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Webinar: Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Our webinar discussed how strong cultures can deliver competitive edge

In HR culture is a word that, these days, typically brings to mind something that needs fixing. But instead of only focusing on culture when things go wrong how can HR see it as something to make workplaces happier and bolster performance?

Our webinar ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast: Achieving competitive edge through culture’, in partnership with O.C. Tanner, looked at how a strong culture can make an organisation stand out, and how this can be achieved. Our panellists, director of HR and OD at London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust Claire Gore, head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association Peter Reeve, and vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute Gary Beckstrand shared their thoughts and experiences.

Culture and governance

Last year saw a string of high-profile cases involving failures in corporate culture, prompting the Financial Reporting Council to refresh its corporate governance code. One of its provisions is for companies to ‘assess and monitor culture’.

Commenting on the move, Beckstrand said that increased media coverage on corporate behaviours has caused a shift in attitudes. One client, he explained, had its CEO return to the business with a new perspective following dismissal. “He’s taking personal accountability for culture. His board has said ‘this is your responsibility don’t delegate it’. As HR professionals a lot of our battles involve trying to get CEOs on our side, so if we’ve got leaders who are actually stepping up and taking accountability that’s really positive.”

Last year was particularly turbulent for charities. Reeve said that the criticism his sector faced, however, provided HR with an opportunity to show its worth: “The interim report on the Oxfam scandal landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago, and the key message for me in there was where was HR in that? Where could people go to flag concerns? The key learning is that HR was not involved in that conversation, and it needs to be.”

Further reading

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Understanding culture

But when it comes to how organisations should go about actually measuring or even defining culture there were few clear answers.

The panel were not surprised when an audience poll taken during the webinar showed that almost a third (30%) of respondents’ organisations had done nothing to measure culture at all. Thirty-seven per cent meanwhile said that their organisation had measured it to an extent but could do more.

Reeve admitted that trying to define culture could be “incredibly difficult… it’s not intuitive.” Beckstrand added that he’d witnessed very few companies implement a “culture strategy”, and that the concept is “somewhat nebulous”.

Gore agreed, and spoke of the difficulties of trying to create a consistent set of values in a diverse sometimes disenfranchised workforce. At one point her organisation brought together five different NHS Trusts with a total of 9,000 employees coming from very different organisational cultures. The key, Gore explained, is to communicate with employees and find out what matters to them: “To stop culture from being a nebulous thing we had to go out and ask our staff what was important to them; to really try and understand.”

While culture cannot easily be defined, without obtaining a strong sense of what your organisation stands for it’s impossible to progress, added Beckstrand.

The impact of culture

When employers get culture right the effects can be powerful and wide-ranging. Another audience poll found that engagement (20%), retention (17%), productivity (14%), wellbeing (14%) and creativity (12%) were the areas believed to benefit most from a strong culture.

Beckstrand said this breadth was encouraging, and that it’s not just about engagement. “If you try to force people to ‘be engaged’ then it doesn’t always work. There will always be staff who are disengaged, so it’s a personal choice. But creativity, productivity, and attraction and retention are all signs of a strong culture, and show how culture can manifest in different ways,” he said.

In the charity sector engagement scores are typically extremely high, Reeve added. But this does not always mean that people will demonstrate good behaviours: “It’s possible to be highly engaged but still quite lazy. Engagement will always be important, but you have to move beyond that and think about other aspects of the job too.”

All sectors must pay heed to culture to some extent. But in the NHS, where resources have been overwhelmingly stretched, culture is even more crucial said Gore. “We’ve got a lot of research showing that if you have happy staff you have happy patients. It is fundamental to us to try and improve the staff experience; it has such an impact on patient experience.”

What great culture looks like

Making room for mistakes and failure, an emphasis on continual learning and progression, and an atmosphere of trust were all factors in creating a strong culture cited by our panel.

Beckstrand stressed the importance of creating a positive culture to mitigate against negativity. “I think in HR we tend to focus on things that go wrong, rather than really positive experiences, and making that shift is easier said than done,” he said. “If you create positive experiences they help you minimise the negative impact. Inevitably we will have bad days, even in the best of cultures, but if we have a reservoir of positive experiences we can get past those issues.

“It’s about having a high degree of trust, because if you don’t have that you probably won’t feel like taking many risks. There has to be a certain willingness to fail, to try things and to maybe get things wrong,” he added.

The British Heart Foundation, Virgin Trains, and Kingston NHS Foundation Trust were all named as organisations that had impressed our panellists with their cultures.

Making strong culture stick

At the very least businesses need to make sure they do what they say they will if they want to achieve competitive edge through culture, the panel agreed. “This isn’t just something you can have on a poster; you need to embed it in your organisation,” said Gore.

Staff awards, thank-you notes, and appraisals that give more room for staff to evaluate their own performance are just some of the steps the Trust has taken: “I’m not saying it’s always fantastic, but we’re trying. If you just have it on a poster though it’s meaningless.”

Beckstrand said he believed the answer lies in creating a strong business case. He recommended bringing good and bad examples of culture to the board.

We also need to accept that a strong culture will look different depending on sector, size and circumstances, added Reeve. In his organisation learning and development has been integral.

Implementing and communicating a strong culture might sound like an insurmountable task. But the panel emphasised that organisations could – and should – start with small steps, and accept where they’re at. Beckstrand pointed out that most businesses can’t “become Google overnight”.

“It only happens when there’s a plan,” he said. “It is about cultural change; but cultural change at a micro level and the things people do day by day.”

A recording of the webinar is available for those who missed the live event.

This piece appeared in the March 2018 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk