The events of 2020 continue. As pundits point fingers and debate causes, 2021 offers no quick solutions to challenges generated, emerging, and evolving. The energies released by viral pandemic, economic displacement, political violence, and prolonged social injustice have altered everything we know in still unknown ways.
Optimists label this instability as “volatility,” believing various dynamics release an energy worth capture and direction. With this in mind, a cohort of top Human Resources and Talent professionals explored how CEOs can create and sustain their companies’ right culture.
The context of the challenge
Organizational cultures have an energy all their own, a potential energy that continues through assaults from many directions. It will move forward, but it needs leadership if we want it to develop strength and add value.
CEOs bear responsibility for shaping and directing the culture that serves their stakeholders well. Moreover, they hold final accountability for sustaining its impact. Where negative corporate cultures build from the rank-and-file, CEOs must shape and drive positive cultures.
Finding a fit culture
The right company culture fits the organization’s purpose. It serves and delivers a positive customer experience, and that should please the shareholders. A right culture defines its behaviors in terms that map over to the company’s statement of values.
In stable times, most people understand, follow, and support the values. However, recent months’ divisive experiences have confused, diminished, or defused the values’ vocabulary. The positive words of value statements have lost some of their universal acceptance. We have experienced a turning that has undercut standards.
So, it remains up to CEOs to reframe, rephrase, and refresh their company culture. To encourage this conversation, we asked our experts to complete three statements:
- CEO can evolve the right culture best by ….
- The best ways to create a culture that infiltrates the entire system are …
- Talent and HR leaders can facilitate culture design to create a legacy with their CEOs and Executive Team best by …
Their exchange provides some considerable direction, but it also shows them continuing the struggle at their organizations.
1. How CEOs can evolve the right culture
Chief Executive Officers and Executive Team members must admit that deep and broad hurdles exist. Positive, harmful, or ineffective cultures all lead to management leaders. They must set the tone in words and behaviors, demonstrating and confirming the organization’s direction as visionary, aspirational, and inspirational.
This accountability takes on extra importance as the workforce “scatters to the winds” of remote work. Culture may not tie to place; however, the workplace has provided a communal place where the culture could play out. It takes leadership to replace that worksite dynamic.
The physical worksite provided a community space, but the diaspora of remote work has undercut people’s social immediacy from working in proximity. Virtual meetings have not bridged the gaps wrought by physical relocation. People miss the shared intimacy of the watercooler and break room. These gaps have created a psychological and emotional space only executive leaders can fill.
The “new reality” asks CEOs to parse their existing culture and accept the inevitability and necessity of change. One Chief Talent Officer at a large global financial services company confirmed that if the culture is strong, the CEO must confirm and actively reinforce the culture with storytelling and examples. People need the confidence that things are okay.
However, current events may have triggered a shift in culture where CEOs must launch any change through their Executive Team. The behaviors coming from the C-suite will define the culture, so the CEO must define and model the acceptable actions. The Director of Workforce Relations at a multinational insurance company suggested that if a culture shift is required or needed, the leadership must “call it out and give the reasons why the organization is making the shift.”
Any shift too far from the established values stresses the organization’s resilience. Where change means transformation, it is time to be bold, transparent about the what and how of the shift in value focus.So, while Human Resources may launch and monitor the revision, people will look to the CEO for confirmation and modeling.
2.Best ways to create a culture to infiltrate the entire system
Language remains the framework and medium for the transition. Values remain unfelt, unrealized, and unfamiliar abstracts, dependent on the words used to create the new norm currency. The universal lockdown has taught us that we are each other’s environment. We have realized the power and immediacy of words and actions when we all breathe each other’s air.
2021 will continue to move things beyond normal. The changes wrought and those impending require a change in phraseology. Organizations must embrace a change-fluent language. Leadership must encourage a sound check on the language used among the Executive Team. Management must understand and accept the vocabulary, so meetings should end with a headcount that confirms the meetings’ co-creation and collaboration. Everyone should leave every session on the same page.
CEOs are not only the protector but also the visionary of culture. As such, they should subject their communication to a third-party review before release. No press release, no speech, no interview, no published article should surprise the stakeholders. CEOs might reframe the corporate vision. They might own the strategic move. However, any culture shift must be optimism-driven and fully embraceable.
Chief executives remain the totem and touchstone for stability and confidence in the future. They should be the means to their organization’s promise. People need the confidence that someone defines and occasions the future-forward. One initiative suggests recruiting those who match the culture and accept its potential. As things have changed, organizations need new talents and capabilities. They need adaptive and flexible personalities and promise. Recruits must bring energies and values that have increased in price and pivot-potential. Believing we can train to skills, we should recruit to values-fulfillment.
Recruiting should focus more on behaviors fit-to-values and less on fit-to-task. The recruiting process must be less transactional and more transformative. We hope to hire at the nexus where recruiter and recruit have agreed to an organizational spirit, vision, and behavior. We want to hire those who see themselves as part of the organization’s direction.
3.Talent and HR leaders can facilitate culture design to create a legacy
We have no reasonable expectation that work and workers will resume their 2019 trajectory. It is too early to picture the nature of work in 2022 and beyond. Any idea of returning to normalcy is regressive and ignores the real challenge to reimagine and reframe continuity now.
If CEOs must empower the right culture, Talent and HR leaders must enable the redefinition and shift. They must facilitate the accommodation of current systems to new promises.
- Talent management must look first to the assessment of talent in place. They must recommend the redistribution of existing talent to serve emerging company needs best. And they must recruit to discovered gaps in potential.
- HR leaders must refine leader language. They remain the best strategic resource for integrating current strengths, and they control the frameworks that measure behaviors.
Organizational values make the best filter for decision-making. Recruiting, performance assessment, constructive action plans, and other personnel-related decisions must center on values. Leadership should promote and sustain an approach throughout that asks workers to connect their efforts with value realization. For example, managers might enthusiastically ask remoted workers, “What did your work today do to improve customer experience?”
HR remains a functional location for accountability, reward recognition, corporate communications, corporate relations, succession planning, and leadership practices. If HR sustains its efforts to integrate values and everyday decision-making, the framework will adapt to “life and death” challenges. Where “scalability” once referred to growth potential, it now describes an organization’s ability to pivot. Organizational survival plans must now include cases that challenge executive malleability and resilience.
Sue Lebrato, Head of HR North America at DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS), recommended “using performance management tools as strategic business tools rather than pro formaexercises.” Performance assessment must align with and support values, so its administration must shift to fit new realities. People sent to work at home should not be assessed as they were the year before.
Our values checkout
Many workers struggle with remote work situations, and many organizations find themselves unprepared to manage or enhance their work. While it makes organizational sense to charge Human Resources with reinventing and reinforcing its coaching practice, moving this culture forward, creating a legacy of values learned during struggle relies on executive suite endorsement and investment.