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The Importance of Culture in Fostering Organizational Growth

By Anthony Taylor - April 04, 2017

Jane Watson,the Head of People at Actionable (actionable.co), chatted with us about organizational culture, and its relationship with strategy. With experience across many sectors, Jane has worked with a multitude of teams and people, and has worked in the HR sphere for over 15 years. When it comes to organizational culture, there are a few key takeaway learnings: 
  • Culture cannot be created or simply redesigned; it's not a top down decision. Culture manifests through a reciprocal process, and can be fostered and adjusted through communication, collaboration, and behavior reinforcements. 
  • Fostering a culture that reflects your organizational values and strategy is important. Make sure to reward behaviors that encourage what you're trying to accomplish. 
  • Treat your team like responsible adults; that's what they are. 
  • Rather than acting as an enforcement arm, leadership teams, management and HR, should instead work together with teams to support their growth. 

Listen to our full podcast interview with Jane Watson below, where she goes into depth about the importance of aligning strategy, performance and your team.  



Interview Transcript: 

AT: Jane Watson is the Head of People at actionable.co

JW: I’m well thanks. Thanks for having me

AT: Excited to learn more about you and to share your story and experience with the leaders who listen to our podcast and on the blog. Can you tell me and others a bit about your background?

JW: I’ve been working in the people HR sphere for about 15 years. In that time, I’ve been really fortunate to work in a variety of different industries and organizations. I started out in hospitality management and then moved into some interesting work with a large food manufacturer here in Canada, followed by some additional private sector roles, and then a few years in not-for profit, and also government. Now I find myself at a small fast growing start-up, actionable.co, which is really, really exciting.

AT: What does actionable do?

JW: We are a technology company that is really speaking to change, the way that the world approaches professional learning. We have a platform. We also create content. Essentially what we do is we drive team conversations about particular business ideas, how they apply in the context of a team’s day to day work. Our platform then allows those individuals in the team to make a behavior change commitment, individual to them, track how they’re doing on an ongoing basis, and connect them with an accountability buddy and their manager, to keep them accountable and on track with that behavior change. So, really trying to see how you can actually measure and virtualize the learning and reflection that happens with professional learning.

AT: Thank you for that. One of the reasons that I really wanted to have you on here, in addition to your varied experience, is partially because of what Actionable is doing. The thing that I like the most about it is that you’ve understood that learning needs to be put into bite size portions and a just in time model, which is one of the reasons that we have this podcast. It’s not hours and hours of courses, but a 20-30 minute digestible thing that has a lot of value as you want to learn that thing. We’ll get more into that.

Which of the private sector, government, and not for profit, which area did you like the most for your function and what where the differences?

JW: I don’t know. I don’t know if I could really narrow it down. I think what I really enjoyed was working in organizations, regardless of industry, that are keen to experiment and be progressive in their thinking about approaches to people, and that have taken the approach that just because everyone’s doing something doesn’t mean that we should do it, what makes sense for us. I’ve worked in a couple of organizations where I’ve really got to do that. My time in not for profit, you have the added constraint of resources, which right there just lends itself to being open to experimentation, so I got to do a lot of really interesting things from a training and engagement perspective there, that I really, really enjoyed. Then my time, most recently I worked for a capital markets regulator, here in Ontario, and they’re going through a massive organizational change as they are merging with a number of other regulators in the capital market space across Canada. That was really, really interesting, because we were thinking a lot about big picture people issues, so I really enjoyed that experience as well.

AT: In your 15 year career, how have you noticed the evolution of people management, HR, and basically all those recruiting functions bundled together. Have you noticed a change in how people approach it?

JW: I would like to think so. I think that I probably have my own bubble, given what I read and the type of people I like to talk to about this stuff, so I probably think it’s changing more than it actually is, if you look at the actual organization. Having said that, what I do think is that, yes, there has been a major shift in those 15 years away from really sort of a dynamic, whether we made it explicit or not, but a dynamic where the organization and HR, as part of the organization really created, perhaps inadvertently, a parent child relationship with employees.

It was often the idea that we would implement a lot of policies and processes and tell people how to do things, and tell managers even how to do things. I think more and more, and again partly probably based on my reading list and who I talk to most, but I think we’re moving away from that and realizing given larger forces that are happening, so typically shorter tenured people are moving around organizations more. There’s so much more contracting, contingency employment, so the onus for managing one’s career, being responsible for your career path, your personal brand, your personal development, is really being pushed to the employee by and large.

I think, in part, that one factor is forcing the shift away from that very parental type of relationship, to one where we’re really recognizing that people are adults, which sound really obvious, but isn’t always in organizations. We’re treating them like adults who have great ideas, their own goals, and aren’t going to be with your company for 25 years, so let’s not act like that. Let’s treat each other as equals and adults and go from there.

AT: Interesting. From my experience, I’ve heard that the shift from HR being a policy enforcement arm versus supporting and working in partnership with your people and really being able to support them in their growth and their work.

JW: I think that’s a good way to put it.

AT: First official question. When we talk about HR as a function, and we’ll look at that within driving business results, what would you say your personal two to three best practices within the scope of your work? What is really important for our listeners, for them to take away, and maybe be able to implement in their own organizations?

JW: From a people management standpoint, or from the function standpoint  

AT: Yeah.

JW: A topic that I’ve always really been interested in myself, and one that I think is perhaps not particularly well understood, but that is very powerful, is thinking about organizational culture. I think that that encompasses a lot of different things. I do think that when organizations think about the type of people practices that they want to implement, or even the type of people that they want to have in their organization, there needs to be a really strong link to what you’re trying to achieve as an organization

What are your objectives, what is your strategy, and what kind of behaviors do you need to be every day a part of the work that all of the people in your organization do? I think, starting from that point, you can begin to imagine what type of culture that you need, what type of people you need to hire, and that would certainly influence both your approach to the internal programs and the principles that you approach people management from, as well as it will certainly influence the recruiting strategy and approach that you take to finding, and selecting, and onboarding the type of people that are going to help create that culture and exhibit those behaviors that you need to achieve your strategy.

I think that’s really broad, but I’m happy to dig into any of those areas more if you would like.

AT: I think you make a really good point. One of the biggest investments you’re going to make is in your people. To dig deeper would be, what are some practical things that people could do to develop the culture and understand how behaviors align with objectives?

JW: Right off the top, it’s about being very clear about the culture that you need to support your strategy and the culture that you currently have. I think there’s a really practical component there, which is to identify what kind of behaviors support the strategy that you’re trying to achieve, and do you see those behaviors in your organization currently?

If you have a situation where, as an organization, you’re really trying to be more innovative, but you realize after reflection, observation, listening, spending some time looking at the culture that you actually have, that in fact, people are valuing harmony, interpersonal harmony over pushing boundaries or challenging ideas, or there’s a culture where people really fear speaking up because they fear losing face if they suggest something that’s genuinely ... or unexpected. You can really, at that point, see quite clearly where culture’s actually an obstacle potentially to the types of behaviors you need to execute on your strategy.

I think, practically speaking, that’s the first step, is getting really clear on what you need and getting really clear on what you have. The second part, I think, is way more challenging than it sounds because I think that … With all the talk of culture, a lot of times what we get confused about is thinking that culture equals our employer brand. We say we’re this, so that’s why I think it’s important to spend some time observing, really at all levels of the organization, to see what behaviors are actually apparent, and taking that away, and trying to think as objectively as you can about why those exist. That will tell you a lot about the culture that you have.

AT: I was on the part about looking at the culture that you have. I was hoping to take it a step back. How do you actually figure out the culture that you need? In theory, it’s like, “Oh yeah. This is where we want to go”, but in a practical application, how do you know the culture that you need to be able to get to where you want?

JW: Culture is deep and it’s complex. I think that a big mistake that we can make is thinking that culture is something that we can just design, or roll out like a program. It’s not. Culture is something that, while we talk about it often coming from the top, and that’s because leaders have a really big influence on culture, it doesn’t just come from the top. Culture’s something that is shared, and it’s co-created, and it’s self-reinforcing. When we talk about figuring out the culture that we need, I think actually what we need to start from is the standpoint of narrowing our focus to think about specific behaviors that we want to embed in our culture, versus thinking about it as an entire cultural redesign or transformation.

I really think that taking that approach, with perhaps a very few exceptions, is going to end in failure. If you can narrow your focus and think about it from the perspective of behaviors, because typically culture would be defined as the deep values, beliefs, and then the exhibited behaviors that exist. Those things are connected. What we can see, and what we can typically act on and influence in the short term, are behaviors. The example about trying to think about what, if your strategy is related to innovation in some way, or a product offering or new line of business, that may be where you can start to reverse engineer. “Ok, well if we need to be thinking about totally new ways to approach this market, or how we position this service offering, then the kind of behaviors that we need to see internally are openness to trying new ideas, willingness to share new information across groups, much more early collaboration on certain projects … 

It’ll depend on your environment, of course, and on your objectives, but those are the types of things. That’s probably where I would start.

AT: That totally makes sense. We talk about, at SME strategy, you’re talking the talk, which is like, “Yeah, we have values”. I think a lot of organizations have values, but you don’t know if they’re really living them. So, it’s talking the talk, walking the walk, and rewarding the talk, when you actually reward a different kind of behavior, other than the behavior you want. The example I always use is work life balance. It’s like, “Oh, we value work life balance, but we’re going to promote the people that are working 16 hour days”, so which one is it?

JW: That’s exactly right.

AT: Do you have examples that you’ve seen that? Opposing behaviours that you’ve seen and ways to fix that?

JW: Yes. I’ve definitely seen examples of opposing behaviours, and I think that I’ve seen good examples of trying to shift that. The classic one that I suspect many people will have experience with is, a lot of organizations’ collaboration has been, there’s been a big push on recognizing the value and increasing the collaboration in organizations over the last several years, and yet you still have so many organizations that use forced ranking performance management systems.

You’re saying you want people to be collaborative, and yet you’re explicitly rewarding people relative to one another, so it becomes very competitive from that perspective. You’re absolutely creating a system that’s very much at odds with what you’re trying to achieve. I think there’s lot of changes happening with how organizations approach performance management. I think, provided that that’s producing value for those organizations, that’s great, then move away from forced ranking if collaboration is important to you. That’s great.

To your point about promotion, I think culturally organizations have lots of levers they can push, and not all behaviours have equal weighting or cultural importance in an organization. Some of the things that have a lot of value and impact are those types of visible decisions like promotions, rewards, recognition, hiring, bringing in people who are aligned with the values or the behaviours that you’re trying to promote within the organization. All of those things are great catalysts for trying to shift your culture, and cultivate it in a way that you want.

AT: I have one more question about that before we move on. I heard the soft stuff, HR, is the hard stuff. Some organizations might not necessarily understand the impact that it has on the people of the organization if culture isn’t there. I have my thoughts, but I definitely want to know, if you have these juxtaposed cultures, as you brought up the forced ranking versus the collaboration, what does it do to people when they show up to work? What is the effect it has on them, on their ability to produce, and their ability to be engaged in their work?

JW: I think that’s a terrific question. If, as an organization, you’re advancing and talking about a value like collaboration, and then you are on the other hand, to continue with our example, using a forced ranking performance management system to distribute rewards and recognition, what you’re doing very quickly, it’s not something that’s going to happen over a long time, is you’re producing a ton of dissidence. Quickly, what you start to see is, a lot of cynicism. Any one of us who has worked in an environment where you have cynical people around you, those are not the people who are engaged. Those are not the people who are productive, who are going above and beyond, who are championing your organization, or who are acting as an ambassador.

I think there’s a very direct and clear path that you’ll see quickly with people becoming less engaged, less productive.

AT: If you start seeing people quitting, all in a row, in big chunks, you can probably tie it to culture, and even so far as a specific manager, depending how things are going. Not that we’re pointing fingers at anybody, but they’re very real implications, and very costly implications of a negative culture … Or, not even a negative culture, just a culture that opposes itself in the practical application of it. Anything else that you think we might have missed talking about culture and performance?

JW: No. I think we did a pretty good job. We touched on a lot there.

AT: I think we’ve convinced our listeners that putting culture as a priority is important and has real economic effects. As they move forward in this process, one of them being making sure you don’t have cultures that oppose each other, or values that oppose each other, what are some other risks to avoid, either in the strategic planning process, or as you move forward in change management for culture and people?

JW: A couple things come to mind. From a strategy standpoint, I think that what a huge challenge for organizations, a risk that they run into, even the … a great strategy, is not understood at all levels of the organization. You could call that implementation, but I think even before that, just helping people to understand how that strategy translates into their day to day decision making and work … Certainly, earlier in my career, I would have thought of strategy as being a C-suite job, and some kind of arcane process that happens out of view of everybody else.

I had a really great boss a few years ago, and she shared her view with me that a job doesn’t have to have strategy in the title to be strategic. Any job can be strategic, as long as you bring that mindset to it. I think that’s becoming more and more true in the workplace with some of the larger (inaudible 21:05) automation and a lot of predictable, repeatable work, probably on its way out of the work, force by and large. There’s that increasing focus on people being able to infuse strategy into their every day work.

For that reason, I think it’s so critical that organizations do a great job with helping people at all levels understand what the strategy is, so that they can tie their day to day decision making back to that. That’s really powerful. That’s going to make your strategy get translated into reality. Of course, because I always have my people hat on, I think that kind of transparency also increases trust in leadership, which can definitely have really positive effects from an engagement standpoint.

AT: What I heard from that is the biggest risk being employees at all levels not understanding the strategy, or even on top of that, not thinking that they can contribute to the strategy.

JW: Absolutely. Just that disconnection that can happen, the strategic planning process, if it’s not connected to people’s day to day work throughout the year, on an ongoing basis, there’s a risk there too.

AT: Do you have any tips on how to make that happen, or what you’ve seen on how to get that connection going?

JW: I think the current organization that I’m in does an amazing job really talking day to day, constantly bringing any discussions that we’re having, any decisions that we’re making, back to the key business drivers, back to our key strategic focus. We are a small team, so that certainly makes it easier from a communication standpoint, but it is still a very refreshing, very transparent approach that certainly is deliberate on the part of the leadership of the organization.

That I know, because I have certainly heard it from people at all levels, has really made people feel connected to what we are trying to achieve longer term. It helps them contextualize the work that they’re doing, and it helps them, even at a fairly junior level, make really much better informed decisions about prioritization day to day, because they’re able to tie it back to the strategy. We have monthly town halls where we’re constantly looking at, where we’re tracking, in terms of metrics, but we’re always driving it back to the larger strategic plan for the organization.

Even the approach of giving people credit and assuming that regardless of what their background is, they’re going to get it. There are times people certainly will have questions, but I do think it just provides a great sense of respect and unity for the group to feel like we’re all really clear on the goals and the strategy that we’re working against the strategy.

AT: We say it’s taking a strategy from the top down, but also the bottom up, so everybody on the front lines, the ones who are actually implementing the strategy, can feel like they’re part of it and moving the needle on that. When you come to talk about the informed decisions, that’s how you can empower your staff. You’re paying them; you might as well trust them to do the right things. For us, going back to what you talked about before, is those behaviors and those values allow people the space to feel safe to actually make a decision and know they’re doing the right thing, because it’s in line with the values.

JW: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I think that we sometimes overlook what a practical use values have from that perspective. You’re not going to be everywhere, every day, to tell people how to think and act. Hopefully you don’t want to do that either. Values, exactly as you say, it provides people with a clear framework.

AT: Is there anything else when it comes to aligning strategy and performance? I think you hit it on the head, is making sure that everybody, on all levels, not only understands the strategy, but also understands how well the organization is performing against the strategy. It’s not like a one time, “Here’s our strategy. Bye guys”. It’s here’s how it’s going, here’s how it’s going, here’s how it’s going, and really allowing that to inform the decision.

Is there any practical tip that you have used in the past or are using now to make sure that strategy, performance, and culture are all aligned as one?

JW: I think that one of the things that I have experienced in a past organization, that I found to be very powerful, was the expectation that if you as a team member were bringing forward a proposal to your manager, or to your manager’s manager, so there would be a decision to be made, and you had done some analysis and were going to propose a particular position or course of action, it was understood. It was absolutely a routine that you would be asked to provide analysis on how the course of action that you were recommending aligned and supported the strategy.

Going into a meeting and saying, “Zappos does it this way”, or “Google does it this way”, that was not going to fly. It was very important that all of the decision making was very grounded in how it tied back to strategy. I’ve already talked about individual day to day decision making, but even that kind of analysis that was required, that really made a big impact on how I work. I think that stuck with me. That’s a really practical way to embed it in people’s thinking.

AT: You can’t do that unless you actually know what the strategy is. One final question. Is there any other thing that you would recommend to a CEO or a manager, some experienced, some new, that they can actively do to move forward their culture or their strategy that you think rocks?

JW: From a culture perspective, the best thing that you can do, there’s a couple things that you can do … You’ve got to be really willing as a leader to, as you mentioned earlier, walk the talk. Managers typically, in a lot of organizations are tasked; they have their own work, they’re leading a team, they’re meant to develop a team, engage a team, and it’s incredible how much they’re asked to do. When you think about the idea that their behavior is so significant and so influential on culture, it can be easy for people to think, “Oh well. I know I’ve said that it’s really important that we respect each other’s time, and I want to create an environment where people feel that they can stop in”…  if they’re having a bad day, and meetings get pushed with their team one on ones, or get canceled, or people feel like they’re rushed or unwelcome when they stop by with a thought or a question.

In the moment, it seems they’re very understandable, and yet at the same time, those have really big impact. I’m not giving managers an out. I’m saying it’s a tough job, but unfortunately the day to day behavior like that has a really big impact on your team culture. Being mindful that your behavior and the words that you’re using are being really mined for meaning from your group, is important to keep in mind. That day to day stuff has a huge impact on culture and sets the tone from a strategy perspective, and I suppose from a culture perspective as well … The kinds of repeated discussions that try to really embed the behaviors you’re seeking to cultivate, really try to embed them in the fabric of your work.

Instead of just talking about them at a team retreat, or your once a month recognition for whoever’s living up to the values, I think it’s really important to be talking about it more often. In your one on ones, in your team meetings, just really trying to make that forefront in all that you’re doing with your team. I think I’ve been harping on the ongoing communication and I know that my team gets tired of hearing this word, deliberate. It’s my favorite word.

JW: Everyone can get on the bus with values. Nobody’s going to say, “I really don’t like integrity or excellence”. Nobody’s going to tell you that they don’t like that. It’s way more important that people live it day to day and that they’re very deliberate about how they talk about it and how they embed it in their work. Just being on the bus with excellence and whatever your values are, it’s not enough. At Actionables, one of our values is kind of unusual. Candidates always talk to me about it if they’ve check our website, and that is, “McGyver it”.

We see that every day and we talk about it a lot. We’re a small team and sometimes you’ve just got to figure it out. You’ve got to figure a way to make it happen and everyone ... it’s all hands to figure it out.

AT: Would you be able to summarize the point about the day to day walking the walk?

JW: It’s really not enough to say, “Yes, I’m on the bus with values”, whatever the values of your organization are. Typically the values that we choose with organizations are going to be things everyone can agree with. It’s much more about really deliberately having discussions and opportunities in your one on ones, in your regular team meetings, on a really day to day basis, to highlight where those behaviours are happening to highlight where someone might have approached it differently, more aligned with those values or behaviours. Using those opportunities all the time, not as a way to show somebody up or glean somebody, but rather as ongoing learning together about how to make those behaviours more embedded in the fabric of your every day work.

AT: How can people get a hold of you?

JW: I’m on Linkedin or you can find me at Jane@actionable.co
Find out more about the team or the company at www.actionable.co

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