8 clues that give your culture away

Dr Nick Udall
7 min readDec 16, 2020

Part 2: The final 4 and a bit more

So, where was I? Oh yes, the clues and cues that I look for to understand what is really running the show, and that can also be used to tune the frequency at which a culture operates.

In Part 1…

1. Energy rich or poor?

2. Time rich or poor?

3. How meetings are run?

4. How the top team meet?

So, onto Part 2 and the next four.

5. What’s the leader like?

This one is a hot potato. The leader at the top has exponential impact on a culture, or sub-culture. If the leader is a bureaucrat, so is the organisation. If the leader is fanatical about time management, so is the organisation. If the leader is a good listener, or deeply reflective, or a visionary … then so is the organisation. If the leader is all about people, so is the organisation — although be wary of this one, as leaders often espouse being a people-leader when in fact it’s all about them. In this instance, if the leader has a big ego, is insecure and/or high maintenance, then the organisation will masterfully set up sophisticated coping mechanisms to manage it and them.

It is what it is.

If the leader’s traits lean to being rather conventional then the culture will have likely adapted to manage the cost and consequence of overbearing hierarchies. This means leaders will be sitting at the centre of their respective teams; meetings will be about their needs — or their boss’s needs; and the energy in the system will be directly proportionate to the energy they give or don’t give on any given day.

If the leader’s traits lean to being post-conventional then you’ll see cultures where talent and passion are able to flourish, irrelevant of status; meetings are about the work and thinking together; and the system is able to tap into larger and more collective wellsprings of energy.

Now, here comes the interesting bit.

Any and all of these leaders will have ‘grown up’ being rewarded for their respective traits; it will have become part of their ‘model of success’. Their model will have been indoctrinated by the previous cultural patterns they’ve had to navigate and survive. If you think about it, that’s quite an entangled and self-fulfilling set of systemic patterns.

So, it takes a certain type of leader to break free of such a legacy imprint. Of course, there are lots of theories about this, in particular the ego-development stages of leaders. Personally, I am a huge believer in these models, but less so in their linearity. From a transformational perspective I believe you can help most leaders leap and leapfrog stages, through the power of !! (breakthrough) experiences (see my inaugural blog).

When you feel into the specific journey a leader has been on, it’s not too difficult to decode how to help them leap forward. And the pressure is now mounting, because conventional ways of working and leading have been hitting a performance ceiling for several years. Leaders still need to do the inner work required to become shapers and makers of more progressive, purposeful, innovative and agile cultures — for as within, so without.

6. How is information used?

This is a much quicker one at one level, and way more subtle at another level. This is about how information is used in an organisation. This is particularly important in our big data / data analytics age, where we are rapidly developing the capacity to shape priorities and even businesses, based on predictive and prescient insight.

Interestingly, technology isn’t the tricky bit; it’s the human dimension, because you need a certain level of trust and transparency for information to flow, let alone ask the right questions and gain new insight, or be able to adjust and swarm around those new insights at will and with skill.

If politics and powerplays, internal competition, mistrust and fear are running the show, then information doesn’t flow — because information has become power. The challenge is to flip it and make information democratic, free flowing and expansive.

Information is a key clue, for it is rapidly becoming a growth driver in its own right. How it is used (or abused) is a signal of the level of consciousness and maturity of a culture.

7. How do functions see their role?

The penultimate clue is how corporate functions see themselves in a system. Do they see themselves in service of the business units? Are they tolerated, ignored or side-lined by the business units? Have they become incumbent machines running the show and that are independently setting the drumbeat of the organisation — albeit slightly off the beat?

Or are they strategically astute, leading the way, digital and agile, sensing the future and being catalytic in nature?

More often than not from our experience, we see functions typically fall into one of two camps. They either feel insecure and threatened, often by the smallest things, and therefore put a lot of time and energy into being defensive and justifying their existence; or they drive full steam ahead, with passion and energy, but most likely out of relationship with everyone else.

Functions have a tricky systemic place in organisations. Should they be servile? Can they be true partners? Have they a place at the table? What’s their unique contribution — especially in such a rapidly changing and digitising landscape, where you can get many self-service services cheaper and more effective on the open market?

And yet, I’m a big believer that this is the time for functions to leap forward. This is their time to innovate and step into bigger roles. By this I don’t mean a power grab, rather I mean learning to claim their true expertise by taking their ‘practices’ to new and next levels.

Take HR, for example. For purpose-led organisations to become innovation powerhouses you need the best of your people to turn up every day. You need teams, and communities of teams, to be greater than the sum of their parts. And you need leaders to create and hold spaces in which their people can surprise themselves with what they can achieve together. This is the perfect opportunity for HR to develop and reclaim their expertise in unlocking human potential, as opposed to being the managers and soldiers of signature processes.

Or take Finance, Strategy, IT, Procurement even … how are they creating frameworks, processes and systems that enable and facilitate agility, distributed networks, self-organisation, innovation, partnership, and foresight and insight?

There has never been a better time for functions to step forward as catalysts of the future!

Now, I was tempted to put in something on performance management and reward as the last and final clue. They are critically important signature processes. I often say that a key characteristic of a peak-performing culture of innovation is its spirit of generosity and its quality of appreciation. Please note this refers to the simple act of taking time out to authentically appreciate another human being — and should not be confused with spot bonuses and other trendy rewards.

I could also speak about how performance and reward systems need to quickly move away from being so individualistic, and become much more team and community based; as well as impact rather than activity driven.

But I wanted to end with something way more interesting…

8. What’s getting in the way of the work?

As the old adage goes: “The work that gets in the way of the work is the work.”

When you start preparing to do this type of work, where real change, not pseudo change, is the name of the game, the blockers and resisters of change very quickly reveal their hand. They can’t help themselves — whether conscious or unconscious. This is the first challenge for leader(s). Do they get knocked off centre by this resistance or do they hold a quiet centre, notice what is, and hold their nerve?

Resistance comes in many forms: wanting more and more information, procrastination, avoidance, gate-keepership, saying we’re too busy and don’t have time, the ‘machine’ jumping the gun, people using their leader’s name in vain, taking things back to the team for consensus-based approval … this list is long.

The irony is that most of the so-called blockers have the greatest opportunity in front of them, but they are too attached to what they know and afraid to let go. While a whole new world of possibilities lies around the corner, they instead choose to entrench and defend.

This is where ‘core energy’ is needed. This is where we need evocative leaders to take their people out of their comfort zones, and on journeys into the unknown, where they can discover something new, and rediscover themselves and their potential along the way.

Don’t think of this as developmental, linear, or about filling ourselves up with more knowledge and know-how. Tuning cultures is about insight, breakthrough and transformation. It is as much about letting go and letting in, as it is about leaping forward and doing things you never thought you could do. It requires courage and conviction, determination and perseverance. And above all it takes time.

Tuning a culture is a multi-year journey. If you think it’s a quick fix, think again. And yet, you should be able to see and feel significant and surprising shifts, in each of these eight areas, within 3–6 months. In this time, change should have moved from a top-down push or, god forbid, cascade, to a system-wide ‘pull’ and ripple.

If you haven’t, and it isn’t, then you’re more than likely doing it the old way — which doesn’t work!



Dr Nick Udall

CEO of nowhere. Former Chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Author. Keynote speaker. Creative-Catalyst.