Culture Wars: Why Uncomfortable is Good

Culture Wars: Why Uncomfortable is Good

01 Jun 18 4mins Jon Midmer

The opportunities and challenges presented by the digital revolution are immense. A great deal has been written about how to effectively lead organisational transformation to capitalise on the former and rise to the latter, with the lion’s share of it focusing on what you might call the ‘plumbing and wiring’ of how to set your business up for success. This might include organisational re-design; addressing skill imbalances; plugging talent gaps; deploying multi-disciplinary squads; implementing mobile learning and development platforms; and coming up with new ways of performance management and reward – with all of the above happening in an agile way and underpinned by robust HR analytics.

Plumbing and Wiring

At a round-table dinner I hosted in London a couple of weeks ago for Chief HR / People Officers of forward-thinking, digital businesses, almost all the attendees attested to the ‘plumbing and wiring’ challenges, and the need to evolve their organisation to keep up. At the same time, it struck me that the plumbing and wiring are only means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. What might actually be harder to achieve in the digital revolution are getting the ‘softer’ aspects of organisational change right, including cultural effectiveness and employee engagement. But why exactly are the challenges facing today’s CHROs so tricky?

For one, the make-up of the employee base is shifting as never before. Not only is it becoming more globally distributed, it is composed of full-, part- and flexi-time workers and contractors, working on site and remotely. Second, as well as being more multi-generational than it’s ever been, the workforce is also more digitally and social media savvy. Everyone’s on social all the time, and employees don’t like you regulating what they’re doing. Employees are demanding greater transparency and fewer rules as regards peer-to-peer interaction on intra-company platforms, and want to talk freely about anything, including about subjects that might traditionally have been considered taboo.

Trust and Transparency

Websites such as glassdoor are not just the first port of call for prospective employees looking for the inside track on a potential future employer, they give organisations nowhere to hide. It would also seem that employees increasingly believe their leaders earn trust rather than deserve it, and don’t just expect a voice but also a vote when it comes to things changing. One global CHRO spoke about opening a concession of a well-known, up-market coffee chain in a newly-refurbished atrium, only for staff to be up in arms about having it there. They said it went against the company’s un-corporate mission and ethos, and successfully lobbied to have it shut down within days.

It would also seem that a good number of twenty-somethings entering the world of work today have been let down by the education system and arrive at the office lacking not just certain technical skills, but also key life skills. Despite this, in some organisations almost 50% of staff believe they are ready for immediate promotion! Finally, companies are themselves wrestling with life-stage issues: many digital businesses are now well into their teenage years, even twenties in some cases, and are facing up to the need to re-evaluate who they are (and aren’t), and how they should behave now they’re growing / grown up.

But how to respond to these challenges? Here’s a starter for ten:

Employees are the first consumers of your brand, so treat them as you would your customers. It’s by engaging and levelling with your employees, by treating them as adults and admitting where you’ve made mistakes that you will stand out for the right reasons.

Communicate with your employees differently from how you did in the past. Be more open, authentic and transparent – and this starts with the CEO. Think bottom-up rather than top down, however hard this is and however long it takes.

Be brave! If employees want to talk openly about subjects that you consider too close to the knuckle for your like, let them, as long as they do it in a respectful manner. And in return, be brave with them – if you can’t meet their immediate career aspirations, encourage them to leave for a couple of years and come back when they’ve acquired new skills.

Provide courses on financial planning and foster a culture which cares about mental health issues. It signals your organisation views its employees as human beings, not doings.

Show an interest in young employees’ entire family by having a Bring the Parents / Grandparents to Work day

Go with a dress code that embodies the spirit of your organisation, and why wait for five years to reward long service?

Go the extra mile to do good in the world with the socially disadvantaged – in your own back yard and overseas. It can reinforce your mission, and it shows heart and compassion.

Don’t just embrace change, do everything to champion it, however uncomfortable it is.

Keep your culture alive and make sure your company values are aligned with your purpose. If the leadership doesn’t live the company values, or it’s clear that they’re ‘vanilla’, employees will almost certainly treat exec and the values with mistrust and cynicism.

Don’t be afraid to re-define your values. As companies move from insurgents to incumbents, they need to do so. While it can be a lengthy, difficult and even painful process coming up with new ones, if you manage the exercise well it can also be galvanising and cathartic.

I realise that some of the above might not just seem idealistic, they will also make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. But I would argue that for a healthy, future-thinking organisation it’s only by embracing a certain amount of discomfort that the successful CEOs and CHROs of today and tomorrow will truly prepare their organisation for the challenges ahead.