Jeremy’s Blog – “Cars and Care – Culture at Work”

I was invited to a Care England conference this week to discuss “culture”. Not the stuff in healthy yoghurt but the stuff that management consultants are prone to talk about.

Culture in management terms is apparently the glue that makes organisations thrive or, in some cases, dive. The thesis of the conference was that culture is far more important in companies than strategy. As one speaker put it, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. She was not talking about yoghurt either.

Early in my career I worked for a large automotive company.I doubt I understood what culture meant as a 21 year old starting out in the big wide world, but the company certainly had a strong culture. The culture of no change, no innovation, no progress. The culture of “because that’s the way we do it”. It was certainly an interesting environment to learn in. And I learnt a lot. Mostly how not to run a company.

Bursting with youthful vigour in 1985, I discovered that the parts warehouse had a large stock of commercial vehicle fuel pumps for an obsolete lorry. In fact, I calculated, about 150 years’ stock based on sales at that time. I also found out that the obsolete vehicles were extensively used in Africa and found an exporter who was prepared to buy the entire stock. However, based on such a large order, they wanted a discount from our usual wholesale price. Not unreasonable, I thought and proposed to my manager that we should offer a 20% discount. “We can’t do that” he told me. “Why not?” I enquired. “Because we don’t offer discounts from wholesale prices”. I pointed out that we would in fact be better off if we gave them away in order to free up space for something we might actually sell. “We are not allowed to give a discount” was the response. So I went to see his boss. He did at least manage to see the sense in it but he was not allowed to make such a momentous decision either. So I went to see his boss who was also unable to decide. Being very junior in a desperately hierarchical organisation, there were a lot of bosses above me. I went to them all. Eventually, I made such a nuisance of myself that the decision was referred to the main board of directors. Miraculously, they agreed. Even more miraculously, the exporter was still interested many weeks later when such a simple decision was made.

Nobody thanked me for making the company a profit and saving a huge amount of warehousing cost. In fact, most people decided that I was clearly a bit troublesome. Of course, most people were not naïve enough to bother. A few “no’s” was enough. They either joined the “because that’s the way we do it” culture or, like me, left.

So what is Middleton Hall’s culture? I guess you would have to ask the staff, but when we ask how they feel about Middleton Hall in our Employee Satisfaction survey, they use comments like:

“Everyone’s passion for MH”

“Pride in the work that I do for MH’s vision”

“Knowing I’ve made a change/supported people the best I can for them to be happy and live well”

“Being appreciated for the effort put in as an employee”

“Classy staff”

“Team work”

“Great people work here”

“It’s a lovely environment to work in”

“Being part of a company that has inspirational leadership, a clear vision, strong ethical values and strives to be the best in everything they do”

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The company I worked for in the 1980s never actually asked anyone what they thought, but if they had they might not have found too many comments like that. So whatever our “culture” might be, I am reassured that it has a positive effect on our customers.

And, for me, that is what is important about culture.