The clean slate – how to start afresh

business teamToxic cultures within retail organisations of any size are as insidious as they are entrenched, with deeply entangled root systems. If left unchecked, or only mitigated with superficial changes, the damage wrought can bring down the entire house. For retailers, salvaging the house means the right decision might have be the tough decision: To uproot the toxic old guard and start afresh with a team aligned to new values and purpose.

However, the reality of implementing effective transformational change is a complex procedure. Insight, expertise and time are needed.

Despite this, there is also an urgency to correcting a toxic culture. With so much disruption in play across retail, there is too much at stake to maintain an underperforming status quo. Pioneers Uber forged a disruptive pathway; proving to the taxi industry that an indifferent culture is unsustainable for organisations looking to survive in a new business reality. Ironically, Uber has also demonstrated that a toxic culture is neither industry specific nor inherent to established businesses – and costs more than money.

So, what does a toxic culture look like? To varying degrees it’s high staff turnover, low productivity, consistently failed initiatives, it’s excuses, over-used sick leave, increased work cover claims, and it’s decreasing or flat profits and negative growth. It’s bullying, blaming, harassment, disengagement, it’s a failure to attract great talent and it’s an absence of values and purpose that creates a work environment that no one want’s to be part of – least of all your customers.

Where to start?

You start with your leaders. From single store to multinationals, leaders are custodians of organisational culture. However, leadership is much more than how those in positions of influence behave. As ResearchGate defines in Destructive Leadership: ‘Leadership is a dynamic, co-creational process between leaders, followers, and environments, the product of which contributes to group and organisational outcomes.’

Replacing a few ineffective leaders might invigorate a company in the short-term, but much like tangled root systems, culture runs deep. You can’t make fundamental cultural change until you identify, remove, or retrain those affiliated with, or ensnared by, poor leadership.

Where to look?

Brad Banducci, CEO of Woolworths and Guy Russo, Group CEO of Kmart and Target are two tried, tested and proven transformational advocates who evangelise getting-on-the-shop-floor and looking-under-the-hood. Five minutes on ground observing, talking and listening to your frontline will tell you more than weeks of executive feedback.

Some say that within a toxic culture any executive conversations about existing problems are nullified by their own feedback loop. Whether this is because executives are a breed highly skilled at protecting themselves, or that the true intel on what’s really going on isn’t getting to them, is moot. The net result is the same; you won’t get the full story.

You might also have other tools like employee surveys and exit interviews to review, use them. But still, spend time on your shop floor and seeing for yourself what works, what doesn’t, and who are your key blockers of change. That is the most valuable insight you’ll get.

Bad apples and bruised fruit

As mentioned earlier, bad leaders can’t act alone. Toxic cultures permeate through managerial ranks and down the line via colluders and conformers. The former either share values of the toxic leader or they rally to power. The latter are either hierarchically inclined, submissive or subdued – the ‘bruised fruit’. Identifying these individuals is essential to affecting longlasting cultural change.

You also need to identify your allies. Those who want to and are capable of performing better under a productive leadership – some of these might be former colluders and conformers. Non-confrontationally challenge them on how they view the company and their role within it. Ask them about their own values and purpose. Those who don’t belong there will quite often opt out on their own.

Tenure is not a get-out-of-jail free card, nor an extremely high skill set. A combination of attitude and aptitude are the hallmarks of a forward thinking, values-based culture.

Paving the way

No-one comes to work to do a bad job and everyone involved in an organisation has something at stake. It is vital to have a well-defined strategy that everyone understands. If you want to get everyone on board, it’s just as important to be uncompromisingly clear, consistent and deliberate in the implementation of change.

Once they are on board, maintaining change brings another set of challenges. Once you’ve set fast your values and purpose, retrained your best people and brought in new blood, you need to ensure everyone has a voice, that they are ‘playing in position’ with autonomy and accountability. It is only with a bone-deep understanding of new values and the expectations surrounding them that you will stay the course to prosperity.

Moving forward, your remit is to hire for cultural fit aligned on your company purpose and values. If you don’t have a strong HR department, or it’s been rocked by changes and they need assistance, enable them. Hire outside the organisation. It’s pointless to go to so much effort to have it undone with lack of foresight here.


New energy and new vitality at the top will flow down as surely as it flows up. Your teams will be performing at optimal levels, you will be empowering future leaders from within your own organisation, and you’ll retain and attract the top talent in your sector.

A productive culture delivers growth, innovation and profit. You’ll have happier teams, happier customers and for publicly-listed companies, happier shareholders. Allowing you greater leeway to bring to life your organisation’s purpose and your own professional satisfaction.

Richard Wynn is co-founder and managing partner at FutureYou.; 0448 416 172.


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