A view point from Fayaz Saleem Managing Director/Principal Consultant for Executive Search Ltd & Appointments of International Management Specialists (AIMS)

An oft ignored aspect – corporate culture has never failed to amaze Fayaz Saleem who has come across this sometimes impenetrable wall in over 3 decades of head hunting for firms of all sizes and stability in the country.

On numerous occasions, a perplexed management has confronted Mr. Saleem with the question – why has a prime candidate, so suited to the organization, refused a lucrative offer to join the firm? What makes them reach the final moment of decision and back away, preferring less to more? This is a question Mr. Saleem has been loath to answer directly. Perhaps it is some intangible force that could not be put into words. Perhaps the organization had spent a vast amount of time and money setting in place the requisites of a successful organization but had failed to look at one aspect – the general image the organization has projected in various visible and invisible ways, one that it has projected as a dynamic body, vibrant and alive, or one where doubts of a bright future begin to surface in the minds of the would be prospect. The last but the most important factor to a human being – leaving aside professional qualifications, salary, perks, future career prospects…. would be his or her personal happiness. It involves a personal analysis of four basic human needs: perceived progress, perceived control, relatedness, a connection to a larger vision. Placing this in context with what one has in mind of the corporate culture of the organization might evoke doubts that make them ask the question…. Should I, should I not? In spite of the obvious benefits, would I be happier where I am ….?

-So where does this leave the organization?

Corporate consistency often exists between the dignity and respect afforded to internal employees and to clients. Organizations that foster a culture of respect and appreciation for the employees typically enjoy the same treatment of customers. Employees absorb the culture and environment of the organization and pass it on to customers through their own actions and communications. Employees who enjoy an environment of teamwork, appreciation, enthusiasm and support are likely to share this feeling and experience in their own interactions with customers. On the contrary, working in an environment of relentless pressure, fear, or individual insignificance, is also likely to be personified in customer interactions.

It is important to share recognition and cooperation internally, as the attitude will be consistent with the external portrayal of the organization. If an employee is treated as an insignificant and easily replaced cog in the corporate machine, then the interactions with internal and external customers will be perceived as insignificant. However, if the employee is perceived as a valuable asset and individual accomplishments are recognized, then the employee is more likely to understand a sense of pride and ownership when interacting with internal and external customers.

Culture can be defined either by a set of observable behaviors or by the underlying values that drive behavior. In large organizations, vision statements, mission statements and statements of values are often formalized to describe the company’s culture. Culture is built upon many factors that interlock into each other to form a solid base. It is a process of policies and procedures, values, partnership and creativity, the work plan and processes, levels of decision making and empowerment, the social system and the behavior, habits and attitudes of its workers. These factors are mutually responsive to one another but the leadership has the most power and impact than any other factor. The leadership is responsible therefore to create a positive and empowered organizational culture that would become a way of life within.

As Stephen Covey has commented, an empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success. To reach this point, the organization must have a team of individuals who show loyalty and consistency to the common mission and vision of its leaders.
Sadly, there are many great organization leaders who have not considered corporate culture a matter of serious importance. As a head hunting guru who has dealt with both organization leaders and professionals closely, Mr. Saleem has time and again found that some seemingly insignificant detail relating to the culture has stood in the way of organizations securing the best talent from a competitive field.

The overall culture of the organization would reflect in every sphere of its operations and if an organization is consistent in its words, promises, actions, dignity for internal employees, and respect for customers, then it may be proud of its culture. It has something special and sharing it among themselves and with customers is the same as giving them a gift. Even though the organization may experience some challenges during tough economic periods, or suffer through challenging competitive waters, it has a solid employee base to back its limitless potential. On the other hand, if an organization is personified by inconsistent behavior, then it must change. If the organization changes the level of commitment to customers and employees based economic conditions, what type of image could it be projecting to employees and customers, an image that could insidiously become its corporate culture?

Sometimes it is easier to observe and measure the characteristics of the other organization, affiliates, and customers. Sometimes it is easier to analyze those around us, and then reflect on the culture we need to build or improve upon.
No organization should ignore corporate culture. There may be certain organizations that by the nature of their business do not face market competition and in the face of low competition, may tend to believe that culture is not a competitive asset. There may not be any association between a strong culture and economic performance. Examples here include healthcare, beverages, and communications. If firms face a high level of market competition then the research suggests that culture is a competitive asset, as it is closely associated with economic performance. Examples here are textiles, apparel, airlines and motor vehicles.

Organizations do not achieve a cultural change by accident. They achieve it with a defined strategy for high involvement and a measureable action plan. Larger organizations link their strategy for high involvement with a measurable action plan which could be linked to Total Quality Management (TQM) or Total Service Quality (TSQ)

A culture is strong to the extent that employees are held together by widely shared values and beliefs. Each company has a unique culture and its own personality. These companies seem to have a strong sense of shared values and this leads to better performance. In other words there appear to be links between culture, strategy, and performance in the marketplace. If cultural characteristics are in some sense a determining element in \”success\” then how can companies create those characteristics?

Adopting clear principles and actively acting and communicating these principles demonstrate how they relate to the operating environment. Three elements contribute to the creation of a strong corporate culture: (1) A leader who establishes strong values and practices which make sense in the light of competitive conditions (2) Company commitment to operating according to established principles and (3) Concern for the well-being of employees, customers and shareholders. Thus a strong culture leads to a close culture-strategy fit and that may be of genuine assistance in strategy implementation. Problems may arise in strong culture organizations when the culture no longer matches the requirements of strategy implementation.

A business can be defined by the same character traits that are typically associated with an individual personality. A business can be bold, aggressive, trustworthy, deceptive, cautious, or friendly. A business is often the reflection of the conglomeration of members, leadership, and an accumulation of character traits. If a company is large, the character traits may be influenced by years of pride of internal culture. If the company is small to medium, the character is often a direct reflection of the leadership or ownership of the company. Regardless of the size, a business is a collection of individuals and talents, and it is a collection of personalities that define the character of the company. Thus it becomes imperative for an organization to surround itself with consistent and reliable employees who would proceed to network and build trusted vendors, partners, organizations, and customers.

In all business spheres, revenue growth is the key performance imperative. Attracting top talent to drive growth is a priority and salaries and bonuses go up every year in the competition for the best and brightest. Higher starting salaries necessitate revising the rest of the salary structure upward. As salaries rise, growth targets are increased. There is greater pressure to bill more and thus work longer hours. Stress levels increase, morale plunges, people leave. The greater the attrition, the greater the number of new employees needed each year to replace those that leave. This vicious cycle leaves an imprint on the image of the organization. The small number of people who survive this marathon of work and progress up the ranks tend to be the most ambitious, money-driven, workaholics. This simply perpetuates a negative working environment. The staff turnover resulting from this system is both high and costly since reaching a productive swing per employee normally takes more than a year, and should employees leave within a short time the firm would not realize a financial investment. The root would be unhappy employees whose work-life balance has become unachievable and an atmosphere where only those who have no family responsibilities — or worse, who are willing to abandon those responsibilities— can thrive. This is not an exaggerated perspective, it is a description of where many think we are heading and where others think we have already arrived.

Companies aspiring to lead, or companies facing a spate of unsatisfactory staff performance should reassess their intangible assets — employees that truly \”live\” the company\’s cultural values. Those who have yet to reach this point or perhaps have not yet realized the value of corporate culture would need to begin re-imaging their businesses. Matching people with the organization is one of the safest and dependable keys to success and the match between people and the companies for which they work is determined by the kind of organizational culture that exists. The degree to which an organization’s values match the values of an individual who works for the company determines whether a person is a good match for a particular organization. Not only would individuals need to fit the organization, managers need to have a solid understanding of the dynamics of culture and how to transform it so that they can direct activities in a manner that gets results.

Published by the Sunday times on August 2011

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