Focusing on Culture Can Carry You through Tragedy

Recognize This! – Your values and your culture can sustain you through horrific loss.

What would you do if you were tapped to be the CEO of an organization that had just lost every single member of the top two tiers of leadership in a plane crash?

Culture can carry your organization through great tragedy. And it can help you become even more successful. But sometimes changing that culture is necessary in the process.

Case in point: Wilhelmsen, an international shipping company in Scandinavia. Ingar Skaug stepped into just this situation (read the full story in Forbes). Wisely, for a year he stepped back and observed closely as employees went through the necessary shock and grieving process. Then he worked with senior leaders to set and define the values and direction of the organization going forward.

But then even more wisely, he took the steps necessary to ensure those values and cultural expectations were followed by:

1)      Purposefully inculcating every employee in the new values, mission and strategy

“Skaug instituted a cascading process, taking groups of employees (60 at a time) off-site for 2 days to ensure they were clear on the company’s direction, values, strategy and guiding principles. He did this until every employee had been included in the process.”

2)      Removing those who did not want to comply with the new approach

“It quickly became clear that not everyone was willing to live according to our agreements, so I had to let them go. Some were very good business people but didn’t model the culture we were trying to create. I needed to send a very clear signal about the values I expected the company to live by.”

3)      Measuring results by linking company culture to profitability

“Then, Skaug began correlating Wilhemsen’s financial results to the [annual] climate survey data. The profitability of the company began to track with the culture. ‘Once people saw the connection, they were totally bought in,’ he recalls. ‘Commitment to a healthy, productive culture became part of our DNA.’”

The bottom-line lesson Skaug learned is the same that Gallup reported in 2010: a strong, values-driven culture (and the resulting employee engagement) drives financial success, not the other way around:

“When asked about the most valuable leadership lesson he learned through this experience, Skaug answers with an immediate swell of passion. ‘Culture drives your business, period. It’s not the other way around. Get your culture right, hold firm to your values, and the financial results will follow.’”

Could your culture sustain your organization if tragedy struck?

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