Ethos (noun): the characteristic, spirit of a culture, era or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations
I started senior school in 1981 (don’t spread it around).
I remember arriving at the school gates on my first day feeling terrified. I was going to be tested to another level, exam results would now count towards my future, and I faced the daunting task of making a whole new set of friends as most of mine had gone to a different school. But the years that followed that first day were some of the best of my life. Why? In retrospect,
I can see it was all down to ethos (well, it may have also had something to do with youthful skin, Madonna and a ready supply of 1980s confectionary, but I feel they are slightly less relevant to my work at Blue Sky).
Looking back through adult eyes, I now understand that our headmaster (shout out to Mr Hargreaves!) and his leadership team established a culture that was strong and intentional, yet also fun. I’m still in contact with many people from my year, and that’s partly down to the cohesive, collaborative and supportive atmosphere those teachers spread throughout the school.
Other schools in our area envied us, and if there had been ‘employee engagement rankings’ for local schools, we would have been firmly at the top.
Why does ethos matter?
Once you start to notice it, ethos is everywhere.
Family, politics, education, business, technology – they’re all hugely influenced by their ethos (or lack of it).
Think of the companies you have worked for.
Hopefully, there are a few that had an ethos you loved (including the one you are in now!). There is nothing better. It starts at the induction; it’s a wonderful feeling to realise that the organisation you’ve joined has a strong sense of purpose that is aligned with your values and goals.
Conversely, there is nothing worse than believing a company is a certain way, then joining and then rapidly realising it is all smoke and mirrors.
I once interviewed a guy who worked for a large blue-chip organisation. The brand in question promised to be exciting and fresh, with a great team spirit and a loyal customer base. It was ethos which had attracted him to work there in the first place.
However, what he experienced from day one was very different. He had no manager access for six weeks (too busy!), he was given no laptop nor tools for the job.
In fact, it was a “fend-for-yourself” working environment.
Luckily, this guy was very self-motivated. He took accountability to make things happen to become successful in his own right, but he was still working stupid hours with little support.
Unsurprisingly, he soon started to question his decision to work there, he desperately wanted the experience to be different and tried to improve it, but he soon realised that there was only so much he could do.
The tone was set from the top down, and the top wasn’t going to budge. Before long, he moved to a competitor that did have an exciting, fresh, united ethos. This new organisation had a public sector reputation, so the guy initially feared it would be, frankly, quite dull. However, this was not the case, and because the leaders genuinely believed in the ethos, that ethos showed up.
So what does good ethos look like?
Well, I just so happened to be consulting with the business this guy joined, in a development capacity. I worked closely with the director, and for a while, I had pushback on the changes in their culture I believed needed to occur.
However, one person in the leadership team decided to step up, be brave and test it. The results were phenomenal, and this one win gave the director the appetite to apply the change to his multi-million-pound business. Soon we saw the culture transform from one of fear, anxiety and poor results to one not only celebrated internally but envied by competitors.
How did this change happen?
It began with the director defining their company ethos.
For the first time, his team developed a good understanding of their raison d’etre. He got close to his people and ensured they had the development and support they needed to shine. He got to understand and recognise best practice in his business, and the attributes needed to succeed.
Soon he needed to expand his operation and recruit more salespeople in. But when he interviewed people from outside the business on better packages, he found that they weren’t showing the skills and behaviours that were compatible with his new ethos. Interestingly, this got him realising he had a lot of good talent under his wing that he hadn’t appreciated before.
The director now faced the challenge of not just attracting talent but preventing his existing talent from going elsewhere. This was tough, as the organisation was going through a lot of change, and some people were questioning whether it was the right fit for them.
But he didn’t automatically dismiss people who didn’t fit in as a lost cause. To keep the momentum, he knew he had to ensure his people were part of the change.
He explored whether their skills might be better suited in another role that would still add value to the business. He encouraged ideas and feedback. He worked to understand their successes and challenges and even listened to their customers.
The result was a company that not only had a super-strong ethos but was able to help its people adapt to and embrace that ethos – and propel it further than he could have ever hoped.
The 4 key ethos questions
In a world of incredibly fast change, businesses need to be firmer than ever about what they stand for.
If you create a purpose-driven workplace, where your people feel valued and supported, you have the best possible foundation for growth – just as that brilliant senior school had done and set me up for life.
So to test the health of your ethos you should answer these four simple questions as honestly as you can :
- What is your culture?
- Is it future fit?
- Do your engagement figures back this up?
- What small changes can you make that might take you in a better direction?
Seeing your ethos with ruthlessly clear eyes is the first step.
If you need help to redefine, strengthen or transform it, just get in touch. We’d love to help.