Date Published:

Category: Culture Change


Cultivating your Culture – how does your garden grow?


Getting the right culture has always been a top priority for leaders – never more so than now.

The root (pun intended) of the word ‘culture’ is from farming and literally means ‘growing’ (as in ‘cultivate’).  And this gives us a nice metaphor for business culture…

If any of you have a garden, you know how it works: you work hard to get it just right and then along comes a change in the weather or you are away and can’t water it and, over time, the inevitable weeds start to grow.

It’s hard work, but if you stick at it, the rewards can be fantastic. It’s constantly changing and, as soon as it’s ‘perfect’, it’s not! It’s organic and always changing, but the results of a beautiful garden are worth it. And it’s exciting: taking old plants out, adding new ones, pruning to shape, getting the right mix of colours and scents, and attracting wildlife are all part of it (so I’m told!)

Compare that to a garden that is left untended – it grows wild. Weeds spread, new plant seeds are blown in, aggressive plants dominate, you may even have fruit going rotten.

It’s easy to tell them apart, isn’t it, just by looking. Well, the same is true for organisational culture – especially in today’s VUCA world.


Culture is organic, it’s always changing in response to market conditions, business environment and customer demands. And, if a culture is left untended, it will grow wild: weeds of negativity will grow, new random ideas will be blown in, dominant voices will, erm, dominate and things start to rot.

However, work hard to constantly tend to your culture – adapt to changing conditions, keep in step with the seasons, keep it watered and nourished – then the results are worth it and, dare I say it, beautiful: your people blossom, your customer relationships flourish and your profits grow.

Okay, so that’s the metaphor. If you want gardening tips, here is not the place. I wouldn’t know my Areca from my elbow.

So, let me stick to what I know – culture change. We at cda have developed a model to help leaders navigate these constantly changing times.

It starts with understanding there are visible and invisible aspects to culture. Let’s start with the most obvious: visible.

There are three aspects to this:

  • What are your systems and processes?  And, more importantly, how are they applied by your people?  If you have a generous returns policy or complaints handling procedure then that indicates a customer-focused-culture. On the other hand, if you make it difficult to give compensation for poor service, then it indicates a culture of cost-control.
  • Who are your legends?  Who do you hold up as your superstars?  This could be formally through recognition schemes, or informally through giving praise. If you were asked: who is your best sales executive would it be the one who sold the most or the one who gave the best customer experience? Would it be the one who achieved all their individual objectives or the one who contributed most to team work? Who you call out as your legends will drive your culture.
  • What behaviours are accepted (either tacitly or implicitly)?  Which ones aren’t? What can people ‘get away with’?  Does giving a poor customer experience go without comment?  Does not contributing to team efforts go unnoticed?


Now, these are the visible aspects. Anyone could walk into your business today and quickly get a sense of the culture from the three areas above.

But, where do these come from? What determines the processes and legends and behaviours? The answer to that is the invisible aspects. Can we see them, I hear you ask? Yes, you can, because for my next trick, I’m going to make the invisible visible.

The two aspects are: shared values and shared beliefs. And where do these come from? A quote, if I may, to answer that question:

“An organisation is the shadow of its leader”.

Yes, dear reader, that’s a clever way of saying: You.

Your values and beliefs will drive the shared values and beliefs of your people and, therefore, the culture of your organisation. And that’s because your values and beliefs drive your behaviour, actions and decisions.

You can have as many Mission statements or Values as you like, but unless they are aligned to your values and beliefs, they are worse than worthless because they, and you, reek of inauthenticity.

All these thoughts spark some pretty hard questions for all us leaders:

  • Are your personal and business values aligned?
  • Is what you say and how you behave aligned?
  • What is the culture you want? Have you defined it?
  • Do your people know what the culture is? If you asked them all, would they say roughly the same thing?
  • Do you know what your people are doing whilst no-one is looking?
  • Do you actually have the culture you want right now? If not, what is the gap?
  • How serious are you about your culture? If people don’t have aligned values are you prepared to let them go? (This includes all staff, especially leaders and managers)


This is serious stuff.  As Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.


If you let your garden overgrow, you can quickly get out the strimmer, lawn mower and weed killer to clear the decks to start again.

Culture is different. Tend to it continuously and you can adapt to the changing conditions and grow your business. Leave it alone and it’ll choke your profits and kill your career.