The standout headline from a business breakfast I hosted recently for senior leaders on the topic of building sustainable businesses, came from the sustainability supremo of Marks & Spencer. It was that it’s people who make or break businesses by the way they elect to behave at work, especially in this new media age where we’re all just 1 viral scandal away from brand disaster.

Being an advocate of building brands and businesses from the inside out, this was naturally music to my ears. He was, of course, talking about reputation management and the need for systems, processes and procedures for managing the PR interface via Facebook; Twitter; Linkedin etc, something I’ve long called “downstream communication”. Yet any enlightened HR director will know that reputation management starts upstream or, as a very senior banking executive recently put it “the only sure way to stop people saying bad things about you online is to stop doing bad things as a company”.

As we all know, culture, is the way we do things round here or the sum of the behaviour of the employees, starting with the leaders. It’s a term trotted out to such an extent in recent times by the likes of Hester, Diamond, BBC and NHS leaders and co, whether in connection with banking; broadcasting or healthcare crises, for example, that it has become a cliché. Yet, perversely, proactive culture development costs very little, needn’t be at all disruptive and can transform organisational effectiveness completely within a few months, as I’ve witnessed many times.

However, a host of myths are perpetuated about culture change. Allow me to debunk just a few:

  1. It’s too complex, you can’t manage culture. Wrong. You can and you most certainly should. Just as business leaders have a responsibility to ensure that they set the vision, pace and tone of the business, they have an obligation to communicate a very clear picture of the desired culture necessary to deliver the goals and objectives of the business. But the management of the strategy to deliver that culture requires as much planning, resources and application as developing the marketing strategy or there’s little point attracting clients to your door if you can’t deliver. So, why isn’t this happening where you work?

  2. It has to be focused on the top. Culture change certainly requires the endorsement and support of the top team who should lead by example. But by far and away the first line management community is the bedrock on which culture is built. And if the way “we” currently do things isn’t going to deliver the results necessary, most of the change effort needs to be focused on the team leaders, recruiters and performance managers. Is it?

  3. The need for change is intuitive. Well, that’s true to some extent in that the best leaders “get it”. But just as you’d expect to have to develop a business case for a new IT system, it’s worth setting out the business case for culture change including metrics like opportunity cost; cost of complaints; employee retention stats; engagement metrics etc. Helps to convince the more left brained, whatever their level and helps to justify any request for resources.

  4. It can all be achieved using internal resource. It can’t. Familiar with the phrase “you’re part of the problem”? Well it’s virtually impossible for internal change agents to be either objective; bullet proof (especially in a recession) or well informed enough about comparative best practices, to steer clear of political pitfalls and steer the organisation through the rocky road of what is often emotional and extremely testing change. Not using trusted external advisors paid to work with the senior team as well as the wider employee base is a false economy as the change process will have blind spots and will be much slower, if it is sustained at all.

I’m sure there are many more myths we can all think of. But the important point here is that culture management should be one of the core pillars of the organisation development strategy of all organisations as it touches upon so many stakeholder management engagement points whether recruitment; performance management; leadership development or the increasingly popular social media platform development. And when it comes to managing consumer perceptions, far, far better to sustain positive employee behaviours upstream than to chase the stampeding horses of scandal downstream or online. And planning for culture change and development is certainly part of HR’s remit regardless of whether they have formal responsibility for communicating that change, or not.