Culture is King – The power of putting people first

Promoting a people-first culture
As organisations across the region look to thrive in a highly disruptive and complex world, cultivating a people-first culture is becoming a priority

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. It’s been nearly two decades since legendary management consultant Peter Drucker coined the phrase, and never has it been more relevant.

“Your people are the ones carrying out the strategy, and if they are unhappy or marginalised, you are sure to fail,” says Dubai-based Edward Matti, Managing Director of CCM Consultancy.

Edward, who has been helping organisations undergo culture change for 25 years, has seen a surge in demand for culture transformation initiatives in the post-pandemic era, and especially in the Middle East – where the region is undergoing huge economic and digital transformation. 

“Companies are rethinking the way they operate and the way they engage their teams. They want to ensure they have a connected and collaborative workforce. They want the company values to mean something to every employee and have the collective strength to achieve the objectives set out.”

And increasingly, they realise this cannot be achieved via transactional relationships with staff – you need a transformational, people-first culture.

It’s not about putting people ahead of revenue and profits, Edward says, it’s about realising that people and profits go hand-in-hand. Those very people are the reason a company achieves sales targets, provides great customer services, retains loyal customers and attracts top talent.

Global leadership advisory Heidrick & Struggles is also seeing a sharp focus on shaping culture, with 82% of 500 CEOs surveyed in 2021 citing organisational culture as a priority

As Principal in the Dubai office, Neha Mohunta says more companies in the Middle East have started to focus on purpose and ensuring employees are ‘fulfilled’ – testament to the shift towards people-centric environments. 

“We are witnessing a humbling convergence in this space. Unprecedented complexity in the work environment, geopolitical shifts, and the pandemic have increased complexity in the leader’s role. This is prompting the leader to lean in and reinforce a culture of people-centric leadership,” she says. 

“We are seeing more C-suite leaders ask the question on how they can personally role-model a people-first culture to cascade this across organisations. They have started to realise that with collaboration, they are better able to solve some of the evolving challenges they face.”

Neha Mohunta, Principal, Heidrick & Struggles, Middle East

Talent scarcity driving transformation

Driving this shift is the region’s rapid diversification, with the national economic vision of numerous countries, from Abu Dhabi to Saudi, powering demand for foreign talent with new skills, valuable industry-specific expertise, and global exposure. 

Saudi has seen its strongest increase in employment in almost five years. Even at C-suite level, global and cross-cultural exposure is highly sought-after with 43% of CEOs in Saudi boasting cross-border experience compared to the global average (36%), according to Heidrick & Struggles.

“Competing in the global arena for the best talent to deliver the ambitions of local organisations means that the culture needs to be attractive enough for high-performing talent to make the shift,” Neha tells Business Chief. 

The ongoing talent crunch is driving continued culture change across Africa too.

Mark Watt, a Partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Johannesburg office, says talent scarcity, especially digital skills, has been a persistent challenge across Africa, accelerated by the pandemic. “With borders opening and global travel resuming, the talent crunch is also exacerbated by business migration, with an outflow of talent to other business centres such as the Middle East.”

People-first culture as competitive advantage

Unlike the Middle East, the business culture in Africa has been leaning towards a people-first strategy for the last few decades, largely thanks to organisational culture on the continent being guided by Ubuntu – an African philosophy that emphasises the interconnectedness of all people and the importance of empathy, compassion and collaboration.

“Even prior to the pandemic, many corporate leaders recognised the significance of cultivating a flourishing organisational culture as a means to gain a competitive advantage – in attracting and retaining employees, fostering agility, and leading on innovation,” says Mark. “A people-first culture will help retain the top talent necessary to overcome organisational inertia and drive growth.”

Studies have shown time and time again that organisations adopting a people-first culture see improvements in employee engagement, communication, wellbeing and empowerment, which in turn leads to increased productivity, higher levels of innovation, and ultimately better financial performance. 

“When we start putting people first, those employees will in turn represent the organisations better, they will go out of their way to do a great job,” explains Edward. 

“It’s not about putting people ahead of revenue and profits, it’s about realising that people and profits go hand-in-hand. Those very people are the reason a company achieves sales targets, provides great customer services, retains loyal customers and attracts top talent.” 

And the numbers back this up. Leaders who prioritise culture-shaping outperform their counterparts, a 2021 Heidrick & Struggles study found, achieving a three-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in revenue more than double the rate of their peers (9.1% compared with 4.4%). 

“These leaders identified culture as one of the top three factors influencing their companies' financial outcomes and recognised the need to cultivate a culture that aligns with the overall strategic direction of the organisation,” says Mark.

Mark Watt, Partner, Heidrick & Struggles Johannesburg office

Engaging employees in the process

Getting culture right requires buy-in from all members of the leadership team and a serious commitment from all levels of the organisation, says Edward. Businesses are effectively changing deep-rooted behaviours, so it’s neither a quick-fix, nor a one-off exercise. 

“A culture transformation takes time and effort and the initiative itself can take six to nine months of dedicated work before any real value is seen. A sound 12 to 24-month plan must be drawn up with key actions and milestones and various levels of ownership.”

It should include workplace triggers, effective messaging and celebrated actions, and must be revisited often, as a people-first culture continuously evolves. 

Edward points to employee engagement in the entire process. Leadership should first measure current culture, which is easily done through a variety of anonymous culture assessments. “It is important to know where you are, before you can decide on where you want to be.”

Identifying what you want your people-first culture to really look like is the next step as this can be different from organisation to organisation. He recommends engaging employees in informal discussions, learning what’s important to them, what they love about the company and what can be improved. 

“In fact, in some organisations, we go as far as co-creating the people-first culture, giving everyone a voice and the ability to positively contribute to what that culture looks like. It’s amazing how empowering this is, and the value that the company gains from including their people.”

Edward has found that gamifying a company’s values within a people-first culture transformation initiative allows people to better connect to the meaning of those values. “This also sets the stage for the co-creation segment whereby employees are able to easily identify the behaviours associated with each value and the actions they’re willing to commit to. This accelerates the entire initiative and people quickly feel appreciated and heard.”

He also recommends appointing culture ambassadors (“or Culture Enablers as we call them”) who support management in carrying through the initiative. This not only ensures more resources, but allows the messaging and actions to come from other levels and grades rather than solely from senior management.

“As certain behaviours set in and successes are achieved, organisations need to start looking at ways to maintain the momentum and ensure this culture is organic.”

Edward Matti, Managing Partner, CCM Consultancy, Dubai

What a people-first culture looks like

Putting people first is not about sleep pods, games rooms, or fancy coffee, Edward tells Business Chief – it’s about listening to employee needs, understanding their motivators and how to engage with them more effectively, and empowering them to make decisions on behalf of the company.

It means prioritising employee growth and wellbeing, adds Neha, and involves putting in place practices, policies and benefits structured around driving inclusion and equity that are engineered to unleash employee potential.

Being truly people-first means that every interaction or touchpoint is an opportunity to enable the team, Neha says. For instance, when considering learning and development, opportunities are identified and offered not only on immediate job impact, but on career aspirations and potential. While in performance management, feedback is given on time to ensure relevance and practical inputs instead of simply being regarded as a tick in the box.

Mark points to prioritisation of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. And as teams in Africa are already very diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, what organisations prioritise today is inclusion. 

“In an inclusive environment where people feel valued, respected, and supported, they will feel a stronger sense of connection and belonging. This, in turn, leads to increased engagement, as individuals feel a genuine passion for their work and exhibit a strong commitment to performing at their best.”

Purposeful leadership key in shaping people-first culture

And it all begins from the top. Purposeful leadership and broad engagement are two of the four pillars identified by Heidrick & Struggles as being central to shaping culture.

Neha says both leaders and the employees should define their ‘why’ – what would a people-first culture unlock for them? And then define key metrics that will help recognise progress over time. They should then focus on building broad engagement by putting people first to ensure that culture has a positive effect on performance.

Neha points to two levers that drive the shift in culture. The ‘what’ is organisational hard wiring, which refers to all people and processes that reinforce behaviours you want to see in the organisation – from recruitment to performance management, rewards and recognition to development.

The ‘how’ – a heavier lift – is what Neha calls ‘organisational soft levers’, which is how the organisation needs to be as they execute their day-to-day activities. “This requires a change in a leader’s mindset to role-model a people-centric culture,” says Neha.

Which is why the majority of effort in reinforcing a people-centric culture for Heidrick & Struggles is by working with the leaders directly instead of ‘delegating’ culture efforts to HR. “It’s critical that culture building should not be viewed as a programme that HR needs to own and deliver. Ownership should be reinforced at the leadership level.”

Mark agrees, adding that organisations need to adopt a company-wide approach, driven by purposeful leadership teams who are aligned with the company’s strategy and purpose. This entails a dedication to drive a fundamental cultural transformation, accompanied by the development of inclusive leadership mindsets, behaviours and skills. 

While culture transformation is a top-down approach, engagement at every level of the organisation is necessary.

“Leaders play a crucial role in aligning themselves with the company's DE&I strategy and creating an inclusive environment where individuals feel valued, respected, and supported,” Mark explains. “This is followed by broad engagement down and across the organisation, fostering a sense of deep engagement across all levels of leadership, fuelling their passion for their work and dedication to delivering exceptional performance.”

Among the challenges organisations face, resources and the high cost of creating a people-first culture are universal. “Our approach includes minimising and localising the work to bring down the costs of shaping entire organisations, or phasing the work to ensure an optimal balance of cost and reward,” says Mark. 

Additional challenges often include the adoption of technology; a lack of infrastructure; language, and occasionally cultural sensitivity.

“Not many are aware of how diverse Africa really is. We are home to 54 countries and an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 languages – making up approximately one third of the world’s languages,” explains Mark. “Even within our continent, we must take into account particular nuances between the countries, because of strong historic links and cultural differences. Cultural programmes rolled out in different parts of the region cannot be homogenous. Leaders must understand the specific nature of the market’s unique history and how it impacts the approach taken in shaping organisational culture.”


Neha Mohunta, Principal, Heidrick & Struggles, Middle East and member of the Heidrick Consulting Practice

Neha has 15+ years of experience as a culture transformation specialist, HR strategist, leadership development practitioner, and certified assessor. She works closely with C-suite clients to humanise workplace practices and deliver holistically on purpose. She has led various end-to-end transformation projects supporting organisations in various sectors across the GCC.

Mark Watt, Partner in Heidrick & Struggles' Johannesburg office and member of the Heidrick Consulting Practice

Mark works exclusively on leadership consulting and advisory work, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. He partners with private/public clients, including start-ups, family-owned firms and multinationals. He is especially interested in the sustainability of change and behaviour aligned to business results and performance and how teams activate and enhance their performance. 

Edward Matti, Managing Partner, CCM Consultancy, Dubai

Edward is an experienced leader with 25 years in leadership development and culture transformation. Since setting up CCM Consultancy in Dubai in 2010, Edward has grown the award-winning firm into a diverse team of 30+ with offices in Dubai, Montreal, Toronto and New York. He consults with clients on culture transformation, people development and customer-centric experiences. 


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