standards to find a way to point out behaviors that do not meet them? Do you take time review your own behavior? Everyone can make a difference here.

These days, so much energy and investment goes into all of the trappings of building the best culture – the values statements, roadshows, lists of behaviors and metrics. But then every day, certain behaviors get quietly tolerated, and much hoped for traction isn’t achieved.

In the end, it comes down to what happens in the day-to-day. What choices do people make at any given moment? What behaviors do they think they can get away with? And does the culture support those who choose not to tolerate those behaviors?

As the saying goes: What you put up with, you end up with. Or, in culture management terms: what you tolerate becomes the cultural norm.

So what are you willing to put up with?

What did you tolerate today, which, if you had not, would have sent a stronger signal about the behaviors you want around you? I welcome your comments on social media.

A culture of simplicity: Keeping it simple, the smart way

A culture of simplicity

Simple has been one of my mantras. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there you can move mountains.
-Steve Jobs

What Steve Jobs understood, that many others do not, is that it takes much more effort to achieve simplicity than it does to achieve complexity. Everything naturally expands towards the complex, unless very tightly driven the other way, and cultures are no different.

Almost every client we work with suffers from patterns of behavior in their culture that are associated with lack of prioritization. We hear from executive teams wanting to simplify their business to give it more focus, from employees voicing complaints about a lack of work/life balance, and about a general tendency to pile on new projects without reducing workload. Complexity creeps into our every attempt to get things done. And it costs us. Financially, through delays in implementing initiatives and inefficiency. And physically, by ratcheting up our stress levels.

Clearly there’s a strong cultural trait here that most organizations would benefit from changing. And yet, we’ve found this to be amongst the most difficult patterns of behavior for leaders to change. Simplicity as a value is a deeper concept than simplicity as a process. It’s an uncompromising desire to de-clutter everything. Your thoughts, your life, your communication, products and processes. And it really does need to be an obsession.

BE simple.

At Walking the Talk we’ve observed that it’s almost impossible to change a pattern of behavior without understanding the underlying patterns of thinking that drive it. Yes, to HAVE a different outcome, you need to DO different things. But you also need to look at the layers that sit beneath what you’re doing—the feelings, beliefs and values that cause us to choose certain actions. This is called the BE-level.

There are a number of different BE-level causes for complexity and a lack of prioritization. If you can become conscious your own drivers, then you’re in a strong position to make some changes.

The 3 BE-level beliefs that appear most frequently in our work on simplicity and prioritizations with leaders:

1. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

What if by choosing one path of action, you miss out on another opportunity? What if you say you can’t take on an additional workload and it’s given to someone else and turns out to be a very high-profile project? What if that meeting is the one where some major decision is made and you’re not a part of it? At Apple, small meetings were the cultural norm. If you weren’t critical to the agenda, you left. Apple got it; there just isn’t room in a culture of simplicity for FOMO.

2. One-upmanship

As the song goes: “anything you can do, I can do better.”  Have you ever had the feeling that if someone else has contributed an idea, then should add one too? The little voice inside that mutters: “By shouldering more and more, I prove my worth. By adding clever refinements and complexity, I prove my prowess.” It’s time to silence that voice. One-upmanship is the enemy of simplicity.

3. Avoidance of conflict and decisions

To choose by prioritizing means taking responsibility for a choice and its consequences, even if it might be the wrong one. Complexity hides accountability, and there is safety in numbers and covering all bases. For example, it’s often easier to say yes, than to have a straight conversation about work overload. People who liked working with Steve Jobs will tell you that he wasn’t being mean, he was just being simple. Blunt is simplicity, meandering is complexity. Being simple involves having many difficult conversations. An unwillingness to have these conversations is one of the reasons organizations can get so complex.

Many of these muddled thoughts and feelings are only ever fleetingly examined. Why? Because ‘busyness’ makes it hard to actually stop and reflect. If you really want to change the patterns of behavior in your culture that prevent simplicity, then take a look at these three and consider which of them relates to you. Instead of trying to just change the behavior, couple it with a commitment to change your beliefs and feelings about fear of missing out, one-upmanship or avoidance.

Culture is the patterns of behavior that are encouraged discouraged or tolerated by people and systems over time. As a leader, what complex behaviors are you encouraging, discouraging or tolerating? Every time you sit in a meeting and allow complexity to creep in and choose to say nothing, you are tacitly approving of a culture of complexity. My experience of culture transformation is that it comes from changing the daily habits of people’s behavior, and being relentless about it over time.

Things to think:

  • What is the core thing we are trying to do?
  • Am I adding complexity in order to show off my expertise?
  • Remember: Cutting things out requires courage
  • Don’t give up, simplicity is harder to achieve than complexity

An exercise in increasing simplicity:

Try simplifying something at home: your wardrobe, a junk-filled cupboard, desk or garden shed. Whilst you’re doing this, watch your attachment being activated—that desire to hold on—and the accompanying justifications that are running through your head. Your tendency towards complexity at work is just another version of this response. If you can conquer these habits at home, you can do the same at work. And vice versa. Until simple becomes a way of being.

I look forward to your success and thoughts for discussion.

Culture Counts in Investor Decisions

To what extent does culture play a role in investor decisions?

Culture Counts in Investor Decisions

If you are reading this post we can assume you think culture is important.  But investment in culture lags behind some of the other key contributors to performance: Brand, people, technology, process.  So perhaps culture’s impact on performance is not universally believed.  Executives have to focus first and foremost on those elements which will deliver the best return to their shareholders.  There is a community of investment professionals who spend their lives considering company valuations and whose opinion holds considerable sway on  share price.

What does the investment community think about culture?  To what extent to they take culture into consideration when they value a stock?  And how do they go about assessing culture?  We wanted answers to these questions because we knew our clients would want those answers.  Every executive wants to please the analysts.

Culture matters in company valuations.

We undertook a piece of research, together with Stamford Associates, a leading independent investment advisory firm, with 1000 investment professionals from all over the world.  You can see our report here.  The bottom line is: they think about culture a lot.  More, I think, than the executives I know realise.  For 75% of respondents it is an important factor in their valuations.  60% have had a personal experience of an investment they were involved in being positively or adversely impacted by culture.  Over 80% of buy and sell decisions are influenced by culture.

“If you ask our CEO, what are the variables that you want to have the clearest insight into, it would be management quality and company culture. Everything else you can pick up from the industry analysis.”
-Survey participant

Culture impacts both reputational risk and the ability to execute strategy

Many recognised that culture and engagement are not the same thing, and that engagement survey results do not describe the culture.

Given the high profile reputational challenges that have been attributed to culture, it is perhaps not surprising that investors see the link between culture and reputational risk.  BP has just this month finally capped its liabilities for the Deep Horizon oil spill at $18bn.

What did impress us though was the extent to which our respondents were checking culture to determine whether the company would be able to implement its strategy.  Many organisations do not yet make this link clearly enough in our experience.

The factors that they are looking for line up with the ones executives are aiming for in the culture work we see.


Because they see culture is important, investment professionals know they need to be able to assess it, and that is difficult for them.

“I think sensing a change in the culture and seeing it in time vs in hindsight is probably the most difficult thing to do.”
-Survey participant

Analysts intend to get better at assessing culture.

Analysts in the US have advanced the furthest in their efforts to assess culture and anticipate its future impact on performance.  Other geographies are likely to catch up.  Their sources are primarily their personal experience of the organisation and its leaders.  Employee surveys ranked quite low as source of data.  The more important an investment professional sees culture, the more sources of data they use.  We were impressed with the sophistication some investment management firms are showing in their understanding of culture and how best to assess it from their position outside the organisation. Many are comparing what they see happening (what we call the “walk”) with what executives tell them (the “talk”). A number are talking to employees and ex-employees.   They are searching for symbols of what actually goes on day-to-day.

“If the CEO is taking economy flights everywhere, then presumably everybody else is taking economy and you tell me that the company has a cost-cutting culture, I go, ‘yep, I believe it.’ ”
-Survey participant

What does this all this mean for leaders?

The investment community has cottoned on the importance of culture.  They are further down this path than many executives realise.  This means it is going to get harder to hide a poor culture from investors.  It also means that the companies with a good culture story should get better at telling that story to their investors.  Companies need to be able to demonstrate that they are actively working on their culture, that they understand its shortcomings and are managing them.   Investors are making the link between the stated strategy and the culture that will be required to execute it.  Companies need to be making that same link, and investing appropriately.

Executives need support from those of us who work extensively with culture to get better at telling the culture story, and to be able to demonstrate good metrics, good culture plans and good control.  It is no longer acceptable for an executive to tell the world, as Stuart Gulliver from HSBC did last month that he or she cannot be expected to know how people deep inside their organisation are behaving.  Rupert & James Murdoch had similar words to say about the phone hacking behaviours of their employees at News of the World.  Can you imagine a CEO saying that he cannot be expected to know where all the costs have gone, or why the technology has failed, or why products are damaging a customer’s health?  They never would.  That some CEOs still make comments like this suggests that they have not yet understood that culture management is as much a part of their job as cost management, people management and brand management.  That means that culture management is becoming the job of every leader.

Responsibility and Opportunity

What excites us about the findings from this research is that it suggests that the investment community is going to increasingly put pressure on corporations to take hold of their culture and manage it with the same rigor they would other elements of their business.   Which is great news for those of us who are passionate about culture, internal advocates and consultants alike.  And puts more responsibility on us.

I have spent my career as a culture consultant.  When I started out organisations were just starting to define their values for the first time, thinking that this would be enough.  The business community has come a long way on the culture front since then.  But this research has opened up a whole new set of opportunities for leaders to differentiate themselves through culture, and for us to help them do so.  Bring it on!!!

Closing Questions: 

How can we help every leader to become better at managing their culture so that they establish high standards of behaviour?

How can we help them understand the pressure points of their business where, if performance pressure becomes intense, those standards might slip with disastrous consequences? 

How can we help them become better at making the link between strategy and the behaviours required to pull it off?

And how can we improve the ways behaviour and culture are measured, and make these more transparent to the investment community?

I look forward to your comments and continuing this conversation.

The quickest way to find out what’s really valued (And how to change it)

The quickest way to find out what’s really valued

Most leaders can describe the values of their organization, but fewer are successful at ‘walking that talk’.  In fact, as communication increases about an organization’s values, there’s a greater risk that employees and customers will become cynical. Why? Because the gap between the ‘walk’ and ‘talk’ is always more visible than we think. As anyone involved in a culture change process will know, it takes time and effort to align these two.

So what are some of the quickest ways a leader can recognize that gap and take the responsibility required to do something about it?

Culture is the result of the messages people receive about what’s really valued. And the decisions we make are one of the most powerful ways that we, as leaders, can express our values. Certain decisions will require us to choose one thing over another, in a scenario where we have limited resources and cannot have everything. If we choose to do something different in one of these moments, then we’re sending a strong signal that the culture is changing. The gap between ‘walk’ and ‘talk’ just got smaller.

So where can we make the most visible day-to-day decisions to reflect our values? In the areas where resources are most limited: Our time and our budget.

Time and money never lie

What are we saying we value the most as we allocate these scarce resources?

How we allocate time. There are only so many hours in the day, and it never feels like enough.

How we spend money. With so many areas calling for investment, we have to prioritize.

On a personal level, if you really want to understand my values, look at my calendar and my credit card statement.  How I spend my time and money says more about what I value than anything I may tell you.  The same applies to organizations.  Customers pick it. I lost my luggage recently, and discovered that the lost baggage department of the airline was only open 8-4pm – in one time zone.  Yet the sales department was open 24/7.  What does that airline really care about?  My well-being or the next purchase?

So we may say that customers are important to us, but do we free up our people to spend more time with them? We may say that safety comes first, but are we willing to sacrifice a production run because a team member has concerns?

Influencing a culture quickly

Our company, Walking the Talk, is often asked by leaders: What’s the quickest way I can influence our culture? We tell them: decisions based on time and money are highly visible symbols that represent some of the greatest opportunities to demonstrate change. Think of them as quick wins. If you sit down and do an audit of the messages you’re sending through these channels, you can quickly make changes that will get talked about throughout the organization.

An insurance company we worked with was seeking to imbed patterns of behavior that facilitated innovation. They secured Board approval for a $10m program to Celebrate Success – a vehicle rewarding the behaviours they’d picked as the most important.

As outlined in the case study of the Portuguese edition of my book ‘Walking the Talk: Building a Culture for Success’, the incoming president of a leading Brazilian Media group believed that leadership quality was the key to performance. This CEO made the decision to devote every Monday afternoon to 1-on-1 skip-level interviews with the 84 leaders who were direct reports of his executive team. It took him a year, but he considers it one of the most important decisions he took. The interviews provided him with invaluable data about his leadership group, how he could help them perform better, who would probably not make it, and who most represented the culture goals he had of becoming a One-Team and Reader-Centric company.

Learn from Apple and Starbucks

A great deal of Apple’s success is attributed to how much they value simplicity.  Steve Jobs would famously ask his staff why they needed to be in a particular meeting. If they couldn’t come up with a good enough answer, he would ask them to leave and encourage them not to come back. In doing this, Jobs was sending a strong message about how time should be used: 1. Keep meetings with as few people as possible to make decision-making simpler. 2. Use your own time to go to meetings where you really feel you can add value.

When Howard Schultz returned to lead Starbucks in 2008, he made choices about time and money that sent immediate signals about what was changing. One was to reinstate the “integrity of what was in the cup”. This value of quality led him to close every store for staff training on how to make a perfect cup of coffee. He believed the role of store manger at Starbucks was key, so he brought them all together, in New Orleans, at a meeting that cost $32m, in order to talk through how bad things had gotten and what they could do together to turn it around.

Leaders must walk the talk

As a leader, it’s easy to say that you value something, but much harder to line your spending up with that intent. Your actions will always speak louder than your words. However, when those two things do align, you gain that golden prize: credibility. If you’re involved in efforts to strengthen certain values in your culture, changing how money and time are spent can be a very powerful lever, and it can start with you.

How you can put this into action with your team?

  1. As you’re preparing to set your budget together, discuss whether the allocation of resources affects the values you believe in. What could you do to re-assign investment?
  2. Look at the agendas of your meetings: Which items are first on the agenda and which come last (and often bumped or squeezed if you’re running out of time.) How could you change the allocation of time in your agendas to better reflect the values you want to espouse? For example, organizations with a very strong value of safety always start their meeting with a safety item.

Taking action as an individual

  1. At work, take a look at your own calendar and see how your time is allocated over the week. What values are reflected? Add in 5 % more time on the value you most believe in but are not expressing. That’s 2 hours a week. Which might mean substituting a project meeting you don’t really need to be at for a customer meeting. Or exchanging breakfast with a head-hunter to create a block of time to mentor one of your people one-to-one. Culture change happens decision by decision. Even 5% will be noticed by others.
  2. Dare to take this home? Firstly, think about what you believe you value personally, and then follow it up with an honest examination at your calendar and your bank statements. Do they line up?  Or are you kidding yourself? Try sitting down with your partner, or your family, and having a conversation about the values that sit underneath the way you manage your budget. I promise you, it’ll be an enlightening experience!

Where have you seen time and money used effectively to signal a change in values? What other symbols have you found to be effective?