Culture: drive it from the top, see it in the bottom line


By Marno Boshoff

We asked Marno Boshoff, Culture Evangelist at King Price Insurance to share some thoughts on the importance of a healthy organisational culture and how that affects the bottom line. King Price Insurance is a strategic asset in Mergon’s portfolio of investments. 

What’s the biggest influence on the culture of an organisation? Can an organisational culture be changed? And does culture actually affect the performance of the business? These are questions I’m asked all the time – and I usually answer by telling the story of one of the iconic software companies of our time, Microsoft.

Since being founded, Microsoft has had three CEOs: Bill Gates (25 years), Steve Ballmer (14 years), and most recently, Satya Nadella, who has been in the position for six years. Each brought their own unique style to the organisation – and ultimately, their own culture. That’s because leaders are the biggest influence on the culture of any organisation: the culture bears the fingerprint of the CEO and the senior leadership team.

Since Nadella took the helm in 2014, Microsoft’s culture, along with its entire business approach, has undergone some rapid, and necessary, changes. During one of the first shareholder meetings he attended as CEO, Nadella stressed that Microsoft’s ability to change its culture would be the leading indicator of the company’s future success.

So does culture have an effect on the business? Let’s look at the facts. When Gates left the CEO role in 2000, Microsoft’s share price was $58 per share. Ballmer, the archetypal hard-driving salesman, left 14 years later with the share price at $38 per share – and many industry experts questioning whether Microsoft’s time had come. Under Nadella’s guidance, the share price has ballooned to its current levels of around $210 a share – in less than six years.

What makes Nadella special? For one, he was a long-time ‘insider’. Insiders are the people who build culture and take ownership. And their mission is to create as many insiders as possible, and as few outsiders. A critical element of his culture overhaul was to instill what he calls a ‘growth mindset’, as opposed to the internal politics and warfare that had held sway until then.

As marketing head Chris Capossela famously said: ‘We went from a company of know-it-alls to a company of learn-it-alls’. This is vital. Embracing a learning culture lies at the root of change and growth. The moment we think we’re better than anyone else, or that we can sit back and watch the rest of the industry, we’re in trouble.

Creating a healthy, happy workplace

At King Price, we’re all about creating a healthy, happy workplace that makes our people want to bounce out of bed, come to work with a smile on their faces, and be their best selves all day long. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, we genuinely love our people. And two, a healthy workplace is the foundation for a successful business. Happy employees are more productive, deliver better client care and help build a more profitable business.

Our drive to maintain our culture starts with hiring new people. We ask two questions: do they create clarity or confusion? Do they create energy or suck energy? Ultimately, we want people who create energy and are clear about their mission. Coupled with a clear sense of purpose and mission from the top, we shape a culture that many companies envy. It’s something we work on every day, because it’s business critical.

Workplace trends to expect in 2021

There’s no denying that Covid-19 changed the dynamics a bit last year. Well, more than just a bit – and we’re going to see the effects in workplaces across South Africa and the world. So what are some trends we can expect in the coming year and how can you build your company culture around it?

1. Remote work is here to stay

Even before the pandemic we were already looking at remote working models for certain areas of our business. Covid-19 just showed that it could work. In 2021, we’re going to see a lot of companies formalising their remote work arrangements, with clear benefits for the business and the employees alike.

A 2019 study found that 73% of all departments will have remote workers by 2028. We can agree that figure will be even higher now. The challenge for businesses will be to build agile work structures to support the new trend and keep their people engaged and connected.

2. A bigger focus on employee wellbeing

We’ve seen mental health issues, burnouts, and stressed workers becoming ever-more widespread in the workplace over the past decade. Covid-19 brought even more stress and worry into the workplace, with people worrying about their health and whether they would keep their jobs through the crisis. On top of that, the downside of remote working is that people battle to separate their home and work lives.

That’s why employee wellbeing is going to be right at the top of the list for many organisations this year. People’s wellness needs have shifted, and we need to respond. As businesses, we must show our people that self-care is a shared value, and encourage them to take more downtime and spend time with their families, friends and hobbies.

3. More social purpose, please

The Coronavirus pandemic highlighted a lot of things that are wrong with our society, including poverty and inequality. What this means is that employees and clients alike are looking to work for, and do business with, companies that live their values and demonstrate a real commitment to social responsibility.

At King Price, #MakingADifference is embedded into our business model. We’ve seen how companies that put social responsibility into action stand out in a highly competitive marketplace. The social needs in our country have rarely been higher, and I believe South African companies will step up and make a real difference in 2021.

4. Soft skills are the future

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about the need for emotional intelligence (EQ) in the workplace, and how it accounts for as much as two-thirds of job performance. As companies continue to digitise, and we see more technologies like AI coming into the workplace, the role of soft skills will only become more important in 2021 and beyond.

Soft skills can be difficult to measure, but they’re the key driver of the human connections that are needed for high-performance teams. In a time of change and uncertainty, it’s up to businesses to not only upskill their people in work competencies, but soft skills too.

For us, culture starts at the top, and filters right through the business. But while the CEO has to be the culture champion, he has to get his people on board. Culture isn’t something that’s cooked up in a boardroom with strategists and HR people. It is modelled, and lived, every day. It is shaped by leaders interacting with their people.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

Finding your leadership style


‘I am a firm believer that leaders are not born, but they are shaped and developed over time,’ said Neil Hart, executive head of the Mergon Foundation in the fifth episode of The Wonderful Leaders Podcast.

In this podcast, Neil talks about finding your leadership and he delves into three major leadership styles he has experienced and his perspective on each.

Leading from the top down

As an 18-year-old lieutenant in the army during a time of a crisis, Neil experienced first-hand the advantages as well as the limits of top-down leadership. Authoritative in nature, leaders who practice a top-down leadership style need to be able to make quick decisions and they usually give commands and directives without involving others in their decision-making processes.

Leading from the centre

Years later in business, and as the CEO of his advertising agency for about 10-15 years at the time, Neil realised that leading from the centre was more important to him. From his perspective, leading from the centre means leading out of values. If you can connect with the people around you on a values level, it’s much easier to lead than if you were leading as the CEO (once again, top-down leadership style).

‘Over those years in business I made an effort to try and lead from the core – from my heart to someone else’s heart. Even though I had authority to give instructions, I tried to change my leadership style to lead out of values and connect with people on that level,’ explained Neil.

Leading from the bottom up

The third leadership style Neil unpacks is leading from the bottom up – a leadership style he learnt much about when he was asked to lead a missions organisation. Neil explains that leading from the bottom up, or servant leadership, was a significant leadership trait Jesus demonstrated in his time on earth.

He says that one of the most effective ways to lead is to begin serving the Godly vision within someone. Leaders need to understand that each person is called for a purpose and when we start serving that purpose in someone from the bottom up, something significant starts to happen.

Lessons learned

Over the years Neil says he’s learned a number of leadership lessons – one of them being the importance of raising up potential leaders. Leaders need to empower people around them so that when God calls them to move on, they’re ready to do so because they know they have raised up someone who will lead even better than they did.

Listen to the full podcast here.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

The four priorities of a leader


‘Coming out of COVID-19, we’ve all been through a massive learning curve. There’s been a lot of pressure on leaders to manage both emotional well-being and challenging circumstances. But now most teams are asking “what’s next”?,’ says executive head of the Mergon Foundation, Neil Hart.

During a recent Elevate Leadership webinar, Neil focussed on four priorities that will help leaders to move their organisations forward.

1. Create (apostolic) vision

‘“Apostolic” is the call to go, to move forward in God’s kingdom. We know that we are all sent, no matter what gifting you carry as a leader. Creating an apostolic vision within our teams is embedded into all of our spiritual leadership mandates,’ says Neil.

‘A recent Gallup study that looked at learnings from past crises revealed that people need leaders to provide a clear path forward. I’ve found that vision is a fairly linear path: firstly, there has to be a clear Godly revelation. As leaders, we simply have to hear from God. No textbook, no degree, nothing can supersede hearing from God and casting that vision for your team. Next, a Godly revelation produces clear vision, clear vision creates action, and that action establishes God’s kingdom,’ he notes.

Vision works like the rudder on a ship – it determines the direction of the team. A ship can still sail without a rudder, but it won’t necessarily go in the right direction. With a rudder (vision) the ship moves forward and in the right direction. A vision focuses teamwork and connects and unifies people towards a common goal.

From the many vision speeches he’s deconstructed over the years, Neil has found that there are four important and common aspects to casting vision:

1. A clear values connect: what do we stand for or against?

2. Direction: what are we moving towards?

3. Actions: what must we overcome to get there? What will you regret if you don’t act

4. Reward: what is the reward that is in store?

‘Vision can be powerful. It unifies, inspires action, creates hope and it settles fears. If you have a group of people that you’re leading that have these things in common, you can move mountains,’ notes Neil.

2. Create a people-centred culture

‘A healthy organisational culture is a goal in itself. The fingerprints and purposes of God are first woven into your people before they are woven into your mission. We don’t achieve anything significant from the Lord except through people. This is a team game that God has called us to’ Neil says.

‘Culture comes out of a set of common behaviours, behaviours come out of values, and leaders espouse values. As a leader, the value of valuing people is what will create a people-centred culture in your organisation. Jesus seemed to be able to see each person for who God had made them to be and it’s our role as leaders to make sure each person is intricately tied into the organisation and into relationship.

According to Neil, there are five types of toxic cultures leaders need to be aware of:

1. Works-based culture: all about performance, things are never quite good enough.

2. Ego-based culture: a charismatic personality can often become overly personality orientated and ego driven.

3. Money-driven culture: money or the lack thereof is the focus.

4. Weak accountability culture: misplaced pastoral gift where you want to love everybody and keep them happy but don’t hold them accountable. As a result, we may well underachieve.

5. Fear-based culture: Trust deficit, lack of love, fear of failure. Not motivated by love but motivated by fear.

On the flip-side, the characteristics of a people-centred culture:

– It’s a safe space where people experience both mental and psychological peace. It’s a space where people can be vulnerable and free to take risks.
– It’s a culture where people are prioritised over performance.
– It’s a culture where there’s dependability – meaning we keep our promises and we do what we say we’re going to do.
– It’s a culture where there’s a shared sense of purpose for meaningful work.
– It’s a culture that results in impact so we can celebrate victories together.

3. Create organisational clarity

‘God weaves us into the narrative of who He is and who we are in Him. A Jewish Rabbi once said the greatest gift of the Isrealites to the world is that law is connected into narrative. ‘What that means,’ says Neil ‘is that when you look at constitutions around the world, every constitution has a law or a judicial system but we don’t always know why those laws were made. However, the Jewish system wove the law into the narrative’.

Neil says that in any healthy organisation we know what the narrative is – the history, stories and what God called us to. But the ‘law’ part refers to organisational clarity. Organisational clarity is all about why we have to do what we do and weaving people into that structure. It’s also about having the right people in the right places, having clarity of purpose, structure and accountability. Leaders need to learn how to creatively over-communicate these three things over and over again to create clarity in organisational processes:

– Why we exist (mission / purpose statement)
– Our values
– Our key milestone for the year

‘If you find that there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what, there are unclear decision-making processes or rationale behind the things that you are doing, or that teams have poor visibility into project priorities or progress, it is a sign that you need to improve organisational clarity for your team. Ask yourself if team members know what the mission or project goals are and how to get there. Do team members feel like they have autonomy, ownership and concrete projects?’.

‘God is a God of order and infinite detail and we see that throughout all creation. This plays into how we lead – we should lead with order and infinite detail. God delights in the creativity that removes chaos,’ says Neil.

4. Create a new generation of leaders

We are in a constant generational transition. A rising tide brings in all the boats. In the same way, when leaders grow other leaders around them, the whole organisation rises up. God has one purpose throughout history that He has expressed through many leaders and many generations, so everything we do should carry this idea of God being a generational leader.

‘God’s vision for us as leaders is to think generationally,’ says Neil. ‘Succession is already happening whether we like it or not. The reality is that through priorities, attitudes, actions, memories, language etc, leader-shaping is happening all the time. Leader development is also not limited to a programme. Rather, it’s what God has built into the natural life of communities and organisations.’

He says that in the future someone will build on what you have done but the question is how will they build and how well have you prepared them? The next generation must understand the past, honour the past and build on the past while the older generation must share the past, trust God for the future and build and empower the next generation.

In closing, Neil highlighted some things we need to look for when we select future leaders:

1. Character: Are they a servant leader? Are they reliable? Do they have integrity?

2. Competence: Do they have the necessary skills?

3. Chemistry: Are they likeable, how well do they connect with the team?

4. Core values: Are their core values in line with the rest of the team?

5. Courage: Do they take faith risks and rise to challenges?

6. Capacity: Will their work ethic enable them to manage tasks well and do they have  emotional capacity for leadership?

7. Courtesy: Do they show respect for other team members and are they collaborative in their approach?

Watch the full webinar here.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

Leadership in the four phases of crisis

Watch the full webinar here.

In this Elevate Leadership Webinar Paul Donders brings clarity to leading in the four phases of a crisis, equips us with the tools to thrive, and inspires us to think ahead.

According to Paul, leaders need to be aware of and prepared for four different phases during the COVID-19 crisis. ‘All four phases are important – even if you aren’t there yet. As leaders, we need to be with our teams and support them where they are at, but at the same time, we have to already live in the next phase mentally and emotionally. That is the challenge for leaders,’ he says.

So what are the four phases and how do you give leadership in each of these phases?

Surviving phase

The first phase is surviving – you are thrown into deep waters and you have no boat. The survival phase is a time of mourning and fear – the people you serve have lost many things including freedom, money, security and health.

‘The good news is, in the Bible, there are 365 verses about fear – one for every day. God knows that fear is a normal thing that can and will happen,’ says Paul.

In this phase, there is a need for understanding and basic security for the people you lead and there is a need to find some rhythm in daily life.

Two leadership styles are very important in the survival phase:

Empathic leadership: Be with your team, ask good questions and listen to them. Accept their pain and fear. This is not a time for lecturing or preaching. Instead, listen to your team and make sure they know you are there for them.

Robust leadership: Provide ideas for daily rhythms for a healthy lifestyle. People need daily exercise, quiet time, healthy food and sleep. Provide your team with ideas to get into these habits. Enable your people to be productive in small actions. Find out what people can produce on a daily basis and provide them with the tools they need.

Coping phase

When you arrive in the coping phase, you have learned to handle the situation – the working from home, the Zoom calls, and everything that comes with the COVID-19 restrictions.

The initial shock is over, and now you need to discover the new reality of how the world works. You have now found a lifeboat, but you are still in rough waters. You’re not surviving anymore, but coping with the wildness of the crisis.

In this phase there are three types of leadership styles:

Adaptive leadership: Grow in adaptive quotient. This is the phase where every member of your team can learn to be more adaptive. Translate your unique skills into the tools you need in this new world. Transform your products so they add real value to your customers.

Resilient leadership: Train yourself and your team in the seven resilience competencies and get ready for the marathon. Build up social and structural resources (e.g positive friends, a culture of feedback, surroundings where people can do what they do best, healthy finances).

Communicative leadership: Communicate seven times more than usual. Communication needs to be daily and weekly. Be honest, informative, personal (share your personal fear and challenges) and be helpful.

Restoring phase

In this phase, you need to build resilience in the depth and width of your organisation. In the coping phase, you were building resilience on a personal level, now you are building it in the organisation – in the systems, communication and finances.

There is now a need to refocus the mission so that everyone in your team can align their efforts for the common good. When you’re in the phase of restoring your organisation to its previous state, you need to think about getting off the lifeboat (of the coping phase) and start building a bigger boat.

In this phase there are also three important leadership styles:

Architectonic leadership: Build resilience in all systems of your organisation and build your foundation well. Design effective structures, systems and meetings. Grow in productivity again.

Mission-driven leadership: Refocus your mission to be relevant in this new world. Redefine your DNA, morals and value code because mission-driven leadership also needs a healthy base of culture. Inspire all stakeholders – internal and external – and invite them to become a part of the mission.

Customer-oriented leadership: Mediocrity in customer service is no longer accepted. Even as an NGO, people rate you on the level of your customer service. Redesign the customer journey. As a leader, be the example of customer service inspiration.

Empowering leadership: Train your next-level leadership to grow into their full potential. Meet with each one of them, one-on-one, weekly. Give trust in a generous way. Search, select, integrate and develop the right people that will embody your renewed mission and culture.

Transformational phase

In this phase, you need to build an expedition ship – a  really strong boat that will enable you to discover new worlds. Transform your culture into the one you need for the new world you want to discover. In this phase, you will need energy to finish the marathon!

The three leadership styles in the transformational phase are:

Dreaming leadership: Take an eagle eye’s view of your organisation’s whole journey. Dare to dream! Discover the challenges and questions of tomorrow.

Design-thinking leadership: Team up with strategic thinkers and work through all the phases of design thinking (inspiration, ideation, implementation).

Cultural leadership: Shape your culture, set it deep in people’s minds, and secure the implementation on all levels. Transform your organisation into a healthy future-proof identity.

The challenge to leaders is to be one or two phases ahead of where our team and organisation are. Ask yourself, where are you and your team in the four phases? What is your next step to grow?

Paul Donders is chairman of the board of X-pand International, CEO of X-pand Nederland, and managing partner of X-pand South Africa. His passion is to help professionals and leaders discover their unique talents to grow into their full potential in a healthy way. He inspires other leaders to break through barriers by navigating complexities with greater confidence.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.

Cultivating a culture of prayer

Written by Etienne Piek*

Dear Mergonites

What an amazing time it is to be alive and serving God, knowing that we are not dependant on our own strength or abilities but His grace and His providence. We have spoken in broad terms about the importance of prayer in all that we do here at Mergon and in the months to come we aim to create more opportunities for corporate and personal prayer at the respective offices. As our different offices have a somewhat different rhythm and culture, we would like to invite each office to build and foster their own rhythms of prayer to fit their context.

From our side we will be sending regular updates on the many aspects of prayer and we would love to receive your feedback, input and testimonies.

Let’s start off with what Prayer is!

As a group we respond to God’s call in 1 Tim. 4:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Prayer is seen not as a function or isolated discipline, but indeed as an integrated lifestyle that is centre to the life of a Christ-follower. As John Wesley put it: “God will do nothing but in answer to prayer. Whether we think of, or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him. Proceed with much prayer, and your way will be made plain.”

Prayer is in a sense much more about the pray-er as it is about the prayer. When we respond to God’s invitation to “ask in His Name” it is as much about what happens within the one who prays than what he/she prays for. Prayer is relationship and it is within the confines of this relationship that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is released to change the heart of the pray-er towards His Kingdom and the things that breaks His heart.

Prayer is simple words from simple people towards their heavenly Father to see His Kingdom come. It is often expressed in wordless adoration and waiting upon God to move in the heart of the pray-er and therefore not a forced rhythm filled with impressive and theologically loaded words.

Prayer will be fostered as a relationship/conversation between God and His called people, acknowledging different kinds of prayers at different times by different kinds of people. In the words of Richard Foster: “And so I urge you: carry on an ongoing conversation with God about the daily stuff of life, a little like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. For now, do not worry about ‘proper’ praying, just talk to God.”

Let’s pray!

(Etienne Piek* is the Regional Manager (South Africa) at the Mergon Foundation)

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018 Mergon Group.