There has been a cultural shift across multiple industries and geographies. Internationally organisations are recognising that the ethics, the values and the conduct of the Board is paramount. The onus is now on ‘culture capturing’ - not finding someone from a specific educational institute or with a certain set of skills and experiences. Because, if the organisation can’t define and implement the right culture at the Board, then it won’t transcend into the customer experience. Marlin Hawk is a leadership advisory and executive search firm that delivers the next generation of global business leaders. Its consultants discuss why organisations must define and implement the right culture at the Board...


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What is the difference between the old guard and the new?

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Why is corporate culture so important these days?

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How can headhunters reflect a client’s culture?

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How do you truly evaluate a candidate’s cultural fit?

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How do CEOs in culture aware companies define success?

Charlie: What we see increasingly when we speak to our clients around leadership is that their requirements are now much more about a values-based, behavioural set of abilities rather than a technical skill set. Clearly in a top-level leadership role there needs to be a strong technical background but it’s more about how they interact within complicated matrix organisations as the model of businesses moves away from rigid and linear structures. Leaders now have to demonstrate those softer skills in abundance.

Mark: There is an openness to bringing in people from different cultures and environments, but in order to do this every part of the existing culture, including the structure and hierarchy, needs to change to enable those new people to come in to the environment. The most desired individuals are no longer the ones with decades of experience but are instead those that come from more innovative backgrounds. If you look at the industries that have grown the fastest, it is Private Equity and pure-play Tech – both of which have grown from entrepreneurial beginnings. This has caused CEOs who surround themselves with these new types of people to flatten the hierarchy in these larger organisations in order to enable the innovative, next-gen, entrepreneurial types to influence more effectively at the senior level.

Jonathan: In the last twenty years the profile of leaders has radically changed due to the customer-centricity of businesses. Individuals are now more aware of how they need to represent the firm, rather than themselves. In the past it was all about the ‘rockstar CEO’ with no regard for how the average person on the street perceived them as the leader of their business. You can’t hide at the top of the tree anymore, so it’s much more about the cultures, values and ethics of the person who runs the company. The financial goals are the same, but the means of delivering them is fundamentally different, a multichannel ecosystem that revolves around the customer, with multiple checkpoints for exemplary conduct. Before, CEOs could do whatever they wanted as long as they got results. Now the end result is a by-product of behaving well.

Ben: From an Asian perspective, there’s still that dominant top-down culture that tends to determine how businesses are run. That very autocratic approach to developing cultures within organisations is still present - driven by whoever is the Chairman or CEO. But that is changing to encompass more entrepreneurialism – something that is not commonplace in Asian culture – due to the growth of the digital and e-commerce world. There is a phenomenon called ‘Chairman Now’, a new guard of leadership that blends Asian and Western cultures to better align a global approach to local clients. So there is change, but there is still a long way to go. Relationships and ‘guanxi’ is still paramount. ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is still prevalent in Asia – something you would associate with business culture in Europe probably a decade ago.

Charlie: Jobs for life don’t exist anymore, especially if we think about the next generation of millennials coming in to leadership roles, so talent attraction is more important than ever and what people are attracted to is the way businesses operate. This is why traditional companies are changing and evolving, so that they can lure the very best talent. But culture needs to be communicated clearly through digital distribution – it is no longer about carvings in oak-panelled Boardrooms. Individuals can make very easy choices about what type of business they work in and therefore it is critical that leadership sets the right culture to attract talent.

Mark: Corporate culture in the modern US environment is a significant factor around what is motivating and moving people. For them, the biggest challenge is retention. Across all industries there is a huge concern of people receiving very large buyouts, going to organisations and then only staying for a few years. Therefore when companies are focusing on their corporate culture they need to ensure that it is accurately reflected both externally and internally, and is consistent across the whole organisation. This way when they bring people in from the external market these individuals land and are embedded in to the culture that they have chosen and in which they can thrive. Individuals are no longer moving for financial gain, they want a ‘home’ where they can develop and realise their potential. Corporate culture needs to be fluid, evolving in line with market developments so that it remains attractive to top talent.

Jonathan: Within our industry it’s not just about skills and experience, it has to be about culture matching, so we need to make sure that we reflect the culture of the companies we represent. For example, you cannot represent a very fast-moving, emerging, digital agency when you wear a pinstripe suit, shirt and tie in an oak-panelled office. Therefore we try to immerse ourselves in to the culture of the business today and the culture of the business going forward. We do this is by interviewing the selection panel and asking about the values, culture, conduct and principles of the organisation. And they might not be able to answer without the use of corporate spiel, so once we ask the obvious questions we then find out ourselves. We spend time in the canteen as well as the Boardroom and become an extension of the client. We call it ‘Straight Through Processing’, from culture capture right through to selection.

Ben: Organisational culture in Asia is a grey area as it’s not very easy to work out. It is not something you immediately learn and so it takes a lot of time when representing them. It is incredibly difficult to fathom what the cultural nuances are in the Asian market. This requires many meetings, patience and observation. The reason the ‘Asian Way’ is so difficult is because they have a culture of silence - people don’t speak out against the status quo nor do they articulate different cultural opinions or views that may be against the corporate values of an organisation. To break down the silence it’s very much about being patient, getting to know the people in the business and building those relationships - and that naturally happens over a protracted period of time.

Charlie: The goal is to clearly identify that the candidates’ values and behaviours match those of the company. In the past, too much emphasis was put on their track record, experience and technical skills as opposed to cultural fit. But the new generation of executive search professionals need to be able to blend science and art during the selection of a candidate. Therefore you need to be rigorous and thorough during the search process in order to gain an acute insight in to the character behind the CV. Then you can delve in to what makes that individual tick and what they are truly looking for from a values and culture perspective. Going in to the selection process with an open mind is essential and can often lead to unexpected discoveries of talent in the market place.

Jonathan: Don’t be surprised if we ask our assistants how they were treated by a candidate. The person who arrives in the interview could be incredibly polished but may have acted hierarchically, or dismissively, towards them on the way in. We want a person who can naturally engage with anyone including security or reception – that is our first subtle way of assessment. Then, it’s about meeting them in the right environment, somewhere our client would be proud of, not necessarily having a discussion over a glass of wine, with the piano playing in the background at a gentleman’s club.

Everyone talks about aptitude vs attitude. For us it has to be both, you can’t have one without the other. So we delve down in to their hobbies, their interests, their values, and then really go back to their roots and find out who they actually are, rather than who they can be as a leader stood in front of 5000 people at a company’s annual conference. It is about peeling the layers of the onion skin and finding the root cause of who they actually are when they wake up in the morning, how they motivate and inspire, what they think about and how they negotiate.

We do this by asking competency-based questions, but before they enter the room you will be recognising what they are like through informal referencing. A search firm’s network is important because it does validate certain aspects, but you can’t be assumptive and therefore you would correlate that against the pre-defined sets of cultural elements that are important to the client we are representing. Lastly, we do try and make people feel a little bit awkward, not uncomfortable, because at the end of the day we have to kiss a lot of frogs on behalf of our clients.

Charlie: The mindful leader thinks about cultural sustainability, redefining the purpose of the business for the long term, beyond his or her tenure.

Jonathan: Instilling loyalty without financial influence, establishing customer centricity, fostering strong collegial behaviour and leaving a self-policing legacy.

Mark: In the US, not just by making the company better but by changing the way that their industry is perceived.

Ben: In Asia, injecting entrepreneurialism, blending East with West and not stifling growth.

About Marlin Hawk

Marlin Hawk is a leadership advisory and executive search firm that delivers the next generation of global business leaders. Covering three broad sectors - consumer, technology & industry, wholesale & retail financial services and professional services - the firm focuses on Board, NED, C-suite and senior executives across revenue leadership roles (General Management, Commercial, Digital) and operational effectiveness leadership roles (Operations, Finance, Risk, Compliance, Technology, HR). In addition to executive search and interim management, services include market intelligence & benchmarking, partnership programmes, talent mapping & analysis and leadership assessment & coaching. The emphasis is on insight, discovery, culture matching and business transformation.

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