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Why is it so hard to create a truly great organisational culture?

We’re all feeling the impact of COVID in some way in our lives (some more than others, shout out to my friends and colleagues in Melbourne and broader Victoria doing it tough. Hang in there), there are also some positives – I like to call them ‘COVID gifts’.

One of those is time. Extra time with family, time to think, time for stillness, time for exercise, time to read, time to do some of those things you’ve been meaning to do forever … and time to reflect. While there’ll always be things on my list I won’t get to even with the best intent (haven’t quite mastered the gardening, the lawn is wild and free), I, like many others, have prioritised a passion of mine – giving back. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do so with a group of wonderful people powered by The Bridge International as part of our commitment to support good causes.

The experience of working with not-for-profits has given me a different perspective on many things, one of which is company culture – something I’ve always been passionate about. Having lived and worked in different countries, I’ve been privileged to work at great companies with a wonderfully diverse group of people who have each taught me so much in different ways. I’ve been very fortunate that my roles have allowed me to influence ‘the way we do things around here’. Because I believe culture is so important I have decided to write a series of articles on this subject, starting with the question of ‘why is it so hard to create a truly great organisational culture?’

The power of purpose

For the last 6 months or so, I’ve had the privilege of supporting Lifeline. You may have read about the significant increase in calls from people in crisis – first through the devastating bushfires in December last year and then since March, COVID has continued to put pressure on Australians. Mental health and the health sector in general is under enormous pressure and is critical to our collective wellbeing ensuring we look after our most vulnerable and those that need the help that we may all need one day.    

Thankfully, in addition to time, another COVID gift is the sense of community we’re seeing and feeling, which is showing in how people get involved and use their time to help others and which has seen the number of people wanting to volunteer increase dramatically. And volunteers for many not-for-profits are the life blood of the organisation.  

As a partner at The Bridge, I’m proud that the business is serious about doing good in the community and that our charter dedicates time and resources to not-for-profits. Working so closely with not-for-profit organisations is humbling, rewarding and educational. Not only am I amazed by the passion and commitment from so many people from different walks of life coming together to help people in need, it’s also provided some pretty unique insights in terms of culture and performance – and the power of purpose.

For-profits can invest a lot of resources into purpose. What is it? How do we word it? How do we help people connect to it? Not-for-profits have a head start there – people join because they already believe in the cause. But doing good isn’t all straight forward and feel good. It’s hard graft and a lot of pressure.

Where leaders of for-profits have to consider shareholder commitments and outcomes, leaders at not-for-profits are arguably under more pressure to perform as they need to ensure financial sustainability to be able to continue to do good and deliver on their mission. 

And of course staying focused and prioritising what you do - and don't do - is even more challenging in the current environment as we all have to adapt to different ways of working at a speed we've never seen before.

The journey is as important as the outcome

I’m also a little competitive and I love a challenge … But I’ve always believed the journey is as important as the outcome. As a leader, it’s critical that you’ve got eyes on not just what the results are, but also how they’re being achieved to ensure they are sustainable and aligned to company values. Company values and principles as guiderails are essential to effectively monitoring outcomes – whether they’re customer or commercial (let’s take the discussion about how those two are really two sides of the same coin another day).

Working at Wesfarmers there was an unwritten principle which was: “what you do is more important than what you say” and “bad news doesn’t get better with time”. Measuring and rewarding the right behaviours provides confidence that results are achieved in the right way avoiding the watermelon effect – where results on the surface look green, but when you cut a little deeper there’s a lot of red. 

In the wake of the Hayne Royal Commission many organisations moved fast and invested millions of dollars in new roles and tools as well as building out their risk functions and updating frameworks and policies. While these are all critical, having a documented approach or policy isn’t enough. Risk as an integral part of ‘how we do things around here’ helps the business be better and go faster and can shine the light on blind spots that may otherwise be missed.

Too often, the intent gets lost in translation as it travels through the organisation. A strategic growth objective turns into a sales number, which turns into a conversion target, which in turn drives a high pressure environment and poor sales practices. Pressure on the P&L turns into a short term cost cutting exercise rather than looking at optimisation and effectiveness for the long term.

"The standard you walk past is the standard you’re willing to accept"

While this phrase is most famous for being used by 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison as part of his campaign to champion gender equality in the army, I think it applies to all situations in all work environments. Having worked in businesses and led large teams, I get the pressures, I understand the need to balance customer, shareholder and employee needs. I’ve made mistakes and learnt from them. The key to sustainability is an organisational culture that is habitually centred around doing the right thing, is consistent and is aligned across all areas of the business. It is about visibility, transparency and trust. And it’s about taking action when you see something that doesn’t feel right. Easier said than done!

What do you think?

I believe culture is what sets the tone in an organisation. It’s what people feel when they work there or deal with them as customers or clients. Maybe it’s so hard to change because it’s intangible, difficult to define and means something different to everyone?

I like to bring it back to:

  1. The power of purpose

  2. Doing the right things

  3. The journey is as important as the outcome

In other words: to me, it's about alignment between why an organisation exists, what the desired output is and how this is achieved.

What do you think? What does culture mean to you and how do you influence it? What are the key challenges you see and what do you think is underrated?

Sara Elmstrom


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