Organisational Culture a Formidable Enabler of Success

Authored by: Yash Mahadik, Mallika Galani and Sameer Kumar Agrawal


Organization culture is a formidable enabler of innovation, change and success in most organisations. Over the years culture has become a great coffee table discussion among leaders across industries. It’s formidable because its a sustainable competitive advantage that cannot be easily copied by competitors. Today culture as competitive advantage is helping companies attract and retain talent, drive innovation, remain cost competitive, etc. Last week, I was involved in one such HR leadership forum discussion organized by SpencerStuart. The discussion centered around ‘Harnessing the power of organizational culture’. It was my privilege and honor to chair the forum consisting of large company CHROs and other HR Leaders representing a diverse mix of organizations. SpencerStuart have a well articulated culture alignment framework of their own. It’s based on research and they have been validating it with many organisations as they consult with them. At the beginning of the session, Sahiba Singh from SpencerStuart explained the framework and model in detail. The details of the framework can be accessed via this link: Org Culture SpencerStuart

“Culture can become a ‘secret weapon’ that makes extraordinary things happen.”  – Jon Katzenbach, Booz&Co

In our collective and diverse experience, we observed that, culture is experienced and felt even in the absence of a well-articulated manifesto. Employees can clearly sense and feel the elements of their organisational culture, elements such as; how ethical and value based is the leadership in their organisation, what are they genuinely valued for, are their ideas welcomed, are their capabilities and contributions reflected fairly in their career growth and learning opportunities, etc, etc. Tone at the top and behaviour exhibited by senior leaders on a day to day basis especially during the crucial moments within an organisation shapes the culture. Little can a company achieve with a politically correct and well articulated statement hanging on the wall without the Leaders behaviour and attitude backing it up. So how does an organization create a culture that affirms the aspirations of its individual members while also inspiring the collective to add significant value towards the business?

Rohit Thakur, Head Human Resource, Accenture India, whilst sharing his perspective, said that, ‘the responsibility for setting the tone – the culture – rests with the leader of the organization’. We have often witnessed change in leadership manifesting a change in culture. Hence it’s imperative for a company or a team to be led by someone who places high importance on performance and results, acts with integrity and expects others to do the same. These leadership qualities engender a highly spirited organization and magic happens when leaders create the conditions for employees to contribute meaningfully. One of the key examples of this is the humility and integrity being the key cultural element at Sun Pharma and in this case it cascades from these traits being exhibited by the promoter and founder of the organization.

Rohit Kumar, HR Head Kelloggs India added to this by saying that culture at times is not organizational, rather its more functional or business unit led and this can be attributed to the unique leadership style existing in these silos.

Leena Wakankar, HR Leader, ASK Group, brought in a different flavour to the discussion by talking about ‘Aha Moments!!’ She referred to a popular quote “Every leader has his or her leadership moments and every organization has its culture moments”.During an organizations life cycle there come a few occasions when its fundamentals are tested and existential questions asked, and in such situations, only the organizations who are able to hold on to their basic cultural elements stand strong. 

Mona Hakeem, Head HR Emerging Markets and Talent Acquisition COE at Sun Pharma (Ex-GE employee), shared her perspective on a very interesting fact about the three most influential group cultures in the US, which are supposed to be that of the US Army, Kindergarden and GE. That’s GE’s proud culture moment right there! GE is well known for creating and sustaining a culture of performance, which in turn develops and provides top-notch world class leaders for GE and other industries. It’s well known how this culture emanates from their CEO and top leaders.

Organisational culture building endeavour becomes challenging at every life cycle stage of a company, such as, during the start up phase, during the scale up phase or during its perpetuity. However the biggest challenge is posed when two companies are merging as a result of an merger or acquisition. Assimilating two distinct organisational cultures is more complex as compared to building and nurturing one culture. During most post-merger phases, the harder aspects related to business and financial systems such as; portfolio & footprint rationalization/integration, financial system integration usually get addressed right at the onset and with relative smoothness as compared to some of the softer aspects related to people and culture. Our experience and research suggests that companies are able to create more value by integrating the harder aspects and the softer aspects with equal attention and urgency. 

We are very proud about how we are successfully integrating yet evolving the cultural aspects of two giant organizations – SunPharma and Ranbaxy by understanding and retaining the DNA and strengths of both the organizations. We (the authors of this blog) conducted a test exercise of deploying the culture model of SpencerStuart to run a diagnostic to understand the cultural orientation of the two legacy organizations (SunPharma & Ranbaxy) and to chart out the cultural needs and parameters of the unified entity (SunPharma). We have been able to identify three focal pillars on which we build the culture of our company. One of them being the relentless drive and focus on results. Second critical parameter is caring for one and all, be it our own employees or our patients and partners. Thirdly we shall continue to focus on holistic learning and development to ensure that we stay competent and grow stronger with every passing day.

R. Mahalakshmi, Head Director Human Resources, India, Mondelez added to this by sharing her experiences of being a part of two very interesting mergers, first one being that of Ernst & Young and Anderson wherein the two firms varied a lot in their consulting approach, clientele and employee base and the second that of Cadbury and Kraft and now Mondelez where in there has been a key shift from a definitive focus on being a caring organization to one being extremely focussed on results. 

Nathan S V, Chief Human Resources Officer, Deloitte India, also shared his valuable perspectives and gave a very good example of Deloitte. Deloitte is globally composed of 70+ different entities and the way they have managed to amalgamate the cultural aspects of each of these and yet maintain a distinctive Deloitte way of doing things. The way they go about doing this is by focusing on investing in learning. Learning for Deloitte is a major culture building anchor. How leaders as teachers focus on creating a learning culture and example of the Deloitte University and its role in building a organisational culture were terrific examples.

There is much discussion happening on the importance of building, renewing and evolving organisational culture and its direct correlation to business results. There is now a growing realization that culture is one of the biggest differentiators between organizations and almost as critical for attracting and retaining the right talent as their products or services are for winning customers. The question that we pose to our readers is, ‘how and when will we be able to understand the science and art behind organisational culture and make it a part of our strategic HR agenda and more importantly a business priority?”

In conclusion, we say that, “Free food, getting pets to work, casual dressing, working from home etc are often seen by many as important symbols of an organisations culture and its attractiveness. In our opinion its the icing and not the cake. The culture cake consists of solid fundamentals such as ethical and value based leadership, transparency and fairness, equal oppurtunities, socially responsible thinking/values/behaviors, environmentally sustainable actions and above all respect for human beings without discrimination. Once the cake is baked nice and solid the icing will make it even more attractive.”


“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com

Leadership is “The” Lead Factor” Rest are all Lag Factors

Narisho & Nashipae.jpg

Pic Details: Copyright @YashMahadikPhotography. Two Lionesses, Nashipae and Narisho of the Enokoyani pride emerging from the bush after their afternoon rest. Nashipae means attractive and a beautiful lady and Narisho means a skilled and ferocious huntress. Their names are given to them coz that’s what they are. These two were were protecting their seven cubs from a lion war that was on in Maasai Mara for their Pride and territory take over and hence had broken away from their pride. This image was created on 24th August, 2016 at 4.31 pm local time. Shot with my #Canon1DXMarkII Lens Canon f2.8 70-200mm @110mm f5.6, ISO 400, WB – Auto, 1/400s, Handheld shot, Zone cluster focus on AI Servo mode. For more details and images from the wild visit @yashmahadikphotography

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in the wild observing, understanding and photographing wildlife. I have learnt many valuable lessons from mother nature. One for example is about Lions. The Lion may be “The King of The Jungle” but it’s the Lioness who is “the True Leader”. The Lion is big, masculine, roars loudly and plays a very important role in protecting its pride and its territory and is called the King of the jungle. However, the Lioness plays even a more important role which includes hunting for the pride to feed it, raise the cubs successfully (especially with very high mortality rate for lion cubs in the wild), methodically coach and train the future lions and make them adept for staying at the top of the food chain. Lioness are the ones who keep and grow the pride and ensure its perpetuity. Hence it’s not just the Lion who is the King or is more important, but it’s the Lioness who is equally if not more important to its pride. I give this analogy of Lions not because of its gender traits but to tell a story of hierarchy and its relative importance to leadership.

Similarly in an organisation it’s just not the CEO but it’s the CXOs and leaders at the middle of the pyramid that are crucial and important to organisations success and perpetuity. 

If engagement, performance, culture, values pertaining to an organisation and it’s workforce are an outcome (also known as lag factors) then leadership is the most important lead factor. There is a lot of wisdom shared on how to develop and grow leadership in large enterprises and many inspiring examples come from the armed forces too. In my perspective and experience the essentials of leadership to become an effective lead factor within an organisation are as follows:

1) Define:

As an organisation clearly define your leadership framework. Framework consisting of – Values, Competencies and Behaviours that you expect you leaders to imbibe, role model and develop themselves and in others.

2) Assess and Build:

First help leaders assess their capabilities and styles and identify gaps. Use validated assessment techniques and experts – avoid a home-made and untested remedy when it comes to leadership assessments.

Then, start to shape, influence, build and develop leadership competencies and capabilities from the top. CEO and CXO group should be totally aligned and committed to role-modelling and living them.

I would emphasise more on “shaping” and “influencing” by ways of coaching as compared to the traditional class room training methods to build leadership competencies and capabilities. Please remember, people are cast into unique and diverse moulds depending on the background of their upbringing and that’s mostly reflected in their style preferences. Never try to break and re-mould people, instead shape, influence and help them understand the effect of their behaviour on others. Educate them on how they should  best flex their style depending on the situation. Remember diversity of leadership traits and styles can be a strength. Don’t allow the CEO to start cloning people to match or look like his DNA.

3) Cascade Leadership building:

Most organisations in my opinion make the mistake of focussing their development effort only at CEO, CXO and their direct reports level (the top of the pyramid). Some call it their “top 100″ and other ‘top 300” depending on the size of their organisation. I have said it in point no.1 that top down approach is important but don’t restrict your leadership development to the top of the pyramid.

When it comes to leadership, “the fortune is at the middle of the pyramid” and I say this, coz of two main reasons:

a) Leaders at the middle level of an organisation have the maxim performance and productivity impact on people whom they lead and influence.

b) Middle level leaders are the pipeline of the future leaders of any organisation and they need to be disproportionately invested into.

In addition to the above, other important things to consider whilst you build leadership to be the powerful lead factor include as follows:

  1. Make sure the performance and rewards in your organisation are equally balanced on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the results. Many organisation recognise and reward their people on parameter that are more biased towards the what (High Sales numbers, low-cost of operations, brand ratings, etc) and nothing wrong in that. But giving equal weightage to how these results were delivered (compliance to standards and laws, by being ethical and honest, by coaching and developing people) is very important. Top-notch organisation always focus equally on the “What” and “How” the results were delivered.
  2. Lessons on leadership from armed forces are valuable and inspiring and there is a lot to learn from them. But, remember that the context and rules of the game in the Army and a Corporate organisation are very different and hence not every leadership capability and its context can be applied as it is. May be a separate blog later on this topic!!
  3. Dont overwhelm early in career leaders by expecting them to act and deliver like highly evolved senior leaders. Let them make mistakes, learn and evolve as leaders with their original style.
  4. Coaching and creating a culture of learning for leaders by action-learning is key. Traditional classroom training doesn’t teach corporate leaders much. The slum-dog millionnaire learning style is crucial.
  5. Attitude, character and thinking ability differentiates good leaders from others. Skills and capabilities as a business manager become threshold. After a point skills and capabilites do not differentiate leaders to be effective. Its attitude and charachter of the leader which comprises of many things such as honesty, ethics, sensitivity to people and cultures, ability to develop and grow more leaders, to be a life long learner, etc, etc.

We assess, hire and develop leaders based on their experience, skills and capabilities with such little focus on knowing their attitude, character and thinking ability. Hope there is better balance in every organisation on this front.

True Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders – J Sakiya Sandfifer

How To Successfully Lead a Culture Transformation

Having led a few Culture Transformation programs in my career, including the one that I am leading in my current role and organisation, in my experience and perspective “U” as the leader of change and culture transformation “R” most critical to its success.

I believe, the following to be rudimentary and essential for a successful cultural transformation.

1) Indepth “As-Is” analysis of the current organisation culture – Understanding clearly what works well and why? and what’s not working well and why? What’s needs to change and why?

2) Clearly articulate a case for change and transformation. Define the “From-To’s” Detail and describe the values and behaviours of leaders and workforce that you want to see as an outcome of your intended culture.

3) Cast and define the culture proof points in terms of; a) voice of customers and other stakeholders about your organisation, b) stories and coffee machine talks within your organisation, c) How the Hero’s of the new culture will look like and what will be their values and behaviours, etc, etc.

4) Design and roll out a structured and innovative culture transformation program (with varied initiatives keeping in mind the organisational complexity in terms of company’s geographical spread, employee levels, etc). Be an executive sponsor and appoint a full time program manager to manage the culture transformation. Manage it like a proper program and not like an initiative or a small project.

5) Develop a robust change, communication and engagement – management plan. Involve and include all stakeholders. Make sure that the stakeholders understand their role in making it happen and own the transformation.

7) Lead from the front – Facilitate and shape an organisation-wide dialogue, listen to employees, challenge them, support them, create and nurture a”Network of Culture and Change Champions” they should be your critical mass… your extended team.

8) Design a measurement framework and process for monitoring progress and success of your transformation program. Change and transformation specific surveys based on Net Promoter Score (NPS) methodology are very effective. In addition, conduct dip-stick surveys, coffee corner discussions and keep measuring and feeling the pulse of the people and the organisation.

9) Refine what’s not working and reinforce what’s working. Do not add additional or new initiatives – bear in mind the change fatigue and keep it simple but engaging and exciting.

10) Celebrate success, recognise the new culture Hero’s, emphasis and reward them for the desired behaviours and values that they role model. Share success stories via the Hero’s and inspire others to follow the role models.

Culture building in organisations is a journey, your perseverance and commitment to the program as a leader will define its success. Make sure you manage expectation and not fall in the “overnight result trap”. Continuous improvement is key, as soon as you think your program is successful and the job is done – you will need to ready yourself for the next sumit or phase of the journey.

In my opinion good leaders lead and manage people effectively, but great leaders do that and build a culture.

Culture can become a ‘secret weapon’ that can make extraordinary things happen ~ Jon Katzenbach