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The company culture cookbook: How to change the way we do things around here

Book cover

by Kevin M. Thomson, FT Prentice Hall, 2002.


“Great organisations are not the products of great individuals, but of great cultures.” This theme is accompanied by advice such as how to use dynamic dialogue, rather than a corporate megaphone. The cookery metaphor surfaces in discussion of ingredients, recipes, menus, courses, and avoiding poisonous mushrooms.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in November 2003)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

When celebrity cook Delia Smith was appointed a director of Norwich City football club a couple of years ago, she famously said that football and cookery are the two most important subjects in the country. Last year’s World Cup brought a rash of business books about the manager as football coach. So, perhaps it’s inevitable that we should now have a book about the manager as chef.

Great organisations, says the author of this book, are not the product of great individuals - they are the products of great cultures. And if you want a great culture, you can cook one up yourself using the menus and recipes he provides. These, he claims, are simple, quick to do, and tried and tested and, by creating a strong and vibrant workplace, will revitalise any organisation’s culture.

Achieving buy-in vs. selling

Our executive chef is Kevin Thomson, consultant and speaker on internal marketing and communication. His message is that success is achievable if you get the individuals in your organisation to ‘buy in’ to change rather than ‘selling it’ to them. He defines culture as the result of everything that happens when people get together with others and interact with them. We hear a lot about managing culture change, he says, but we need to change the way we change because organisational change in itself and as a goal of business is no longer enough to motivate people. People now recognise that crisis, conflict, consciousness of the world we live in and the way we create our work/life balance are as much a part of the way we do things as running and changing the business. Everyone wants to work in an environment that ‘gladdens the heart, helps the mind to soar, feeds the spirit and enriches the soul’.

Thomson says his book is a reaction against managing corporate change in a dull, complex, top-down manner. The inputs in his recipes are simple - though they may require hard work. The aim is to give every individual - starting with you - a way of changing which is fun, exciting and challenging but simple to understand and practical and pragmatic. His reason for choosing a cookbook format is that he wanted to find a new way to present his ideas and was inspired by the glossy, tantalising recipe book produced by his favourite restaurant.

Thomson believes his cookbook can help you develop your business, your performance, and your people worldwide by moving from the focus of changing culture to creating a new, exciting culture. His concern is how to change beliefs by changing behaviours and how to create emotional values by capturing hearts and minds in a way that will add economic value to your business. This involves getting everyone to see the vision and understand it, turning creativity and ideas into revenue through continuous innovation, and ‘changing the corporate megaphone into dynamic dialogue’ with your people. It also means seeing your people as internal customers rather than as merely employees and understanding that there is more than one recipe you can use to engage them.

Each section in the book begins with a quick overview of the basic ingredients and then gives you the recipes you need to start cooking. Once you have the recipes you can create a range of different results to help you face varying and numerous challenges. By changing the ‘say, do and look’ of your business, you can gradually change what people think, feel and believe. How we walk the talk produces the different cultures in organisations that have a profound impact on the success of the organisation. The author offers six menus with a total of 40 recipes and side dishes. Each of the six menus relates to the main components of business change that affect culture. These include: leadership, innovation, managing for high performance, communicating to achieve buy-in, questioning and saying thank you. The menus help to create the climate - the right environment in which you and your people work.

There are also some secret ingredients that must be used correctly - the emotions hidden in people’s hearts and without which you won’t be able to create the culture you want. The negative counterpart to the positive emotions are the red hot peppers which must be used very carefully or they will kill the taste if overused. You must also avoid the poison mushrooms; these are everywhere, look innocuous and are deadly.

Choose your menu

To use the cookbook, you select one of the six menus for change:

  1. Leading into the future.
  2. Innovating the way you innovate.
  3. Managing in fast companies.
  4. Questioning - the art of getting feedback (what, why, when, where, how, who?).
  5. Communicating - the art of getting buy-in.
  6. Saying thank you.

By using the colour-code you can turn immediately to the appropriate section of the book which describes the various dishes in detail. Each of the menus is supplemented by a ‘to-do’ list as a guide for future action. As an example, let’s take the first menu on ‘Leading into the future’. This consists of three courses and some secret ingredients to help us become more leaders and some warnings about poison mushrooms that could undermine our leadership style.

The first course

We are invited here to partake of four dishes, each of which has a one-page recipe devoted to it:

  • Talk the talk (the verbal language of leadership). Think hard about the impact of your language on the organisation. For example, if you use, hard-hitting military language like ‘Kill the competition’, what kind of culture will you create?
  • ‘I see’ - vision. The more personal a leader makes the vision and expresses what they think, feel and believe, the more likely people are to follow them.
  • ‘We are/we do’. In promoting the mission, use the word ‘we’ to emphasise that it is people coming together for a purpose that they want to achieve.
  • Creating valuE from valueS. Building emotional values builds economic value because people believe in what they do, are committed to delivering it, and do it in a way that satisfies their customers.

The secret ingredients in the menu consist of:

  • Obsession - with helping clients achieve better business results.
  • Challenge - anticipating and talking about crises and change.
  • Passion - telling people it’s great to be passionate about customer service.
  • Commitment - creating a ‘cause’ that people can believe in.
  • Determination - doing things that you show you are determined to live up to you mission, values, brand, etc.
  • Delight - having a reputation as a great, fun place to work.
  • Love - look for signs that your people love to work there.
  • Pride - this is the basis of great customer service.
  • Desire - whatever you and your people want your organisation to be, you have to change what you say and do and how you look.
  • Trust - you have to promote confidence in the integrity, value and reliability of the people, the team, the leaders and the organisation.

The red hot peppers

The tricky ingredients that need to be carefully measured and handled with care are: fear; anger; apathy; stress; anxiety; hostility; envy; greed; selfishness; and hatred. You have to decide whether these exist in your organisation and, if they do, how much of them is acceptable or desirable. Some stress is good, for example, as we all need to be pushed (says the author). But too much may be unhealthy.

You may have decided which of these ingredients you would like to use but you can’t have all of them operating at once, straight away. You have to choose so the author provides a questionnaire for identifying which ones are already ‘in your cupboard’ and which ones are ‘on your shopping list’. If you haven’t listed and measured the ingredients you have already got and if you don’t have a list of what you want in future, then you are not in control, he says.

The second course

This allows us to sample some more dishes:

  • Walk the walk - the body language of leadership. If you want to lead the development of a motivational climate, you must change your body language. The basic ingredients are the language of the eyes, the smile and the hands.
  • The language of eyes. The ingredient is the look of confidence. The method is to let your eyes smile, look people in the eye and watch their eyes to see what they are telling you.
  • The language of the smile - this is the barometer of success. The ingredient is a smile that says you care. The method is to look like you enjoy what you are doing - and smile. Practise smiling in front of the mirror.
  • The language of hands - this is an expression of leadership. The ingredients are lots of expressive gestures. The method is to move your hands a lot - eg punch the air with excitement or grab hold of the opportunity with both hands. A motionless performance, says the author, creates an emotionless audience.

The last course

The final two dishes here are two variations on business and brand leadership:

  • From the outside looking in. Your business is your brand and your people are your brand ambassadors. How your business and your people look on the inside will eventually show on the outside.
  • From the inside looking out. Watch people’s eyes to understand the way they look at the world and then match their language with your own words so they feel you’re on their side (this is a technique from Neuro-Linguistic Programming [NLP] which the author is very keen on).

The poison mushrooms of leadership

The thing you must avoid, as a leader, is giving the wrong looks when things are not going well such as a down-turned mouth, shaking your head, pointing fingers at people, or adopting a hard glint in the eye, etc. These are the postures of a leader who isn’t taking responsibility for what is happening in their organisation. They indicate a poor morale, low motivation workplace.

The author concludes the menu with a to-do list on leadership. He suggests you create a compelling statement that you are seen to have created and own as yours. Look for observable behaviours that demonstrate that what you say and what you do match. Check that the important things internally are adding value outside as well as inside by checking with customers and other stakeholders. Ask for feedback on how well you motivate people and count how often people smile around you. Ensure that everything from reception to the back door adds and does not detract from the external perception of your business and your brand. The author particularly recommends that you read up about NLP and go on a course.

The 16 personalities around the table

A good meal needs also needs people around the table to say and do things that make the meal memorable. In addition to the menus for change, the author provides a useful section on what makes people tick. This helps you work out who in your team is like what and why. ‘Shapes and shades’ is a psychometric test that is simple, quick and user-friendly. It explains that the colours and designs people use can help you understand them and communicate with them more effectively using their preferred style rather than yours (NLP again). For example, it enables you to identify the kind of work you prefer and what you hate and how you work with others. It helps you understand how you do what you do and how that fits in with others. You also get insights into how you communicate with others and how they need to communicate with you, and into what motivates you and how you motivate other people.

You can also identify who works best with whom by using the personality planner, a quick reference grid for working out who has what personality type. This tells you how many of the eight personality traits you have in your team (the boss, the loose cannon, the thinker, the investigator, the helper, the butterfly, the watcher, and the guardian angel). This gives you the right questions to ask about how to maximise the strengths of each individual and the team as a whole. It helps individuals and the team see how they can develop and also shows newcomers where they fit in. The author also says that it creates a non-threatening, fun language for resolving people and communication issues.

To find the right mix of personalities, you can use the ‘character complementer’ - this uses the eight personality traits to create descriptions of the 16 people you find in every walk of life. If you understand which of your people is which type, you can maximise their potential and create the right mix with others. (If you wish, you can visit the author’s website and do the personality pairs online for yourself and your team.)

Are your culture recipes working?

Finally the author provides six critical success factors that enable you to check whether your recipes and table planning have created the right results in terms of climate and culture. Three questions check on the climate you have created by asking what your people say, do and how they look when interacting with each other. The other three questions check the impact of the climate on your culture by asking what people think, feel and believe.

The author and the publishers have made a commendable attempt to find a different and more exciting way to present a management book. It is worth looking at for that reason alone. You have to decide, of course, whether this kind of approach works for you. Every other page of the book consists of a glossy, arty photograph supposedly illustrating the topic under discussion. These make it a very pretty book, but it has to be said the pictures don’t really add much to the text. Some people will love them, others will find them a distraction from the many good ideas in the book. Pictures in cookbooks are there to show you the finished product and to encourage you to try the recipes. You can’t really photograph corporate culture (at least not without reference to a specific organisation).

The author believes that everything has changed since September 11 2001. Leaders, managers and people in business will need to say and do things differently because people now feel differently. People are now concerned about safety, security and everything we are doing with our business and its brands. We need a new model for talking, listening, asking questions and eliciting responses. Communicate, communicate, communicate, says the author.

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