Culture is the key competitive edge of the 21st century
In a world where it is increasingly difficult for organisations to differentiate based on branding, product and services, an organisation’s culture and employee experience are among its most important competitive advantages, says Andrew Wood, CEO at The Unlimited.
These factors determine in large part how innovative the company will be, the experience its customers will have with the business, how the external world will view the organisation, how well employees perform and collaborate, and how the company will weather the challenges it faces, according to Wood.
“Most organisations today understand that their people are their most important assets—culture is how you get the best from them,” says Wood. “Culture is the means by which an organisation guides its colleagues towards reaching their full potential and ensures that the combination of the people working with the business adds up to more than the sum of each part.”
The organisational culture can be defined as the behaviours, values and beliefs that are shared by the leadership team and the people who work for the business. Whereas polices, rules and procedures encode what people must do in the workplace, culture is about the greyer areas that are harder to define in an employee handbook, says Wood.
“Culture is what determines whether employees feel they can share innovative ideas with their managers and whether they see their co-workers as competitors or collaborators,” Wood adds. “It’s about how they will handle an unprecedented request from a client or an ethical dilemma not covered by company policy.”
In short, a culture shapes how the people interact with each other, with customers, with leaders, and with the organisation’s vision, strategy and objectives. As Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, puts it: “When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.”
An organisational culture will develop, irrespective of whether the business’s leaders make a conscious effort to shape it, Wood says. That is why leaders and founders of a company should not simply think about their vision and mission statement, but also about how they will create a culture to bring it to life.
“This starts with hiring the right people who share your values and goals, and stretches to how you structure the business, how managers work with their teams, and which behaviours you reward and celebrate,” Wood says. “For example, you can’t reward people for conformity when you want disruptive thinking, or for saving money at the expense of the customer-experience if you want a customer-centric culture.”
Wood says that a successful company culture should recognise how the world has changed—a tech-savvy younger generation is entering the job market and they have different values to their parents and grandparents. For example, they want more flexible work conditions, more purpose to their jobs, and more collaboration.
The culture at The Unlimited is one that values emotional resilience, courage, consciousness, vulnerability and accountability. The company has developed this culture over the years by hiring people that share these qualities, helping them to set ambitious goals and supporting with them with the tools and freedom to be at their best.
“We don’t stifle people with processes or put them in boxes and siloes. Our workplace is a kaleidoscope of stimuli—full of interactive workspaces, hip pause areas, balanced healthy active lifestyles, buzz and colour,” says Wood. “We want our colleagues to fill their workdays with new ideas, images, and concepts.”
The Unlimited been recognised as a top employer every year between 2011 and 2015. Wood attributes these accolades to always staying true to its culture and values, with a focus on employees’ advancement, ownership and well-being.
“Culture has become a vital part of what attracts the best young talent to an organisation,” says Wood. “Organisations cannot simply say that they put people first or that they are good social citizens to attract high-calibre people—they actually need to live it in how they do business.”
ABOUT: THE UNLIMITED
Based in Hillcrest, Durban, we've been growing since 1994 and today we have offices located across the country. Staffed by more than 1400 people, our values drive everything we do. They are the foundation we stand on and the reason we have over 750 000 satisfied customers.