The Culture Shaper

The story below is a chapter from one of our future books, currently going under the working name of "The Culture Shaper".


Alain always demanded attention, and today would be no different.

His suit carried a designer label, his shoes were shining and his trademark handkerchief was neatly on display in his jacket pocket.

Standing in a meeting room on the top floor of the Brighton hotel, his eyes were irresistibly drawn to the burnt-out shell of the West Pier. It had been considered one of the finest Victorian piers in the world until the suspicious fire some 10 years earlier had put a stop to that. All that was now left of the once grand pier, was a rusty metal frame which seemed to hover over the dark green sea, reflected grey from the sky. His gaze shifted to two people who sought shelter from the wind next to a round old-fashioned beach kiosk, long since closed for the season.

A red double decker bus made its way along the seafront and the noise of squeaky breaks travelled up the side of the building and into the room where he was standing.

Alain liked Brighton even though it was of course very different to Paris where he had lived for most of his life. He loved Paris. Brighton though, fascinated him in a different way. Maybe it was the sea, the ever-changing sea or maybe it was the mixture of cosmopolitan flair with a laidback lifestyle that intrigued him. Either way, he was pleased that he had chosen Brighton as the location for his meeting, a very important meeting. Today, he would for the first time have his new leadership team all in the same room.

He was shifting his weight, moving from foot to foot, impatiently awaiting the arrival of his team. Fear and excitement battled for space in his body; his shoulders were slightly raised, indicating the tension he felt but wouldn’t want anyone to see. They would all arrive soon so he rotated his shoulders to release the pressure, and regain control.  He wanted to be prepared.

The door opened hesitantly as if the person the other side wasn’t sure if they had come to the right place. They had though; it was Stephen and Helmut. Helmut walked purposefully up to Alain and formally extended his hand in greeting. Stephen watched with interest as it felt strange to see his old boss in this new situation.  Before he’d had time to add his hello, the door opened again. This time it was the remaining four team members. Stephen had met them all before but not in this new capacity as one of them, an equal, a peer. It made him self-conscious and he straightened his back to make himself as tall as possible. He wondered how the others were viewing him and if they thought he should be there. He had heard rumblings of skepticism to his appointment as Head of Sales. He didn’t want that to influence him but it was there in his mind all the same. They all greeted each other apart from Philippa who sat down without acknowledging him. Stephen thought of going over to shake her hand but decided not to.

Having completed the customary introductions, Alain took centre stage, sitting at the top of the table, and passionately started on the subject he had brought them there for.

“I know you all attended the Town Hall last week, where I already talked about the importance of culture. Our culture, just like any other company’s, is an indication of how we do business. And therefore it can either help us or hinder us, and I’m afraid that our culture has run away from us as we’ve paid very little attention to it. I want us all to focus on the culture of Black Sparrow Insurance. We can’t afford to leave it to chance. And frankly, the way it’s working now is not healthy. It has to change.”

He paused for effect and watched for reactions. His tall, slim frame made it easy for him to lean forward and quickly make eye contact with everyone.

“Yes, we did see your passion about the culture you want to create.“ Helmut made it sound as if it had nothing to do with him.

“It’s not about what I want, it’s about what we need for our survival” Alain responded firmly and held Helmut in his gaze. “Our industry is changing so fast that we need to have a strong culture that glues us together and guides our decisions and actions to be able to maneuver in the changing marketplace, without losing momentum”.

“What do you mean by “not healthy”? said Philippa, raising her head defiantly.

“Everyone’s working for themselves at the moment, you must see that!” Alain responded passionately. “And there are a number of reasons for that – growth in the industry and the regulatory pressures creates pockets and silos where people are simply focused at delivering their immediate targets rather than looking to the business as a whole. And we as leaders are guilty of not helping people see that we’re all in this together and that we can’t have different targets and goals. It’s wasting time, energy, effort and money. It’s absolutely crazy and it has to stop”.

The room was silent for a moment. The only sound was the rain splattering on the wall of windows facing the sea. The silence that followed felt too uncomfortable for Stephen. It felt like it was going on for minutes, but it was actually only seconds. He couldn’t let it go on any longer, so he spoke up:

“I can see where you’re coming from with this, Alain. I agree with you”

Philippa sighed and twisted her ponytail around her finger and shot a sideways glance at Helmut, who looked away.  

What’s with the new boy, playing teacher’s favourite! What a weakling. I have no respect for that. She thought to herself. I’d better put him in his place. She tried to hide her smile: Let the games begin!

Philippa smiled at Alain and said: “I’m sure all companies can improve in some way, but all this talk about culture is very fluffy and vague. So what is culture anyway? What do you know about it?” She wagged her pen at Stephen. The question was clearly aimed at him.

“Well, my understanding is that culture is about how we do things day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. It’s the little things that become the big things. For example, a friend of mine had a situation where he was in a one-to-one with his boss and his boss was texting someone else, which made him feel thoroughly ignored and not valued. Do we all pay full attention and give time to those important meetings or are we guilty of something similar? Because whatever we do, that’s a reflection of our culture.”

Alain nodded approvingly. “Yes, that is culture, isn’t it. And I have a very good example of why culture is so rarely the great driver it can be. I’ve been through this before and I know how it works, and more importantly why sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Alain shot up out of his chair and was already by the whiteboard, before they had even had time to move their heads his way.

He picked up a blue pen, visually checking that it wasn’t a permanent marker and then proceeded to resolutely put pen to board.

His writing was bold and the letters so big that the short message covered the whole board.

TOO MANY LAWS, TOO FEW EXAMPLES

“What do you think that means?” Alain asked them in a provoking way.

Alain was really pushing them now but they weren’t forthcoming with their responses, which made him annoyed. He had thought that the meaning of his written statement that was staring at them all from the board was so obvious, but this was clearly not the case. It was a good reminder for him that this wasn’t going to be as easy or straightforward as had thought it would be. The statement had been very poignant to him but he knew that he would have to be a bit more patient, starting with him explaining himself better and giving them the whole story.

“OK, let me explain what I mean. We could put more rules and regulations in place, but that rarely engages people. What really drives a culture is what the role models do – we need to be role models, we need to be the examples of the kind of culture we want everyone to embrace. So it’s not just about what we do, but how we do it. Culture is about behaviours. So you, just like me, need to become very aware of your own behaviours and the impact you are having on others.” He paused for effect.

“I’m going to be watching your leadership, and I want you to watch each other’s leadership. So as part of this journey, we’ll be going into a 360 degree feedback process for each of you individually as well as for your teams. Without it we are flying blind, and we must never be blind again”. It was a dramatic statement, just as Alain had intended it to be. He was consciously making an impact, as he wanted to shake them up a bit.

Helmut nodded slowly as he made the link between Alain’s written and spoken words.

In direct response to Alain’s speech, Philippa said: “Bring it on! This is exactly what we need”. She held her head high, exuding confidence and determination with her steady stare at Alain. Inwardly, her stomach was doing cartwheels as she was in no way looking forward to the prospect. Who knew what people were going to say about her?

“Good. I’m glad you’re taking this seriously. Now, let’s move on. What questions have you had from your departments after the Town Hall last week?” Alain continued to quiz them.

Various stories were now shared around the table, each of them taking turns to retell mainly positive responses to the culture discussion. They were gesturing, talking over each other and the room was getting decidedly animated in the process. Alain felt slightly encouraged by the heightened engagement; now they were looking directly at each other and he could feel the energy, the room felt warmer.  

As they were now all talking, Stephen all of a sudden found his voice getting louder and louder, simply to be heard. He then became aware that they were all staring at him, the stage was his.  Now I’ve got their attention, I need to make it count.

“If we now all agree that behaviours are that important, we need then consider that customer facing people are the biggest carriers of the culture.  So my area, Sales, plays a part in this. But an even bigger role is played by the Customer Service group; they are crucial to how the culture is perceived over time. Right, Helmut?”  Stephen hastily referred to Helmut as he had momentarily forgotten that Service was no longer his responsibility.

Helmut said “Yes” and his hand waved away the question with a sweeping movement.

Philippa leaned forward, ready to strike.

“Let’s not get carried away. Service is there to answer questions, but are fundamentally not more than scripted entry-level staff led by a junior leader” They’re muppets led by a mouse, but I can’t say that! “We shouldn’t exaggerate their importance. They are not more important than anyone else.”

Helmut chose not to comment, as he didn’t think he needed to defend his appointment of Anna. Instead, he confidently pushed back his chair and removed himself from the discussion and slowly walked to the back of the room, grabbing another bottle of water for the table.

Even though Stephen knew Helmut, he was still surprised by Helmut’s choice to not stand up for Anna.

Hm, how weird… I’ll take my lead from Helmut on this though, and not say anything thought Stephen. I don’t want to step on his toes.

Philippa mused at the lack of response and thought 1-0 to me!


This story gives a glimpse into how business cultures work, and how much cultures are shaped by the daily behaviours of people.

Alain is clearly keen to shape a greater culture, but he has got his work cut out for him as habits die hard, and cultural transformation does not happen overnight. But it can be done and it's so worth it.

Want to know more about cultural transformation? Read one of our articles about it here.

And please get in touch below if you want to further explore how you can shape a powerful, healthy, productive culture at work.

Please enter your contact details and a short message below and I will try to answer your query as soon as possible.

Author: Mandy and Elisabet

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