Culture: Top-down? Bottom-up? Why still up for debate?

by | Apr 14, 2024 | Brand Expression, Corporate culture

Spending time with board members, leaders and managers in a range of businesses, and also spending some time taking the pulse on LinkedIn… I see that there is still a range of opinions on how Culture is and should be shaped in organisations.

Top-down? Bottom-up? Either-or, or both? When I look around, there are clear signals pointing to what works best.

The stakes are high… don’t leave it to ‘organic growth’ alone

The ability to build trust with stakeholders remains at the centre of a thriving business, and the stakes have never been higher, with increased requirements in ESG and Sustainability reporting, demands for more diverse representation at the top, and the fast-moving challenges of AI and cyber security. Your stakeholders now expect a clear perspective and accountability on major issues affecting the workplace, community and environment.

Directors now recognise that internal and external stakeholder trust is built on much more than ethics and is more than good PR management.

Strong leadership of ‘who we are’, ‘where we are going’ and ‘what we stand for’, cascaded through every level, function and outcome, is an essential requirement to deliver on a Strategy and Culture that keeps its promises to shareholders and stakeholders alike, and minimises reputational risk.

Best Practice: Top-down (but informed and involved bottom-up)

Although there are different considerations and constraints for different organisations, depending not only on size but other factors, such as company structure, brand model (e.g. global brand with sub-brands versus a single brand) and current goals around change… rather than categorising the approach according to size of organisation, we operate from the premise that Culture should always be led and guided from the top down, with meaningful input and ongoing involvement at all levels of the organisation.

Culture should not be left to chance because it is too critical to the success of the organisation and the wellbeing of its people.

This approach is supported by much of the current practice nationally and globally, including:

  • AICD’s guiding principles for Australian company directors around Culture governance – see for example this document on the practice of governing culture (which the executives also need to be across) and this article which references the job of leaders and managers to develop and lead the required Culture.
  • Current thinking in Australia in leading Culture from the leadership and management perspective (including the essential role of middle-management) includes the work of Shane Michael Hatton. An excellent tool in understanding practical methods for empowering team managers to engage their teams in Culture conversations (such as around Purpose and Values) is his book, Let’s Talk Culture. This kind of approach supports Managers not only to lead Culture but to work with their teams to shape it in ways specific to their team
  • In Australia, we are still catching up to global thinking on leading Culture and the role of Brand-Culture connection to enable practical, tangible and meaningful engagement with and buy-in for an organisation’s ideas on ‘who we are and what we stand for’ – both inside and outside the organisation. In the U.S., Denise Lee Yohn leads in this space – this article beautifully balances the role of leading Culture and the role of company-wide involvement. She talks about leaders and managers being ‘culture-carriers’ and ‘culture coaches’, while also setting up expectations that everyone has a responsibility to build and protect the Culture. Her research-heavy, excellent book Fusion: How integrating brand and culture powers the world’s greatest companies outlines a comprehensive approach.
  • As ESG, Sustainability and Social Purpose are now becoming central to Organisational Strategy, this is an important Culture and Brand piece to lead from the top and cascade through the organisation. In Canada and the UK, Junxion are a consulting firm contributing great thought leadership in this space. This article contains a discussion on the role of business connected to social purpose, and the role of community/cross-collaboration.
  • And because it’s such a big part of the economy for Australia… In Mining and Resources, this video demonstrates a great example from a former Chief Executive of an oil and gas company, talking about real values and meaningfully living up to them. It beautifully illustrates the role of the senior leader in paving the way.

Your take-away here: Tangible ways to connect the business and its people

Now brands will need to operate at the intersection
of culture, purpose and society.”

– Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report

Leading a brand-aligned organisation is at the centre of building and maintaining TRUST, because when the message you are putting out there in your formal communications matches what is happening inside the organisation, and what is experienced outside, you deliver on your brand promise and prove your integrity.

Boards and senior leaders need a practical framework to review and direct a structured alignment between brand, culture, strategy, leadership and operations, to deliver on what’s promised to shareholders and stakeholders alike.

And yes, this starts with the tone and expectations set at the top! Yet, in our work we regularly see a mismatch in:

  • BRAND INTENTION & PERCEPTION: What we say v What stakeholders experience
  • STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES & RESULTS: e.g. Growth goals v Lack of brand awareness or ability to ‘sell’ the message
  • CULTURE ASPIRATIONS & REALITY: Who is on the team & what are they doing v The level we want to be playing at

What are organisations missing?

While connecting your brand, strategy and culture isn’t a new concept, few organisations have a structured, organisation-wide approach to this. We see siloes in teams’ planning and culture development, a lack of aligned leadership from the board through to managers on steering the message, and a lack of participation in ‘who we are and where we are going’ at ground-level. These problems are exacerbated when businesses face major change, such as restructures, new markets or shifts in strategic focus.

Boards and leaders must be across:

  • The brand beyond the logo – how are the brand and culture unavoidably intertwined, and where are they being communicated outside of planned, formal ways? What does it mean for risk, and for the ability to effectively execute on strategy?
  • Relevant opportunities and scenarios where an overt approach to directing an ‘on-brand’ organisation would create increased competitiveness, power change, and address pressing concerns, such as ESG and AI strategy.

From NWC’s Brand-Culture Connection Checklist, here’s a sample to get you started. A good idea would be to choose one or two questions to bring into your next board meeting. If you want the full Brand/Culture Framework and accompanying checklist, you can request it here.