The inconvenient work that is culture

Three SCNetwork members discuss Brett Richards’ presentation

The inconvenient work that is culture
Panellists (left to right): Jan G. van der Hoop, president of Fit First Technologies in Toronto; Paul Pittman, founder and president of the Human Well in Toronto; Sandi Channing, senior director of total rewards at Compass Group Canada.

Paul Pittman: About 10 minutes into this presentation, I started to think I had lost some brain cells, and judging by the responses to Brett Richards’ questions, my guess is that others were having the same problem.

We have access to videos of the presentations and I rewound several times to understand several points. There were a lot of concepts to digest in Brett’s presentation — though he did warn us at the start, so much to say and so little time.

I no sooner had taken a concept on board and was framing the “yeah, but” when along came the next one, often completely different from the last. None were grounded with examples (for us simple folks) that would have helped embed what were some really powerful ideas. Others just swam by, lost in the assimilation of the preceding idea.

The 13 “inconvenient truths” all needed more discussion and context to be fully understood. This was powerful stuff that may have unfortunately missed the target as we skated through a busy agenda. The audience seemed a little lost when asked which applied to their organization — few had a response. 

Then Azam Bhaloo, CEO of the Foray Group in Markham, Ont., came along and got us back on track with some real-world application we could sink our teeth into. His organization provides child-care services and embraced the cultural concepts in Brett’s presentation to create a culture the owners thought would better prepare it for growth. 

He explained how he and the management team reacted when the cultural dashboard data (the OGI) was showing indicators of readiness that they could not sense walking the halls.

The OGI measured the key cultural values they were eager to instil in the organization through every communication with the workforce, and reported how these were taking root as well as their impact on behaviours and performance. 

Clearly, it’s a powerful instrument that has captured the imagination and engagement of Azam’s leadership team, demonstrating to me that engagement with an employer’s vision has to be measured and cannot be “sensed.” Without data, the wrong conclusions can be drawn and the wrong steps taken. 

The OGI is a very important enabler to embedding leadership’s vision into an organization.

Jan van der Hoop: Paul, I agree that “less is more” certainly applies here.

The assertion that only 31 per cent of HR leaders think their organizations have the culture necessary to drive performance — regrettably — does not surprise me. For many business leaders, culture is ethereal and hard to measure, and the notion of diverting energy and resources to disrupting, managing, developing or somehow turning culture into a competitive advantage seems dubious at best — with the result being that the unmanaged culture is often more of a drag on innovation than an enabler.

In hindsight, Brett’s focus on mindsets as a combination of how we think, feel and act is relevant to any culture or change management initiative. Too often, we communicate the facts (think) without anticipating and addressing how people will feel about an issue and how they are likely to act as a result.

The other crucial point that was covered by Azam is that this work is never done. Nimble, adaptive, innovative and profitable cultures are those that are always being challenged and stimulated. Thinking of this work as a program, owned by HR (or any other single stakeholder), with a clearly defined beginning and end date, dooms it to failure.

Culture is an outcome of leadership, and everyone in the organization is responsible for safeguarding and contributing. It is a living, breathing thing that never stops evolving and shifting, whether you are managing it or not — so it’s best to be intentional about guiding and directing it.

There’s no question this is inconvenient work that by its very nature interrupts and siphons resources away from the “doing the work we’re paid to do” but, if done right, yields tangible ROI.

Sandi Channing: Going into the presentation with few expectations on yet another talk on the importance of culture on organizational growth, I was pleasantly surprised. Brett had many points throughout his presentation that left me wanting more.

He spoke about the “organizational environment” which includes culture, climate and mindset. It is these elements that define how leaders and contributors act, think and feel in contributing to an organization’s success.  

Brett stated that feelings are often underestimated in times of change. Those who have worked for organizations in the midst of growth, acquisitions and mergers and new C-suite members are familiar with the emotional roller-coaster changes bring.

For organizations to ignore the emotional side is a slippery slope. The direction of the business is changing, putting culture into a flux and no one’s managing it.

“Seeing the invisible people and culture dynamics and linking them to performance is key.”

 Despite the amount of data on the importance of culture in an organization’s success, at many organizations, culture continues to just happen. There is no strategy — or if there is, often it’s more of an HR initiative and not aligned with business goals. This is concerning given that “failure to achieve workforce culture alignment can cause employee performance to decline as much as 12 per cent.”

The saying: “If you can’t change the people, change the people,” has often been the response when an organizational environment has changed.

Contributors with solid skills may have been let go because of a shifting culture that wasn’t managed effectively.

While replacing employees may be an easy fix, astute HR leaders recognize the short-sightedness of this approach, particularly with the current war on talent.

The OGI — a statistically validated tool that assesses the readiness for and responsiveness to internally or externally generated change — has merit.

I, too, was glad for the case study as it took Brett’s presentation from the theoretical to the practical. Azam’s enthusiasm for the model and its success was contagious and warranted. 

Using the OGI provided the business with a tool to measure the invisible and intangible factors that could have inhibited their growth.

Instead, the statistics provided proof that managing organizational environment is worth the time, money and effort.

Latest stories