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Don't just survive, thrive!

From holding fort in the recession to all systems go today, shifting your cultural mindset can pay dividends…

In the world of work, we have had to get used to ‘survival mode’. We have done what it takes to become lean.  But does this mentality help us now things are changing for the better?

Before 2008 there’s no doubt that some businesses were living ‘high off the hog’.  When new enquiries slowed to a trickle they had to learn quickly to adapt or die. Whatever your political standpoint, this learning process was beneficial for many organisations, in many ways.

One such organisation was an engineering company, which – a few years ago – was working through the Investors in People process. When they came under threat of losing a major contract to a larger rival, they took a remarkable step.

A fresh approach

The engineering company’s Board appointed a new Chief Executive. They then took a back seat. The new CEO had a fresh approach to involving people in decisions, improving processes and total quality management (TQM). The CEO lost no time leading Q&As at roadshows, forming quality circles, and asking for people’s opinions on how the company could keep this major contract.

Morale shot up.  Buy-in to the company’s ambition was at an all-time high. Cycle times tumbled. Defects were a fraction of what they had been. The company started gaining accreditations for its quality systems.  It achieved Investors in People. It kept the contract.

I will always admire those Board members who had the self-awareness to realise that they didn’t have what it would take for the company to adapt as it had to, instead finding the right person for the job, then letting him lead.

The plate over there is wobbling

However, having focused so much on what was needed to meet the terms of the contract, the company had taken their eye off another factor. They were over-reliant on a single customer and needed to diversify. Finding new customers in new markets was a skill they didn’t have.  But where they had seen the need to bring in skills from the outside with the CEO, they were loathe to repeat the process and bring in a new Sales Director – especially as they felt they had better control over expenditure and budgets than ever before. The company took the decision to develop the new skills internally. So a sales training provider was appointed.

“It’s not our job to sell. Is it?" - It’s a cry I often hear from engineers, and this company was no different. When it came to engaging employees so they could act as ambassadors – and sales people – for the company, their culture was holding them back. And so it was this culture that the sales training provider needed to address.

With this in mind, we all sat down to design a series of team events that would:

  • explain the national marketplace conditions and competitive environment
  • describe the opportunities and threats these posed
  • invite people to come up with ideas about how to address these challenges
  • encourage the engineers to express what guiding principles they thought were needed for the company as a place to work
  • get them to write down what practical day-to day behaviours these principles meant in practice, towards both customers and each other

The team events really delivered. With dedicated time to focus on, understand and consider the company’s trajectory, the employees themselves suggested that the best sales person is a passionate engineer.  All they needed were some people skills. The training was then delivered, stuck fast to the values and behaviours agreed at the team events. 

The payback

For the engineering company as a business, this was a major investment – especially in terms of time and lost production. There was also a great deal of emotional turmoil caused by having to learn a second ‘new way of thinking’ so soon after the first. But it was worth it. With a newly enthused and mobilised workforce of engineers-cum-sales people, new leads did start to come in: from neighbours, drinking acquaintances, people they had met on holiday, fellow dog-lovers. In fact, from anyone who admired the pride they detected in the engineers and the way they spoke about the company they worked for.

Top tips for getting started

If you know you need to shift from a survive to a thrive mentality, there are four key things you should have…

  • a focus on the culture and if necessary some expertise in culture change
  • clear ambition in the form of some planned outcomes
  • a commitment to learning and development
  • faith in your workforce

Realigning your working culture to thrive in today’s economic landscape is tough. Most organisations have already been through a shift in mindset to survive the recession. Now many will have to go through another one, so they can focus on growth again. But if you put in the time and invest in your people, just like the engineering company I worked with, you’ll find there’s real treasure to be had.

Take this further:

Check out our How To guide to find out more about creating the right culture for success.

Lance Cross is a Practitioner with Investors in People South of England. He specialises in facilitation, strategy, skills training and team building.