Career

Know Thyself: Building Business Cultures in Growth Economies

21 March, 2019
  • Dhruv Mehra

    Multinational Client Group Leader, South & East Asia Singapore, Mercer

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"Businesses in growth economies must act now to establish prosperous internal cultures that embrace the emerging opportunities of a digitally transforming world."

Culture is how people make sense of the world. From the cacophonous streets of Mumbai and sultry beaches of Brazil to the neon lights of Tokyo and rhythms of Mexico City, culture gives us our identity. Culture is also scalable. Nations, regions and workplaces have cultures that define their collective individuals.

When groups of people behave according to a shared understanding of values and sensibilities, they are contributing to a culture. Businesses in growth economies must act now to establish prosperous internal business cultures that embrace the emerging opportunities of a digitally transforming world.

Build Consensus Throughout the Business
 

The evolving global economy presents growth nations with unprecedented access to a borderless international marketplace. The rapid pace of change, however, has many business leaders at odds regarding the value and role of culture to their financial success. This lack of consensus can muddle a company's vision, as well as confound a business' workforce and consumer base.

C-suite executives, managers and HR professionals — in businesses throughout the world — often have different interpretations of what internal culture means to profitability. The high-level takeaways from Mercer's research report, "Mitigating Culture Risk to Drive Deal Value," which focused on the mergers and acquisitions industry, offers businesses throughout growth economies valuable insights into the complexities of building consensus around culture:

  •  C-suite executives rate governance and decision-making processes as the most important components of culture (60%).
  •  Independent advisors believe performance management (measurement) can and should play a role in driving organizational change and defining culture (45%) — only 18 percent of HR professionals agree.
  • Corporate development professionals (41%) think that risk tolerance and management can undermine a transaction.
  • HR professionals rate collaboration (69%) and empowerment (54%) as the most important components of culture. 

 

Businesses in growth economies should be proactive about defining who they are as a culture. Does the culture value technological innovation and input from employees, or is it risk-averse and strictly hierarchical? Does the company stress individual effort or teamwork? Is it focused on international growth or regional prominence? Is it rebellious and irreverent or humble and serious? What is the definition of success, and how are the employees and customers factored into that definition?

An effective corporate culture begins with building consensus throughout the leadership, workforce and operations.

Clearly Articulate a Reason for Being

Every business leader and employee must be able to answer the question: Why do we work here? The response to this self-reflective ask compels the people within a business — from top decision-makers to workers at every level — to internalize the reason the business exists. This understanding provides meaning and context as to why an individual elects to be part of the business and its mission. 

Next, business leaders must articulate that reason for existence into strategic objectives illustrating the market value the business offers to whom and how. The strategic goals must accommodate the budget and timeline as understood by all employees — unifying everyone in a collaborative journey pursued within a shared value system.

In Asia (excluding Japan), according to the "Mitigating Culture Risk to Drive Deal Value" report, 67 percent of respondents believe collaboration is a top behavior in "high-performing" work cultures. In Latin America, 65 percent of respondents agreed. However, "collaborative" did not make the top five list of drivers for high-performing work cultures among Japanese respondents. It is critical for businesses in growth economies to establish strong internal cultures before attempting to make an impact in the competitive global economy. That internal culture, however, can be inspired by a variety of influences — including geography. Hangzhou-based Alibaba, for example, has a very different culture than Shenzhen-based Tencent.

A strong culture empowers businesses to differentiate themselves from competitors and effectively respond to adversity, risk and uncontrollable swings in the economy. Deciding how to approach risks and navigate challenges not only reveals the cultural values of a business but gives its employees and stakeholders a common cause that builds cohesion. A clearly articulated internal culture is key to longevity.

For businesses looking to establish and strengthen their cultures in different geographies, having a fundamental understanding of geographical nuances, like collaboration, for example, can prove critical to setting and successfully achieving your strategic goals.

Empower Leaders Who Live the Promise

 

Leadership is the foundation of every prosperous internal culture. In fact, the Mercer report reveals that, in Asia (not including Japan), 69 percent of respondents indicated "how leaders behave" was the number one "top driver" in a healthy organizational culture; in Latin America, the response was 64 percent. Japan led the group with a pronounced 74 percent response affirming the importance of leadership to workplacecultures.

The success of businesses can often be directly linked to leaders who embody and communicate an organization's values to employees and customers. Both Alibaba and Tencent are renowned for their respective leaders, Jack Ma (now retired, of course) and Pony Ma. Leadership supplies vision, energy and direction. Assessing and selecting leaders who best represent a business' values and promises are critical to corporate cultures. This does not always mean choosing the most accomplished or most popular businessperson, but the one with the best chemistry, as in any relationship — the one who delivers inspiration, creativity and motivates others to push themselves.

Effective leaders demand accountability from every employee, including themselves. CEOs, C-suites and managers must behave according to the values and standards of the business they represent. Leadership legitimizes culture by exercising the vision and expectations of the culture. Hypocritical leaders who do not lead by example demotivate employees and undermine the public's respect for the entire brand. A culture that values the fair distribution of accountability creates rapport and stewardship among its workforce. When people feel they belong to something meaningful and bigger than themselves, they transfer that goodwill into their work. Strong cultures create quality products, services and customer experiences.

Align the Vision With People & Operations

 

Culture is the intangible force that bonds great companies. The ethereal nature of culture, however, makes it frustratingly elusive to many businesses — especially in growth economies where those cultures are entering a new era of global pressures and digital transformation.

I explained in a webcast about the report above, "Culture is like the weather. We like to talk about it, complain about it and we blame it for things. But we really have no intention of doing anything about it or frankly don't know what we can do about it." To explain that businesses cannot afford to treat culture like the weather, because tremendous amounts of money and value are being left on the table.

Culture, at its core, is an operational platform for people to work together. It is the epicenter of an organization's collective power. Though business cultures may be intangible, they can be easily recognized in the eyes and behaviors of employees and customers. Culture is everything from a workforce that understands its purpose and a single employee who feels professionally fulfilled to loyal customers who return again and again. Culture is when people come together and do something that gives them meaning. Culture is the reason a business exists.

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