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Company culture is a reflection of the worst behaviour you're willing to tolerate

RSA uses culture tool to diagnose areas needing improvement
People pass in front of a Volkswagen logo ahead of the Shanghai Auto Show, in Shanghai, China on April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Mark Edgar

Like many organizations, RSA has been on a business transformation journey for the past four years, and with the help of a culture tool, it became apparent our people weren’t on that journey with us to the extent we needed.

The elements of culture change we were focusing on were to ensure that we were creating a winning mindset where people were proactively thinking about solutions when dealing with the challenges we were facing as an organization.

We needed to incrementally get better every year. The feedback we got from employees was that they wanted us to continue to succeed as an organization. They appreciated the fact that we were a winning organization and wanted us to continue to beat the competition.

But their feedback made it clear they didn't want that to be at the expense of the investment we were making in people, and they wanted to see more collaboration across the business.

We wouldn’t have identified this specific challenge unless we used a culture tool to clearly diagnose the areas where we needed to improve and to help us stay on track with the progress we are making.

As one of the primary levers of an organization’s success, culture is the holy grail for many HR leaders. In organizations where culture is perceived as an intangible or an invisible entity, there’s a competitive need, now more than ever, to devote time and resources to identify any culture issues that can be improved and make it measurable.

But until we have a burning platform, we don’t start to really think about investing in a culture transformation in an intentional way.

Culture transformations often occur in response to poor engagement results or high turnover or to prepare an organization for future and on-going disruption. There are many well-publicized cases of culture changes such as Volkwagen and Wells Fargo. Culture transformations can also occur in response to poor engagement, increased turnover or a period of sustained disruption.

At RSA, as we went through a prolonged period of transformation, we recognized that we weren’t fully leveraging all aspects of our culture that could give us an element of competitive advantage. To achieve this, we needed a culture change.

To embark on a journey of culture transformation — one that many would say spans a period of five years from concept to completion — it’s important to understand what culture you have in the first place.

I’ve always gravitated to the notion that culture is defined as “the way things get done around here.” The other sentiment that resonates with me is that your culture is a reflection of the worst behaviour you're willing to tolerate as an organization.

Cultural transformation, therefore, becomes not just a desire to see change in the way things get done around here, but to reassess either recurrent or uninspired sets of values that the organization practices.

It could also be a reimagining of the purpose of the organization to create a better connection with your people and your customers. It’s a desire to bring about change that reflects or furthers the bigger purpose for the business, in terms of results, or to deliver your vision or ambition for the organization.

Successful culture transformations begin at the very top with the personal transformation of the leader. Organizations don’t change, people do. But changing the set values, beliefs, and behaviours of every employee is a herculean task, and one that requires the assistance of time-tested models. Many models of culture transformation, to help take a company from point A to B, exist out there.

The one we use at RSA is the Galbriath or Star Model. This model prescribes a five-pronged approach to transformation providing a holistic approach to culture change, rather than picking any one problem. It gives us a broad view of the different factors that drive culture.

It postulates that we begin with strategy that helps determine the direction in which we need to head. This is followed by structure, which defines who has the decision-making power during the change. Next comes processes, which help to establish the flow of information.

Rewards and reward systems are the next step “which influence the motivation of people to perform and address organizational goals.” And policies make up the final category, which drive and define employees’ mind-sets and skills.

No matter what model is used, as a first step, it’s critical to gain an understanding of where you are today. I think it's very hard to jump to thinking about your future culture without knowing what your current culture is and what that represents. At RSA, we did that around the end of 2017.

We explored several culture tools and decided to use Plum — an organization that does a lot of innovative work around recruitment, assessment and use of AI. It has developed a tool that essentially provided individuals with the opportunity to identify characteristics that reflected the current culture.

Its culture survey gave people the opportunity to identify characteristics of our current and desired culture. Once our employees completed a very simple survey, we got a lot of insights around where we were and where our people wanted to be.

Another popular culture tool often used by organizations is the Birkman Method which measures different aspects of employees’ personalities, interests, and motivations in their personal and professional life.

“Values-driven organizations are the most successful organizations on the planet,” says the Barret culture centre, and according to the Barret Culture Survey, values and behaviours drive culture, culture drives employee fulfillment, employee fulfillment drives customer satisfaction, and customer satisfaction drives shareholder value.

Regardless of the tool you use, the key thing to remember as HR leaders is that we can be passionate about the change, but ownership for the culture starts at the very top and rests with every leader. Recognizing this at RSA, we identified a number of senior leaders and partnered with them on a weekly basis to monitor our movement on the path to culture transformation.

When embarking on a culture transformation, it’s important to have the conviction and support to follow it through. If you do, the prize is significant with the opportunity to create an environment where people can be themselves and bring their true selves to work.

Mark Edgar is senior vice-president of human resources at RSA Canada in Toronto. He is a member of the Strategic Capability Network and co-founder of two Toronto based communities - future foHRward and the Millennial Crusade.

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The Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) is a membership-based organization for business leaders by business leaders. SCNetwork helps leaders achieve competitive strength through people, by providing a forum for leading-edge thinking and application. Our monthly events feature provocative and thoughtful speakers on issues preoccupying today's organizations. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit www.scnetwork.ca.
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