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Raising the cultural bar

Why you might need a breath of fresh air...

Bad cultureUber has quite rightly been under the spotlight recently for a variety of reasons. From executives abusing drivers, to managers abusing their position with female colleagues, all them have the same root cause: bad culture, ignored by, and therefore implicitly endorsed by, the leadership.

Walk into a room that smells, and you notice it straight away. But stay in that room long enough and you stop smelling it. It’s only when you’ve been somewhere else for a while, and you step back inside, that you realise the room still smells, and the wallpaper is out of style.

Bad culture develops when people in authority ignore poor behaviours, and it absolutely thrives when those behaviours are so common that people stop seeing them. I’ve never worked with Uber, so a less emotive example:

Many years ago, I was “poached” from blue-chip retail, to join a vast, private equity owned pub company. The idea was that I would bring fresh thinking, retail disciplines and customer-centred thinking into a comparatively old-fashioned industry. Certainly, the first year or two was fantastic for me – I was sought out, eagerly heard, and I’d like to think I made a real difference.

I’d been there three years when Matt, another “bright young thing” from another industry joined to head up IT. My team was the first on his induction list and, as we wandered into his room, chatting, laughing, and about ten minutes late, he looked at his watch and said, “A bit rude, isn’t it? I’ve been here waiting for you and you don’t even seem bothered.”

It was a shock, not because he was right, although he was right, but because three years before I’d never have turned up late to a meeting. How long had it taken, working for a CEO and alongside an executive team, who were constantly on the go, racing through “back-to-backs” and never, ever quite running to time, before I’d started doing the same? What else had I lost? When did I turn from a breath of fresh air into part of the smell?

It’s hard to see the cultural problems in your own organisation, and nobody wants to be told their room smells bad. But bring in someone new, someone really good, and listen to their first impressions. You’ll hear exactly what the problems are, if you’re prepared to listen, and to act.

In any leadership role, the problems you ignore quickly become the standards you’re seen to endorse. What problems are you no longer seeing, and what standards, of behaviour and of culture, does that endorse?

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