How leaders can take a culture-first approach to drive performance

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

I was recently interviewed by Rani Kordahi on underperformance and toxic cultures for The Employment Services Training podcast, and it got me thinking about the topic. Most of us have experienced the impacts of a toxic culture in one way or another – whether as an employee or a customer – and it’s never a positive experience. Unless an organisation has a thriving culture, one they continually work on, it won’t have an engaged workforce who are committed to doing the right thing by the business and its customers.

Whether you lead the business, a department, or a team, a culture-first approach is a must to drive performance. It’s something the management team focus on at VERTO, and I wanted to share my thoughts on how to take a culture-first approach to leadership.

Start from the top

In my experience, culture is almost entirely driven by senior management. Behaviours that are accepted in management meetings will almost certainly flow down to the frontline level.

We really focus on this at VERTO, setting management team behaviours which cascade from VERTO’s corporate values and holding each other accountable to these every day. At our monthly management team meetings, we pick a particular value and discuss it, each member sharing how they have displayed these values within the management team and their department.

Having this value-based approach at a leadership level empowers senior managers to instil this approach in the team leaders they manage, and, in turn, these team leaders to pass it on to frontline staff.

Recognise your leadership weaknesses

Of course, in the same way that these positive behaviours are shared down the line, so too will negative ones. No leadership team is perfect, and it’s important to recognise this. Within the VERTO management team, we make it clear that our management approach is not set-and-forget, we must continually review our own culture and behaviours and identify any weaknesses before they become a problem.

Key to this is open and honest communication. As CEO, I think it is critical that my management team feel they can share constructive criticism so that we can address it early. I also believe that if my team are not comfortable sharing their concerns, they are far less likely to share the positives – their ideas and innovations that will drive the business forward.

Encourage two-way communication

Truly open and honest communication must be two-way. It can’t be ‘career suicide’ for a team member at any level to speak up about their ideas or give their feedback, whether it be about the strategy, business practices, culture or behaviours.

At VERTO, our management team tries to make sure there are always avenues open for feedback and discussion, whether through informal conversations or formal channels, like regular Q&A sessions, or regular employee surveys.

We try to make sure there is a feedback loop in place too. If someone shares an idea or some feedback, it’s important that this is acknowledged professionally, even if the leader doesn’t agree with it. We always endeavour to provide feedback on where an idea went – even if it’s not right for VERTO – and ensure credit is given where credit is due when an idea is taken on board.

Keep an eye on absenteeism

A lot of the leadership literature will tell you to focus on turnover as a key indicator of culture, but in my experience, it isn’t always the right one.

Of course, high turnover can be indicative of a toxic culture, but some turnover is normal and can be healthy. It also doesn’t work both ways - low turnover isn’t necessarily an indication of a good culture. Turnover can be heavily impacted by the employment market and the state of the economy, and it can also be a sign of inertia – employees staying because they are familiar with their job, not because they like it.

For me, absenteeism can tell a more compelling story. If your absenteeism rates are high, there’s a reason your employees aren’t coming to work, and it certainly warrants investigation. Often, where absenteeism is excessive, there are cultural causes, from disengagement to bullying, and the earlier you uncover and address these the better.

Help people get on – and off – the bus

Keeping staff informed on what is happening in the business, the strategy and the vision is also a critical part of open communication. It ensures each and every person can understand how their role contributes to the overall success of the business, and this can be a fantastic motivator and builds all-important accountability.

It helps individuals and teams to see that they are not operating in a vacuum and that their performance can impact others, ultimately cascading into the overall performance of the business. In my experience, if everyone knows where the business is going, they can make an informed decision as to whether they are ‘on the bus.’

It’s also important to recognise that the way you operate, your values and your culture won’t be right for everyone. We’ve had people leave our team who have gone on to find success in a different organisation, and it was clearly the right decision for everyone to help them transition out of the business. Some collaborations simply don’t work, and it’s okay to recognise this.

At the end of the day, your culture will be a big factor in individual, team and organisational performance. As leaders, we have a responsibility to continually work on building and maintaining a culture where people want to come to work and give their best. It will lead to the best outcome for individual team members, the business and the customers and communities you serve.