Culture guides behaviours at work

Trust is a fundamental pillar in creating a successful work culture

Corporate Culture and Leadership: In July, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosted a special event on culture and leadership featuring Sherrill Burns, a partner at Culture-Strategy Fit, and Pat McNamara, founder of Apex PR. For more information about SCNetwork, visit

Culture guides behaviours at work

Culture by design: Shaping a cultural edge

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies

Culture guides behaviours at work

At HBC, the Toronto-based retail giant, employees used to assume customers returning merchandise were trying to cheat the store by breaking return policies or, worse yet, returning stolen merchandise. As such, employees often treated these customers poorly, despite management’s repeated edicts to do the opposite.

“Year after year we would re-establish the strategy saying, ‘Be nice to customers when they’re returning something,’ but then all of our secret shoppers would report that they were being treated badly when they were trying to return stuff,” said David Crisp, an HR consultant and former senior vice-president of HR for HBC.

The protective culture that imbued the organization led employees to view these customers as a threat to the store so they treated them with suspicion, but only because the employees wanted what was best for the store, said Crisp.

“Once you’ve got people convinced they’re doing the right thing, whatever it is, it’s very hard to change it,” he said.

That’s the problem with culture. It can be subtle, stubborn and imbued with emotion and it can hinder the execution of an organization’s strategy, Sherrill Burns, a partner at Markham, Ont.-based Culture-Strategy Fit, told a group of senior HR professionals at a Strategic Capabilities Network breakfast in Toronto last month.

“It can either create this wonderful accelerator effect or it can act as culture drag and actually impede from achieving those things an organization needs to do for the future,” she said.

Organizational culture is made of rules and norms of behaviour. They operate tacitly — often people aren’t even aware of them — telling people what’s right and what’s wrong, said Burns in an interview with Canadian HR Reporter.

“They can be just like glue. They are in the organization’s DNA. They operate very powerfully,” she said.

If there are problems in an organization, if it isn’t performing as well as it should or if there are personnel issues, the culprit is likely the underlying culture, said Burns. However, trying to change culture should be done cautiously. If people feel like their culture is being threatened, they react emotionally, said Burns.

“They want the status quo. If it appears that any change is going to damage a culture’s strength, there can be a reaction to change where people don’t adopt it out of fear,” she said.

To make changes to culture, organizations need to identify the rules that govern behaviour and attitudes, figure out which ones benefit the organization and help it deliver its strategy and which ones are weak and actually hinder the organization, said Burns.

Once HBC understood the emotion behind employees’ behaviour towards customers with returns, it was able to change it. Management talked with small groups of employees and helped them realize that by being nice and courteous to customers with returns, these customers were more likely to shop at HBC again and tell their friends and families how nice the staff was, which would help the store in the long run, said Crisp.

But it wasn’t easy to change the culture and it definitely wasn’t quick, he said.

“It’s all about habits. It takes a lot of weeks of practising to build a new habit,” said Crisp. “You have to remind them every day for weeks and weeks and weeks.”

There are two components to culture, according to Burns. There are core culture patterns, which are fairly universal across organizations and affect employee engagement (trust, power, knowledge sharing, identity and adaptability), and there are strategic culture patterns, which are unique to organizations based on their own strategic goals.

To ensure the organization has an underlying culture that will help it execute its strategy, the organization must first determine the rules and characteristics that support that strategy. Once those are known, the organization needs to find out if they actually exist. This can be done through a variety of methods including employee surveys and group discussions with employees, said Burns.

For example, in a customer service-oriented organization such as a hotel, empowering employees to meet customer needs is a key characteristic of a culture that will help the hotel meet its strategy.

If a hotel doesn’t allow employees to make simple decisions on their own, such as giving a guest a free toothbrush if he left his at home, then the existing culture is hindering the hotel’s success, said Burns.

“Culture shapes practices in an organization, so if you want to start to shape the culture, you’ve got to shape those practices. They’ll then change the behaviours and then gradually people’s beliefs and assumptions will change over time as well,” she said.

Change starts at the top with leadership support, said Burns. Once senior management has embraced the change, then one or two elements of the culture can be changed among all employees. A phased approach helps minimize resistance, she said.

While there is no universally good organizational culture, the most important cultural pattern is trust, said Burns.

“So many of the culture patterns rely on the trust between people,” she said.

Conversely, the most negative culture pattern is blame fixing and finger pointing. When this pattern exists, employees are abdicating personal responsibility, which can only hurt an organization in the long run, said Burns.

The Apex story

Recognition of a job well done key to happy staff and clients

When Pat McNamara started Apex PR in Toronto 10 years ago, she knew she wanted a workplace where employees were happy so they would stay with the firm longer, which would in turn make clients happy because they would be working with the same team.

This was accomplished by creating a collaborative and positive work environment where employees come first, even before clients, she told the HR professionals gathered at the Strategic Capabilities Network event in Toronto last month.

When McNamara pitches to potential clients, she explains her people are just as important as the client getting what it wants. If the clients don’t like that shift, where people come before profits, McNamara won’t take them on as clients.

One way the firm puts employees first is through regular recognition. This comes in many forms, from milestone awards such as $5,000 and an extra five days of paid vacation after five years of service, to daily praise and thanks for a job well done.

“It doesn’t have to be a raise or a promotion, but just something that shows people that you recognize them and that you care for them,” she said.

The firm also allocates $1,000 a year to training for each employee, on top of the annual all-employee retreat that usually takes place in Ontario’s cottage country. But this year, to recognize the firm’s 10th ¬anniversary, McNamara took her employees on a cruise to the ¬Bahamas.

It’s also important to regularly check in with employees to see what they like and what they don’t, said McNamara, which is why Apex does annual surveys.

“You just have to keep trying different things. Some things resonate for a while and some things get stale,” she said.

McNamara spends more time working on maintaining this culture than on any other responsibilities because the culture is more important than anything else, she said.

And all the hard work is paying off. Turnover at Apex is about 15 per cent, much lower than the industry standard of 25 per cent, said McNamara.

Coming soon
Want to attend one of the upcoming SCNetwork Breakfast Series in Toronto?

September: Leadership Solutions – the pathway to bridge the leadership gap with Vince Molinaro and Liane Davey.

October: Corporate social networking – leveraging IT for business, with Carmine Porco and Jim Estill.

Visit for more information.

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Culture by design: Shaping a cultural edge

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

In search of the Holy Grail

By Matt Hemmingsen

I have often viewed corporate culture as the Holy Grail — not so much in the religious context, but more from an illustrative perspective. Corporate culture is the lifeblood of an organization — its values, its beliefs, its behaviours, its rituals and its ceremonies. Culture is not tangible, yet it permeates every aspect of how and why a company conducts its business.

For the most part, the challenge is in the shaping of the culture. Sherrill Burns poses the question: “A culture by design or by default?” To Burns, a culture can be designed when one removes inherent organizational barriers associated with work and strategy — a rational perspective. Adding to that perspective, and from my experience, culture is also the emotional and social side of an organization. It is its heart.

A company’s culture is shaped by its leaders who generate the requisite energy to ensure the longer term success of their organization. It is the leaders who create, nurture and embed a culture. It is they who are the architects and owners of that culture.

Leaders influence the culture of an organization by recognizing two scenarios — the life cycle stage and the strategic issues facing them. Each scenario brings unique and challenging variables.

Leaders must be able to detect how their culture shapes strategy, structure, systems and the way in which work is done. As an organization moves through each life cycle stage — start-up, growth, maturity and eventually turnaround — it is critical for leaders to judge whether the existing culture is flexible enough to adapt to its new environment. If not, the company risks decline.

In all my HR leadership experiences, I found the strength of a company’s culture eventually becomes its Achilles heel. That which once made it great, eventually causes its demise. This is where leadership is key — managing the two dimensions of stage and strategy — the ability to transform or shape the company’s culture for each new challenge. Think Caterpillar, IBM, Dell and Johnson & Johnson. All retained their core values yet shaped their culture to meet emerging challenges.

As Edgar Schein, a well-known American academic and author, has noted: “Leadership requires not only insight into the dynamics of the culture but the motivation and skill to intervene in one’s own cultural process. To change any elements of the culture, leaders must be willing to unfreeze their own organization.”

Given that perspective, leaders have the power to choose — “culture by design or by default.”

Matt Hemmingsen is SCNetwork's lead commentator on strategic capability. He has held senior HR leadership roles in global corporations. He is a managing partner with Personal Strengths Canada, a member of an international company focused on improving business performance through relationship awareness. For more information, visit or e-mail [email protected].

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Do unto others

By Dave Crisp

Both of the presenters highlighted Isadore Sharp’s key principle for his highly successful culture at the Four Seasons — the golden rule. It makes eminent sense, so much so that virtually everyone would agree.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s simple, clear and easy. Why isn’t this the motto for all organizations? Culture is an issue for all and everyone who provides service to clients needs to treat staff well to ensure they are on board with excellence. You can’t treat clients well and employees differently and expect people to ignore the disconnect. This is fundamental to effective culture.

Lack of this has got to be one of the biggest questions in HR and managing people. The day after the presentation, I ran across a comment on an HR blog that I immediately referred to in my own. Diversity being what it is these days, this came from a vice-president, with a Southeast Asian name, of an American subsidiary of Oracle that has offices worldwide. It probably reflects how widespread the problem he mentioned is. I’m sure you’ve run into it — I certainly have on numerous occasions in various forms.

The problem? He asked how it is that bosses ask their subordinates to co-operate with each other, share information, work collaboratively, find joint solutions and cross silos if need be for clients and then fail to behave that way themselves. It’s an excellent question that goes to the heart of culture and culture challenges.

These bosses know what’s right, what will work best to solve problems and avoid further ones. However, they have careers to worry about. They want to get ahead. They feel they must compete with peers, even ruthlessly when necessary. While they may be prepared to co-operate sometimes, they’d prefer to see the other executive offer first, just to be on the safe side. The higher we go in organizations, the more autonomy bosses have to behave as they feel they must. No one can seemingly tell them not to. The higher you go, the more you have to lose. The CEO may well be occupied with other issues and simply expects his team to do the right things.

Most likely, no executive sets out to violate the golden rule every day, but caution leads them toward letting personal safety take precedence. Don’t broadcast weaknesses and don’t reveal information others might need if it will reflect badly on yourself. Of course, not everyone behaves this way. But if it’s the majority, their example will completely discourage openness and trust at lower levels because, if you reveal something about your department you’ve revealed a weakness that reflects on your boss’ operations. Caution, if not outright fear, too often prevails.

This is why both presenters continually pointed out that it takes a lot of time and repeated emphasis from bosses right up to the CEO to encourage — and model — the sort of positive, open, problem-solving cultures we so desperately need to boost creativity, get results and win hearts. And it’s why past presenters have emphasized 360-degree feedback at the highest levels of management to reveal gaps and strongly motivate collaboration. How many bad habits creep into cultures that are no one’s “fault,” just “understandable precautions”?

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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‘It’s not only what you do, it’s the way that you do it’

By Barry Barnes

Sherrill Burns stressed all the research her firm has been doing on culture speaks to the issue of visible behaviours and actions as the way to transform corporate culture. And the responsibility starts at the top with the leader’s consistent behaviour. But, like an iceberg, the real substance is hidden below the surface. All we can see are the behaviours driven by peoples’ values and beliefs.

In order to move to a new or different culture, there needs to be an alignment between the strategy of the organization and the desired culture. The “fit” has to be assessed to fit the context and the cultural dynamics at work. Most organizations fail at this matching and, as a result, real cultural change is derailed. Further, it is clear that the commitment of the leadership at all levels has to be there. Cultural change cannot be delegated.

Assisting Burns was one of her clients, Pat McNamara, president and owner of Apex Public Relations. Her enthusiasm about her company, the employees and the myriad ways she supports cultural objectives by explicit, concrete behaviours was immediately evident. This kind of leadership, supported by understanding the dynamics of the culture she wanted to have in her firm, is reflected in the growth of revenue and clients, in the low turnover rate of clients and staff and in the satisfaction employees demonstrate through commitment to the company and its clients.

So what has McNamara been able to accomplish that so many organizations have failed to do? It’s not just about size. Although smaller organizations tend to feel the impact of the leader more directly, most do not succeed in implementing and instilling a culture as effectively as she has been able to do. It is really about a clear vision, reflected in desired behaviours (and a small enough list that everyone can understand them) combined with a clear alignment of the organizational design, systems, procedures and policies that reflect the desired culture.

Over the years, McNamara has had to modify approaches to remain consistent and she demands of everyone — including herself — that behaviours reflect the desired cultural values. In larger organizations, a focus on financial or operating results and processes can result in confusion as to who the leader really is. But culture is all about people. If the organization is not designed to be people-centric, then attempts to instil a particular culture are likely doomed from the start.

Burns and McNamara presented together to demonstrate that when theory and learning are applied, the desired results can be achieved.

Barry Barnes is SCNetwork's lead commentator on organizational effectiveness. He is executive vice-president of ESOP Builders, a firm that develops employee-share ownership plans for private Canadian enterprises. He is also president of The Crystalpines Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

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