New leaders have big mandates. The expectations are sky high. All eyes are on you. One wrong move could spell the end of your career. Or, at the very least, seriously hinder your progress. This is why defining an aspirational culture is a crucial first step for any leader.
Typically, the more senior you are, the more change people expect to see especially if you’ve inherited a problem business. High turnover, decreased sales and dismal profits are all indicators of serious problems in a business.
Before you start defining your aspirational culture, you first need to define the current culture in your organization. In my blog post a few weeks ago, I talked about the need to really get to know the new company’s culture before considering changes and the exact process to do so.
Once you know where the organization’s culture is at, you can then start thinking about where you’d like the culture to be. Defining your aspirational culture is the prerequisite to creating a roadmap to get to your desired destination.
Most leaders jump straight to putting a new strategy in place. Many don’t even attempt to get to know the organization before designing a new strategy. The problem with this approach is that the culture of the company may not support the new initiatives. Leaders then wonder why the new strategy isn’t working. Or why it’s taking so long to see results.
In today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about why it’s important to define an aspirational culture in order to make transformational changes to your business. Having an aspirational culture is crucial for new leaders, whether you’re a small business owner or the CEO of a larger company.
The difference between culture and strategy
Before we go too far into why to define an aspirational culture, it’s important to tackle the distinction between culture and strategy. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two, so definitions are helpful here.
Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
Culture is the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.
In other words, strategy is what you do in business to achieve goals and culture is how people work in the business.
You need both to achieve your goals. You can have a strong strategy but if you don’t have the culture to back it up, the strategy won’t work. In other words, if the people at the organization don’t work in a way that’s in line with the work required for the strategy, the strategy will fail.
Why do you need an aspirational culture?
Now that we’ve got the definitions out of the way and we know that culture beats strategy every single time, we need to talk about why an aspirational culture is important.
An aspirational culture is important to consider before you start thinking about strategy for a number of reasons. This list of reasons is not exhaustive, but it will give you something to think about in your new role.
Know where you are going
When you inherit a team or organization riddled with issues, your first instinct is to immediately implement ideas to make changes. You talk to a few people, call the team meetings, communicate your vision, roll out the new strategy and assign work to each team. Unfortunately, if you don’t tackle the internal processes and the talent you have on the team, you’ll end up watching your team flounder and sputter even under your expert leadership. An aspirational culture will help you define the behaviours you need to change before you take action.
Know how long it will take
When you’ve examined the current culture and have defined your aspirational culture, you can gauge how long it’s going to take to get you to your desired destination. For example, if you’ve got 50% employee turnover year over year, poor leadership behaviours, rampant nepotism and favouritism, those things need to be tackled before aiming to double your revenue.
When you know exactly what behaviours and processes you want to see, and how far you are from there today, you know how long it will take you. This helps you set realistic expectations with your board and your leaders.
Know what steps you need to take to transform
When you have an aspirational culture, outlining the path and the steps needed to get there becomes easier. The thing that most leaders don’t realize is that cultural transformation takes time – a lot more time than most people imagine. That doesn’t mean you need to wait to transform the culture before you start implementing a strategy. However, you do need to consider the implications culture change activities have on how well you can achieve your strategy.
Know what success looks like
In any goal setting exercise, whether that’s a new strategy, new business goals, or new aspirational culture, knowing what success looks like makes the journey that much easier. Once you know what the prize is, what the desired outcome is, keeping on the straight and narrow path towards it becomes easier.
Plus when you have an aspirational culture, you know exactly what behaviours and processes are in line with that culture. It makes it a lot easier to say “no” when you’re presented with stuff that just doesn’t fit.
Know how to communicate
Did you ever have a boss who never took the time to explain their thought process? A boss who declared edicts that people had to blindly follow as opposed to helping people understand where they were coming from and what they were trying to achieve.
When you have an aspirational culture before you start executing or trying to change things, it’s much easier to explain your vision to people. You’re able to show people a picture of what “great” looks like. You’re able to communicate your roadmap much more effectively.
When people are able to envision a future, it makes it a lot easier to digest the magnitude of change.
Know how to identify change agents
Which brings me to the next point. When you present your team with your aspirational culture and the path to get there, it’s easy to spot the people who get onboard quickly and with excitement. Those are your change agents. These are the people who fully believe in your vision, who are all in, and who’ll do whatever it takes to get there.
Change is never a one-person show. You need advocates, change agents and friends in the field in order for change to truly take hold from the grassroots.
Know what talent to attract and retain
Once you have an aspirational culture, you know exactly the type of people you want in your organization. You can pinpoint the exact skills and expertise you need on your team. You know exactly what type of leaders you need in the organization.
Without an aspirational culture, you have a general idea of what you’d like to see, but not specifics. For example, glaring poor leadership is obvious, but what about disengaged middle managers? They’re undesirable in a high performing culture and need to be lifted or exited. However, without an aspirational culture, middle managers may not even be on your radar.
Why aspirational culture must come before strategy
We know the difference between culture and strategy now. To reiterate, culture is how you do business while strategy is what you do to achieve goals.
Let’s put all this into an easy example to illustrate the point.
Say, you decide you want to lose weight. Conventional wisdom tells you to set a specific, measurable goal, so you say you want to lose 20 lbs. You know that the strategy to achieve this goal is to eat healthy and exercise daily. It’s a simple strategy and you believe you can do it.
The problem is you’re so busy at your new job that when you get home at night, you’re too tired to cook healthy meals. You end up ordering takeout 4 nights a week complete with sugary drinks and dessert. The lethargy-induced meal has you vegging in front of the TV with chips from your pantry and a cold beer. Weekends are spent entertaining with chips, sweets and more alcohol.
You started this goal with a strategy in place but the culture of your household was takeout, pop, cookies and chips. It doesn’t take long for you to give up on your strategy or go months without seeing results because you’re pushing against a system that’s designed to set you up for failure.
Imagine now instead of jumping to a strategy, you first take stock of where your family is at. You recognize, with full objectivity, that your pantry is full of unhealthy snacks and your meal process (ordering takeout 4 nights a week) adds to the problem. Not to mention, your version of exercise involves trips from the TV to the refrigerator.
You realize that this is not a good way to live and the extra 20 lbs that you’ve packed on is a direct result of the processes and culture you have in place.
Your new reframed goal is to live a healthy, active lifestyle which you’re confident will lead to shedding the 20 lbs. Now you’re less focused on a tangible number and are instead focusing on core changes you need to make. You’re focusing on behavioural changes you need to make. Now the plan looks different.
You call a family meeting and explain to everyone where you want to go – living a healthy lifestyle. You show statistics of how people who live a healthy lifestyle have better health with less aches and pains, look better, have more confidence, and live longer. You tell your family that with the increased confidence, you’ll all perform better at work and at school, resulting in increasing your income potential and living a better, more prosperous life.
You start introducing healthy snacks for your TV time, swapping cookies for carrot sticks and hummus. You subscribe to a meal delivery site so you have fresh ingredients and recipes that take less than 20 minutes to prepare instead of takeout. You identify change agents (your partner perhaps) to back you up and reiterate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle to everyone else.
Once you have healthy eating in place, you tackle exercise. You decide to have a picnic with a hike on Saturdays. You go on bike rides together on Sundays. You sign up for a family gym membership near your house and make it a daily thing before dinner.
You slowly see the change taking place in your home. Within a year, not only will you have achieved your goal of being 20 lbs lighter, your family has also benefited from weight loss and increased strength and endurance. You are now a family that lives a healthy lifestyle because you tackled the core culture in your home instead of focusing strictly on the original goal.
This example can easily be translated into the workplace. Focusing less on doubling your revenue and focusing instead on changing the culture will set your company up for long term success in every aspect.
To sum it up
The benefits of defining an aspirational culture are far and wide. Your culture facilitates your strategy execution. Without a culture that’s designed to help you achieve your goals, your strategy holds no water. That way is designed to set you up for a prolonged fight at best and outright failure at worst.
Once you have your aspirational culture in place, you won’t need to change your strategy every three years, because your company will be poised to achieve success year over year beyond your wildest expectations. You’ll be able to attract and retain the best talent further accelerating your success and amplifying brand in the marketplace.
As you think about designing your aspirational culture, we’re here to help. Reach out to us to get started today!