The culture imperative amid COVID-19

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by MNP.

There is an old saying: “A crisis is like a receding tide – it reveals the rocks beneath the surface that were there all along.”

Once businesses have addressed the initial challenge to merely survive the COVID-19 situation, the next question is how do they continue to perform and prepare for the future?

Your people are your business

Business leaders are rightly worried about shifting customer needs, supply chain security and manufacturing capacity. Public sector leaders must ensure critical services are delivered to the public. Both need to think about IT security infrastructure.

Amidst this complex time and these daunting thoughts, it’s easy to underestimate your organizational culture’s role in helping you tackle the coming challenges. But never forget: It’s your people who must get things done. And it’s your culture that dictates how that will happen.

Culture drives how decisions are made, the way work is accomplished and how processes are designed. It also determines employee loyalty and engagement.

Culture drives outcomes – good and bad

So how can a leader be most effective in addressing culture in crisis? Manley Hopkinson served as an Royal Navy officer during the first Gulf War, set a record skiing to the magnetic north pole and advises government entities around the world on how to deal with crises. His view is that effective crisis leaders must position themselves at the centre – not the top – of things, saying:

“Clarity of purpose, intent, and priority, long term and immediate, allows teams and individuals to be fully empowered. It enables teams of teams to make the right decisions, and it enables decisions to be made where the information lies. That is key.”

My own experience as an organizational culture expert has shown that more than 70 per cent of culture change programs fail due to a lack of focus on mindsets and behaviours – the real drivers of strategy. In addressing the change needed to manage the COVID-19 crisis I recommend organizational leaders take steps to address these two critical culture dimensions:

The right culture can get things done quickly and effectively

Companies with healthy cultures typically value safety, accountability and quick and effective decision-making. People are attentive to their work, each other and their shared objectives.

I recently spoke with a woman who leads a national medical supply distributor. She is not worried about the survival of her company – it is an essential service and her clients are very large pharmaceutical companies. But she is extremely concerned about the health and wellbeing of her employees.

Her team is working hard at the operating level to ensure a safe environment in her distribution centres, protect the health of drivers and ensure deliveries to clinics and individual patients are made in the best possible manner. 

Her company’s culture supports decisiveness and teamwork, and she is talking about the company’s values daily. There likely aren’t a lot of rocks beneath the surface in this organization – just smooth sand.

Loyalty and trust depend on culture

A crisis is the time to double down on your investments in employee value propositionsemployer brands and employee engagement. People will long remember how leaders dealt with layoffs and how they talked about their team members — the people getting things done: Whether the messages about how to deal with the pandemic conveyed sincere concern for employees’ wellbeing, whether anyone was listening to their concerns — or whether it was all about the numbers. 

Not only will they remember, but they will talk about their leaders and the culture of their organizations. 

Getting from here to there means identifying your culture’s enabling and limiting mindsets / behaviours and identifying the messages needed to accelerate transformation. And if the message isn’t fabulous — or even simply very good — attracting and keeping the people who will do the right things well going forward will be very hard indeed.

Mary Larson, MBA, ICD.d, is a Partner with MNP’s Consulting Services Group. She has helped clients and C-suite executives across the world build leadership capacity and embed cultures that foster outstanding execution. 

To learn more about how you can help optimize your organization’s culture and enhance your ability to respond to change, contact Mary Larson at 514.515.2553 or To find more business advice in the age of COVID please visit