Five Culture Mistakes to Avoid in 2020

And so here we are. The start of a new year and the start of a new decade. A time of hope, determination and commitment to do the right thing. And yet… by June (if we’re lucky)… the impetus will have probably been lost and organisations are well on with repeating the same mistakes as before.

New staff brought on to change the status quo will have hit the stagnant culture wall and either conformed or left the organisation for exciting opportunities elsewhere.

The last decade saw some pretty high-profile culture failures, so I thought I’d pick out a few and look at what lessons can be learned so we can avoid repeating history.

This list is not in any kind of order, nor are workplace failures limited to just these five, but there are only so many you can read before it becomes a dispiriting exercise! So here goes.

1. Volkswagen

An organisation’s values are statements of what the organisation and its people hold to be true and an agreement of how they’ll work together. Values provide emotional direction to those people that are part of the culture and are used to guide decision-making and behaviour.

In 2014, the values of Volkswagen were stated as Customer Focus, Top Performance, Creating Value, Renewability, Respect, Responsibility and Sustainability. Then in 2015 it was uncovered that in order to meet environmental standards around diesel fuel emissions, Volkswagen had modified the software on over 11m cars to falsify carbon dioxide emission levels. Thus going against their own values of responsibility, respect, creating value and top performance.

This decades-long falsification of results, led to the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn and a worldwide investigation into its practices.

Learning: An organisation’s values can’t be statements that are turned into posters, laminated and pinned up on the wall. They have to be specific to what the organisation is trying to achieve and, importantly, be lived in plain sight by everyone within the culture, especially the leadership team. Otherwise it becomes a pointless corporate box-ticking exercise.

2. Google

The #timesup movement was launched by a group of high profile females in 2018 to bring attention to workplace and public sexual harassment cases around the world. Far too many working cultures make excuses and use rhetoric, networks and decades-old ‘locker room’ talk to excuse the behaviour of their people — often senior executives and predominantly male.

Major technology companies have led the way in creating inclusive and diverse environments in which staff feel safe and kindness and fairness are held in the highest of regards. In 2018 however, news came to light of the details surrounding the departure of one of Google’s senior executives back in 2014. Despite finding the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him credible, he was allowed to resign with a severance package of over $90m.

News of this led to a mass walkout by staff demanding that Google do more to address sexual harassment, gender equality and systemic racism across the organisation. The action continues to this day.

Learning: In order to create a vibrant culture of success then behaviours need to be agreed up front and senior managers (especially) have to role model them every single day. Unsafe working cultures cause anxiety and stress and lead to bullying and harassment. They have never been acceptable and individuals that do this to other humans should be removed without any compensation. Poor behaviours need to be dealt with and no excuses made for the removal of those that don’t meet expectations.

3. Uber

Uber has been one of the biggest success stories over the last decade, from a user perspective that is. Profitability continues to be an issue — and so does its culture.

Founder Travis Kalanick surrounded himself with people who knew how to get things done. Empathy was low, tempers flared and people were routinely dismissed if they didn’t hit deadlines. Things got so bad that Kalanick was sacked from his position as CEO and the organisation is still struggling to get its culture right to this day.

Management has removed all staff perks as it looks to meet shareholder expectation and they’re finding that the culture has not evolved enough to entice Uber’s best staff to stay. Things may yet get worse before they get better for Uber despite new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s best attempts.

Learning: As the organisation grows it’s important that its culture grows and with it. As Marshall Goldsmith once said, ‘What got you here, won’t get you there’ and this is especially true of corporate culture. It requires a new vision, new set of behaviours and new collaboration principles as it evolves to meet the new challenges it faces.

4. Kraft Heinz Co.

In 2013 Kraft Foods (Mondelez International and Kraft Foods Group) was one of the largest food manufacturers in the world. In 2014–15, its board approved a merger with another giant in food manufacturing, The HJ Heinz Company. The new company Kraft Heinz Co. became the fifth largest food manufacturing company in the world with revenues of $28bn.

But in 2016 the new company wrote off more than $15bn and announced that US regulators were investigating their procurement and accounting practices. In the intervening time, food habits had started to change and whilst cost-cutting measures had been undertaken to reduce duplication, nothing had been done to bring the two (very different) cultures together.

Learning: Any kind of merger, whether it’s 10 people or 100,000, requires a new cultural definition, not just a rebranding exercise. Organisations need to retain what’s good about both cultures, whilst defining something new that everyone feels part of.

5. Forever 21

The financial woes of Forever21 (F21) started in 2017 after what had been a steadily increasing revenue since the 1980s peaked at $4.4bn in 2015 and the world started to change.

Regulators were examining the working practices of so-called ‘fast-fashion’ organisations and there was a demand from customers for the organisation to become more sustainable.

Additionally, F21 failed to implement new digital technology to improve the in-store or online experience, didn’t embrace social media in the way that its competitors did and didn’t do enough research before moving away from traditional revenue streams and going after business and floor space that wasn’t suited to their model.

All of which led to them filing for bankruptcy in 2019, closing up to 350 stores and laying off hundreds of staff.

Learning: One of the key pillars of any organisation culture is how it stays relevant to its customers. Time has to be spent on innovative thinking. It’s not about becoming the new Amazon; it’s about harnessing the ideas that staff have, keeping up with trends and leveraging technology to make the customer (and staff!) experience slicker.

None of these examples of culture failure are new, unfortunately, and yet senior leadership seem to routinely forget that culture requires constant attention, specifically around the six pillars of: personality and communication; vision; values; behaviours; collaboration; innovation.

Only with continual investment into cultural definition and evolution can any organisation ensure that it doesn’t end up on this list at the start of 2030.

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Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot