Girish Menon: Culture can make or break an organisation

It can't be counted or measured, but the culture of a charity is a vital intangible factor in its success or failure

Girish Menon
Girish Menon

"It is all about culture," he said. I was talking to a senior leader in the not-for-profit sector before I started in my current role and was generally asking for advice. A lot is said and written about how you prepare yourself for taking up a new senior leadership role. Seeking advice from seasoned leaders is certainly one of them.

Explaining in more detail about what he said, he talked about "getting into the zone". All of us live in many worlds and there are a number of things on our minds – and sometimes it is very difficult to disentangle our lives or compartmentalise them, because we do not live our lives in compartments. The point he was making was that, as we come in to work, it is really important to remind ourselves to get into the zone, just as athletes or actors do. He talked about his "touching out the Oyster card" principle, which he assiduously remembered each time he got off the tube and took the short walk from there to his office.

This is a very simple thought, but quite profound in its implications for our behaviours and role-modelling. Over the years, I am sure we all see the power of body language. And the more senior a role a person is in, the greater is the scrutiny of all that s/he says, does or even doesn’t say or do. Colleagues who see us every day are very astute in figuring out how you feel when you come out of a board meeting or a senior management meeting. This is particularly so in an open-space working environment, where the level and nature of interaction are more intense.

So when it comes to culture, it is worth remembering that every little thing does indeed matter – a word spoken or unspoken, a feeling expressed or not. Our day-to-day behaviours and our interactions go a long way towards defining our organisational culture and how colleagues experience it.

A key part of culture is about empathy: how senior leaders and managers relate to their colleagues during difficult, stressful and challenging times. I once came across a chief executive who knew that her team was working on a very intensive fundraising bid from an institutional donor. The process was quite new, complex and demanding. Expectations were also high. Unfortunately in this case, the project team did not succeed. The team leader sent around a very matter of fact mail to inform the senior managers that they had not won but that lessons had been learned. When the Chief Executive saw this message, she was very disheartened, but did not hesitate to walk up to the section where this team was located and thank them for all their efforts, for the courage and dedication in putting together a bid, encouraging them to believe in themselves and offering her support in any way that she could. That was a simple gesture, but went a long way towards cheering up the team and making them more positive. The message for them was very clear: the chief executive cared and she demonstrated empathy. More importantly, it emphasised that it was ok to fail. The important thing is that we put in our best efforts and learn from our experience.

As the saying goes "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted". Culture cannot be "counted". It cannot be measured. Sure, there are proxy indicators that can be generated through staff engagement surveys, which can be quite powerful. But it is important to hold the thought in our minds that culture is a powerful intangible that makes or breaks organisation. And where culture is everyone’s responsibility, the tone is set right at the top.

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK

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