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The Role of Leadership in Creating a Company Culture

It is an unfortunate coincidence that this week we are talking about the role of leadership in creating a company culture. I guess I don’t need really need to expand on this too much given that we have been witnessing the horrific results of leadership in our own culture all too vividly.

Edgar Schein, a prominent researcher of organisational culture stated that it can be argued that the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture; that the unique talent of leaders is their ability to understand and work with culture; and that it is an ultimate act of leadership to destroy culture when it is viewed as dysfunctional.

The GFSI TWG defines food safety cultures as, “shared values, beliefs and norms that affect mindset and behaviour toward food safety in, across and throughout an organization.” 

When we look at the role of leadership in establishing organisational culture, Schein argues that culture is created by shared experience, but it is the leader who initiates this process by imposing his or her beliefs, values, and assumptions at the outset. 

He indicates some mechanisms that leaders use consciously or subconsciously to “embed” their beliefs, values and assumptions:

Primary Embedding Mechanisms

• What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis
• How leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crises
• How leaders allocate resources
• Deliberate role modelling, teaching, and coaching
• How leaders allocate rewards and status
• How leaders recruit, select, promote, and excommunicate 
Secondary Articulation and Reinforcement Mechanisms
• Organizational design and structure
• Organizational systems and procedures
• Rites and rituals of the organization
• Design of physical space, facades, and buildings
• Stories about important events and people
• Formal statements of organizational philosophy, creeds, and charters

If we examine his research and apply this to food safety management systems, you may be able to spot why some areas in your organisation have gone wrong. Let’s look at some examples in food safety.

1.    What is important enough to measure? 

It goes without saying that all organisations will be measuring profit and rightly so. But if our leadership team are not tracking key quality and food safety indicators, we are given a clear message that these aspects are NOT important. Food safety objectives are more than just fancy words.

2.    What to do if product is found to be unsafe? What about a recall?

If the leadership team’s immediate and only reaction is “RETEST” then the message may be interpreted that there is a lack of trust in the quality department. What happens when the retest results are obtained can also give a very clear indication to the team of how much leadership really values food safety. Rudy Giuliani said that it is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge. 

3.    Put your money where your mouth is

We can only implement effective food safety systems if we have the resources to do so and leaders sign the purchase orders and approve the budgets, don’t they?

4.    Walk the talk

Ever tried to convince food handlers to wear hairnets after the manager has walked through the area not wearing this required workwear? You know the importance of setting a positive example and a consistent one.

5.    What are we rewarding and does this create contradiction?

Often our key performance incentives can become perverse incentives. If I am rewarded for cutting my budget, why would I want to use those expensive cleaning chemicals that are registered and validated as effective? The cheaper ones look much more attractive. Someone in procurement is rewarded for keeping the cost of purchases as low as possible – why would I want to use only approved suppliers? We create our own food safety obstacles.

6.    It’s not about the food safety policy

Although this may be an audit point, the existence of this document is not going to improve the food safety culture. It’s HOW leadership applies these words that really matters – every day, all day.

Sometimes it is easier to spot a poor leader. According to Schein: “These embedding mechanisms all interact and tend to reinforce each other if the leader’s own beliefs, values, and assumptions are consistent. By breaking out these categories I am trying to show the many different ways in which leaders can and do communicate their assumptions.

Most newcomers to an organization have a wealth of data available to them to decipher the leader’s real assumptions. Much of the socialization process is, therefore, embedded in the organization’s normal working routines. It is not necessary for newcomers to attend special training or indoctrination sessions to learn important cultural assumptions. These become quite evident through the daily behavior of the leaders.”

A sober thought.