Culture and where the wild things live

Karl Treacher

Karl Treacher
Karl Treacher is CEO of The Brand Institute.

I am rearing two long-necked turtles. Our vet said the most important thing to remember when keeping turtles is water quality. If the water pH and temperature becomes unfavourable, the turtles will quickly become ill, contract diseases and eventually die a long, slow and painful death. Culture in the workplace can be compared to the water habitat of my reptilian dependants. In fact, it is a very good analogy. The healthier the culture, the more the employees that make up the business thrive.

What does ‘good’ look like?

One of the easiest ways to identify a healthy culture is by examining organisational performance. After all, organisational culture primarily exists to help organisations perform. So, aside from a company’s share price, much can be gleaned about culture- influenced performance by reviewing an organisation’s reputation. For the sake of ease and the purposes of this article, let’s use the AMR 2012 Corporate Reputation Index. While many have questioned the validity of the AMR index, likening it more to a brand recall instrument, some of the observations appear intuitively accurate.

I have selected a few brands that have witnessed dramatic shifts, based primarily on changes to their culture.

First, Telstra moved from 60th position in 2011 to 45th. This was one of the largest shifts across the index and to my mind reflects the new energy and direction resulting from the brand refresh. Leadership is a key contributor to culture, and the cultural impact of the appointment of brand guru Mark Buckman (Telstra’s chief marketing officer) should not be underestimated.

Next, Virgin moved from 13th position in 2011 to sixth. When you talk to the people at Virgin, they don’t use corporate jargon to explain the shift, they simply say, “It is our people who put the magic back into flying.” In this country no brand demonstrates branded, culturally-aligned customer experience better than Virgin. All service brands should take a good hard look at the cultural structure and practices of Virgin.

What does ‘not so good’ look like?

Finally, let’s take a quick look at a brand that slipped 18 positions from seventh to 25th… yep, Virgin’s competition in the air, Qantas. Formally Australia’s most iconic brand, Qantas, as we know, has struggled of late and, culturally, the story couldn’t be worse. Leadership decision-making is the most obvious symbol of culture, and leading a brand to be ‘at war’ with its pilots, engineers, baggage handlers and ground staff over work conditions is cultural suicide. Enough said.

What’s this got to do with turtles?

Just as all animals in the animal kingdom are sensitive to their environment (so much so that they suffer and, in many cases, die if their habitat is compromised), so too are employees. Without meaning to state the obvious, humans are also members of the animal kingdom and, like it or not, are governed by many of the same environmental influences as turtles, monkeys and birds. By taking this broader, more holistic view of organisational culture, organisations can begin to more quickly understand what needs to be done to support employees and bring a sense of tribal security and belonging to a culture.

Here are a few ways to help reframe your thinking around internal branding and culture, likening what most of us consider to be a corporate practice more to the way of the wild:

1. Leadership. In the corporate world, ‘leadership’ is seen as a management progression with financial responsibilities. In the animal kingdom, leadership has a very simple translation: to protect and grow a community through various natural challenges. Corporate leadership is no different. One of the ways that alpha animals lead packs most effectively is by establishing rituals that demand accountability and individual growth from within. Demonstrative growth. In the business world, this means ‘delivery’.

2. Systems. The systems that govern the ‘way’ organisations work (IT, human resources practices, unspoken protocol etc) can easily be trivialised as administrative support, when really these systems have an enormous say in whether a business strategy works or doesn’t. In the wild, the systems that exist within a community of animals determine whether they live or die. Pack leaders quickly appoint roles that serve the greater purpose, very much like organisations resourcing to deliver on a business goal or strategy. There is a clear understanding of how each role relates to another, along with the relevant support required for each role to succeed.

3. Learning and development. When we think of L&D, most of us envisage a workshop, a facilitator and individually wrapped Mentos mints. Sometimes we feel that L&D is a chore, other times a privilege, largely depending on the topic (and facilitator). This is due to a lack of perspective around the reason behind the genre: learning initiatives.

In the wild, animals either learn or they become dependent and vulnerable. Not too long after that, they are a set of ribs being picked at by vultures.

4. Communication. The emphasis of internal communication has also lost its importance, often giving way to a campaign of entertainment. While humour is a very effective information transfer mechanism, there is much to be learned from the very pointed, focused communication methods that exist within groups of animals. What they lack in creativity they make up for in consistency.

There is never any doubt around the intent or meaning behind internal messaging within a community of animals.

The wrap

Culture exists to enhance performance. No business goal or marketing strategy will ever realise its potential without the careful alignment of the culture behind it. The brands that understand and demonstrate this are enhancing their reputation and performance, while those that continue to miss the fact that ‘ culture determines their fate’ slide off into a Qantas-like corporate horror story.