Is Your Company on the Brink of its Own Brexit?

Adapt and evolve

Like millions of Americans, I was surprised and a little saddened by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. I wasn’t surprised, however, by the sharp emotional divide between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave. That’s because the Brexit debate was really about culture. And for a concept that many leaders believe is too intangible or fluffy to worry about, culture sure has a way of bringing out the fight in people. 

Back to the Past
In Britain, the Brexit referendum touched a deeper question. What kind of country did the people of the United Kingdom want to call home? A different one depending on your age and where you lived, apparently. Older voters and those in England proper and Wales wanted to separate from the EU; younger voters and those in London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland wanted to stay very much attached. Underlying those desires were very different emotions, values, visions, and dreams.

I’ve seen these sorts of debates play out many times in organizations, particularly during periods of change or threat. Like other fundamentals we take for granted (food, water, security), we don’t typically think about culture much until something goes wrong or anxieties arise. Then, culture comes to the foreground.

In particular, when a company is under immense pressure or goes off track, it’s easy to look to its culture and think, “we’ve gone astray from the values and traditions that made us great.” That idea of going back has a lot of merit. Culture is what binds us together and helps us judge what’s right and know how to make decisions. In an organization (let alone a country), it’s a comforting force that rallies people together.

But the “going back” vote is also based on the idea that cultures should not change and are less strong and vital when they do.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have much patience with that idea. It’s changing all the time and more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) than ever. Competitors don’t care if your culture is under threat. New technology doesn’t care. A new generation of employees and customers with different values don’t care.

Adapt, Evolve, Thrive
Charles Darwin reputedly said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”

Brexit supporters don’t seem to believe that. They want a country with closed borders, secure and well-paying industry jobs, less diversity, more national control… a Britain they know from childhood and stories. The EU supporters want a country that’s cosmopolitan, open, dynamic, diverse, adaptable, and competitive. Which world do you think we’re more likely to experience in the coming decades?

I believe in the emotional and strategic power of culture, but I don’t believe culture stands still. Successful cultures have always adapted and evolved to meet the needs of the environment. This happens naturally, for the most part, but it can also happen deliberately and actively. That’s what I see going on at the most nimble, focused, and feisty (NFF) organizations today. Such organizations don’t close themselves off to the world and to change; they adapt and evolve to meet change head on while retaining what makes them special.

If your company encountered a major existential crisis, how can you tell whether it would vote Brexit or vote for EU? Here are some characteristics to look for:

Are you purpose-driven?
NFF companies are oriented around a shared purpose, and that purpose is directed toward creating and satisfying customers. They use that purpose to shape attitudes, actions, and practices that collectively form their culture in support of their why.

What is your company in business to do and why does that matter to your customers and employees? The answer matters a lot when it comes to questions about whether you have the resilience, resourcefulness, and stamina to compete in a very dynamic world.

Are you outrospective?
NFF companies are outward looking and outward thinking, even as they tend to their internal culture. They think about the customer, the market, and the competition far more than they worry about internal processes and rules.

Do you actively architect your culture?
NFF companies know that culture must be architected and adapted intentionally for an organization to grow in the right way, meet its strategic objectives, and ultimately produce those bottom-line results. Otherwise, beliefs and behaviors may not be aligned with what the company needs to be successful.

Culture as Compass
Think of the strongest and most dynamic organizations today – Facebook, Airbnb, GE, Ritz Carlton, Google, Unilever. Each relies on its culture as its operating platform to guide strategies, innovations, and plans. They lead, direct, challenge, and push on culture without letting up. It’s an imperative just like any other part of their business.

Today, it’s impossible to make a company “great again” by returning to some mythical past. Culture is a tool for leadership to use intentionally and deliberately in competing for a future that will never stand still.

What are your thoughts and how can you add to this discussion? I welcome your comments.

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Sara Roberts is an author and “go-to” expert on organizational transformation, culture, and building purpose-led companies. She’s an executive consultant to Fortune 500 leaders, a sought-after keynote speaker, and an entrepreneur. Sara founded and sold Roberts Golden, a boutique consultancy, where she and her team worked with nearly a quarter of the Fortune 100, over its 12-year span, to help transform their cultures and ability to lead.

Her latest book, "Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures that Win in the New Era and How to Create Them," will launch on August 16, 2016. You can pre-order it here from Amazon, or learn more at

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    Interesting post Sara.
    Market research of one: I lived and worked in the UK for 6+ years, traveled to all parts, met many – and formed a distinct impression of an island mentality. This seems ingrained in the UK psyche, so whatever the political, social factors BREXIT mirrors that culture …..

    • susanmrushworth

      I agree, Graham. I grew up in the UK, moved to Australia as an adult and returned for a year or so in the mid-90s. During that time, the EU mandated that no employee could be required to work more than 48 hours a week without being paid overtime. Seemed perfectly reasonable and I was frankly surprised to find UK didn’t already have such a law. But the opposition to it was fierce and mostly grounded in “how dare Europe tell us what to do” (even though any employee could voluntarily agree to work longer hours for no extra pay).
      I listened to a talkback show where caller after caller denounced the proposal – until a security guard finally rang in and said, rather apologetically, that he thought it was a good idea – he worked 60 hours/week for flat rate.

      It isn’t necessarily rational, but it is VERY powerful.

    • Sara Roberts

      Yes, Graham. You’re right it does seems very ingrained in the UK psyche but seems that it’s a a crossroads of sorts – where there’s a push and pull between factions on what kind of culture will really serve them.

  • Steve Maguire

    Hi Sarah – Great post; there are similarities with my previous article:

    • Sara Roberts

      Your post is very interesting, Steve. Thanks for the comment. Culture has so much to do with identity, personally and within a community.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    By the way, LOVE your new book title Sara