Sometimes it takes a crisis to force change upon us and make us re-think our assumptions. The current pandemic is a true test of any organisation’s culture – how well its people and systems can operate under unanticipated pressure.

A global Korn Ferry study identified that ‘driving culture change’ ranks in the top three global leadership development priorities – and that disruptive change can be a catalyst for a shift in culture. Sharad Vishvanath, Korn Ferry’s APAC Regional Culture Expert based in New Delhi, believes this current crisis is certainly an opportunity to embrace that challenge. “Many organisations already recognise that what got them to this point will not get them to the next,” he notes. “And a left field event like this will result in people asking, ‘what can we do better?’ The way they work, their organisation’s DNA, is the only way to solve such major challenges – on the supply chain, on customer demand, on employee safety.”

An organisation’s culture is shaped by its collective values, beliefs and behaviours – and in turn, it determines how people perform. If a large proportion of people adopt new behaviours, processes & systems consistent with a shift in strategic direction, the culture will start to change. But it needs to begin at the top: when leaders change their behaviours, teams will follow.

There are two elements to culture

  • Your organisation – all your processes, protocols and systems
  • Your people - behaviours, motives and values, how they build and manage relationships

These two elements need to align with the organisation’s purpose and create a shared understanding of what ‘high performance’ or ‘customer focus’ or ‘nimble & innovative’ means.

Here are four things leaders can do now to shift culture, so they can be ready to manage the next period of growth – and be more resilient in the face of the next crisis.

Recognise your weak points

Start by considering your organisation’s Achilles heel. Is it agile enough to provide freedom within broad guide rails? Does it have the tenacity to get through tough decisions? You need agility in both your organisational structures and your people. It’s not enough to simply assess talent (or new hires) for their agile capabilities because they will become frustrated by processes that hold them back. This may require a governance review to enable faster decision making, or new workforce models such as temporary ‘gig economy’ contracts to allow the business to scale up and down more flexibly.

Build capabilities quickly

Strong organisational cultures typically have a clear focus on people – clients and teams – rather than products and tasks. This crisis might be a good time to take a hard look at talent, and work out what people need to adjust quickly to the new behaviours required. But it’s important to use data, not instinct, to make these assessments. Ring fence your top talent, and make sure you have the right leaders in place to drive engagement and work with agility.

“We’re helping clients carry out assessments right now – and also conducting training virtually or in person on coaching skills, collaboration and thinking outside the box,” notes Sharad Vishvanath. 

Set up centres of excellence to manage the ‘new normal’

We may also see fundamental changes in workplace habits as a result of enforced behaviour changes. By embracing more flexible work arrangements, many employees may find new ways of working that are more productive. 

Unnecessary meetings and ‘zombie routines’ could become a thing of the past. Managers may finally recognise they don’t need to physically monitor individual performance – they can trust their teams to work with autonomy. Leadership structures may pivot from command and control environments, to collaborative ecosystems of talented people who can solve complex problems.

These simple things can have a significant impact on workplace culture. They are tangible ways to build a sense of individual empowerment.

However, you will still need a centre of excellence framework to set broad guide rails. People need boundaries – such as how you innovate or fund R&D, or how you use the lens of the customer to allocate resources or segment opportunities. Culture is at the core of an organisation’s response – during good times and bad. If you are handling disruption collectively, with a strong sense of purpose, you’ll drive positive employee engagement and successful outcomes. And if there was ever a time to change, this might be it.

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