Stories,Storytelling,Story SellinginBusiness

Top Management Issues – What Really Drives Your Business?

In 2007, the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) ran an on-line survey asking managers to choose their top six management priorities from a list of 30.  The goal of the survey was to highlight the most critical management issues then facing managers.  In 2007, the top priorities were:

  1. Achieving key objectives/outcomes
  2. Work/Life balance
  3. Finding/appointing talented staff
  4. Developing organisational leaders
  5. Retaining staff

The same survey question was then asked in 2008, however with quite different results.  The top six management priorities in 2008 were:

  1. Leadership
  2. Managing organisational culture
  3. Motivating staff
  4. Personnel development
  5. Work/Life balance
  6. Achieving key objectives/outcomes

There could be many reasons for the jump of ‘Leadership’ into first position and ‘Managing Organisational Culture’ into the second spot.  We would like to think that organisations are finally starting to realise that leadership and culture are more than just ‘nice-to-haves’, and that measuring, developing and sustaining constructive cultures ‘fit-for-purpose’ is critical to success.


What we mean by ‘fit-for-purpose’ is that your organisational culture actually fits your business objectives.  A simple example may help illustrate the point.  If speed to market is critical to your success, then you had better kill off bureaucracy – fast.  If innovation and new product development are key, then energy and attention should be focused on a culture where mistakes are seen as ‘mis-takes’ (i.e. people are rewarded for trying something new and different and get another ‘take’ or chance to do better next time); people will need to feel safe to challenge others, no what their position; and the work environment needs to support creative thinking.

Fit-for-Purpose Isn’t Enough – Sorry…

Why do we say ‘fit-for-purpose’ isn’t enough?  Surely if you have worked hard to create an organisational culture that supports our business objectives we will succeed?  Probably not.  First and foremost organisations must create a values-driven culture, which we define as one where:

  • People feel valued and are valued
  • There is an environment where people be their best
  • People can grow and develop
  • Values and pragmatic business decisions are not mutually exclusive
  • There is a sense of stretch and excitement about what the organisation is doing, and
  • Where the gap between espoused and tacit values is small or non-existent

In short, values-driven organisations are ones which are more humanistic and when you walk into a place with many of the above qualities – you ‘get it’ very quickly.


Secondly, three things need to be aligned – behaviours, symbols and systems. Behaviours (the things we see others do), symbols (e.g. what decisions are made, where money is spent, what gets rewarded, etc.) and systems (policies and processes) must be aligned to enable implementation of business strategy.

Alignment is important in organisations.  Why?  Because while human beings can be tremendously complex, at another level, we are incredibly straight-forward.

For example, if a manager is asked to complete a performance management form (a ‘system’) which has a series of questions and boxes to fill in – it is likely that this form will at the very least shape (my ‘behaviours’) and therefore how the review is conducted.  If the manager slavishly follows a less-than-helpful review form, then the reviewee may leave with a hollow feeling based on an impersonal meeting which really didn’t give any usable feedback about performance.  The form must support quality conversations.


I was recently asked by a CEO what I thought were the top three criteria for success when implementing change.  My answer was:

  1. Top management support
  2. Top management support, and
  3. Top management support

It’s that simple.

Of course there are other criteria for success, however if top management don’t support cultural change efforts fully, results will be less than optimal.  Leadership is after all, the engine room of organisations.

Unlike traditional thinking however, today’s organisations – and importantly people – are crying out for a different kind of leader.  The traditional notion of leading from the front sitting on top of a white horse, with sword raised ready to cut a path through seemingly insurmountable challenges and barriers – with everyone following behind is – well, kind of old fashioned.  While it is true that leaders need to lead, it is the what and how that is important.  Leaders need to CREATE three apparently contradictory things at the same time:

  1. A compelling vision
  2. Constructive disequilibrium, and
  3. Safety

There is no doubt that leaders must create the vision, with varying levels of buy in from key stakeholders.  This is the future direction of the company or firm.  What strategy should be pursued at this time?  What do we stand for?  What are we going to say NO to so we can say YES to meaningful work?

Next is what has been called by some authors, constructive disequilibrium.  Put simply, this is where people in the organisation are exposed to, rather than sheltered from organisational realities.  Leaders need to help create an environment where people in the organisation themselves understand and feel the need for change.  This is quite different to a management dictum coming from above that few buy into, and certainly even fewer usually show accountability and responsibility for resolution.  This is one of the greatest sources of inefficiencies and cultural change failure – a lack of accountability throughout an organisation.

Thirdly, and closely related to the first two, is being able to create safety.  If people are to take greater personal responsibility for what is happening around them – then they need to feel safe to speak up, to challenge where appropriate without fear of recriminations.  In a way, this is the hardest of the three to create.  People feel safe when there are high levels of trust, where people communicate openly and honestly, and where there are no hidden agendas.  Leaders need to be able to model these behaviours.

So, we started talking about why I thought ‘Leadership’ and ‘Managing Organisational Culture’ had climbed to the number one and two priorities respectively in last year’s survey of managers.  Some organisations clearly understand that leaders need to be able help create a values-driven culture and one that is ‘fit-for-purpose’.  Some also understand that top management support is critical if cultural change efforts are to succeed.  Leaders must also understand the dynamic interplay between behaviours, symbols and systems and be constantly seeking to align these three levers to drive towards the espoused culture.

And finally, leaders must be able to see the way forward while at the same time empowering everyone to play their part.  This will only occur where leaders at all levels work to create an environment where there are high levels of safety.

Remember, if you don’t manage your culture, then it will manage you.

Phillip Ralph
Managing Director
The Leadership Sphere