By Hannah Matta

The Context

Megatrends are having a profound impact on the ‘now of work’, these include globalization, the 24/7 ‘always on’ work environments we have become accustomed to, where the lines between home and work are increasingly blurred.  Rapid tech innovation, requiring ‘human augmentation’ and a vastly different profile of talent for now and the future. A third megatrend worth mentioning is the demographic shifts in organizations, with up to five generations working side-by-side in some workplaces, each with different needs and expectations. Of course, these megatrends are further exacerbated by the global pandemic.  The pace of change is accelerating at break-neck speed and challenging our personal and professional lives in ways we never imagined. This is all having a profound impact on the talent landscape with global talent shortages at an all-time high and astonishing deficit predictions for the decade ahead. Kornferry predicts by 2030, a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people. Add to that, issues with talent retention and engagement, Gallup reported that “85% of employees are not actively engaged or [are] actively disengaged at work” and the high cost of attrition, the average colleague exit costs 33% of their annual salary (Employee Benefits News).  This context is big and no matter which reports you read, a focus on people and culture is the unifying theme to attract and retain great people in a fiercely competitive market.

What is culture?

Culture is the common denominator of the most successful companies. As Louis Gerstner, Former CEO IBM rightly puts it:

“Culture isn’t one aspect of the game, it is the game”

Many put it simply as ‘the way we do things around here’ but this oversimplification doesn’t reflect the layered and complex nature of organizational culture. The famous iceberg model developed by anthropologist Edward Hall in the 1970’s and which shaped many of our ideas about culture today, provides a useful analogy for how we can think of it. Only around 10% of an iceberg is visible, the most visible elements of company culture is ‘the way we do things around here’ like dress code, work environment and communication style. At the next level down, still above the surface, is what we say is important, like business strategy and those values posters on the wall! What lies below the surface are our thoughts, feelings, shared assumptions, values and beliefs all honed by experience. Below the surface processes are both conscious and unconscious. Professor Edgar Schein a psychologist and leading authority on culture and leadership, called these levels: artifacts, espoused values and tacit assumptions.

The Authentic Culture Model

What’s most important for an authentic culture is that you say and do what you really believe, so there is congruence between these levels of culture. At the organization level, it’s about ensuring your values are well articulated, with no room for interpretation and become a common language, decision tool and reference point which underpin all people practices. If you think about the colleague journey, from before they join the company, what are all the touch points, or moments that matter? How are you shaping the experience and is what you offer them in alignment with your core values?

The Authentic Culture model depicted above, walks you through how to achieve this in a step-by-step approach. Based on 18+ years’ experience working as a business psychologist in the culture and change space and inspired by Simon Sinek’s ‘start with why’ this model starts with the organization’s ‘why’ and ripples out to colleague experience and consequently, peak performance.

  1. Purpose & Values – Start with ‘why’. Yes, Simon Sinek has a ted talk on this. He suggests that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. As a starting point for culture, it’s important that you first answer questions like: Why does the company exist? What impact do we want to have on the world? What problems are we solving? Who are we at our core? Who do we want to be? Engage your people in this dialogue, particularly the latter two points. This information will shape your purpose and values.
  2.  Behavior – ‘how’ we behave. Once you have your values articulated, stress test them. Are they open to interpretation? Most likely, the answer is yes. Whether you use one word or values statements, I recommend you then clearly articulate them in behavioral terms. What would people be doing and saying (and not doing/saying) if you see them living the values? Define them, share them, role model them.
  3. Principles – ‘how’ we operate. Next, align on your philosophy and guiding principles for how you will operate. You might have operating principles at the company level and you should definitely have them to guide your people practices. For example, as you grow you will want to be clear on your philosophy on talent and pay, how transparent will you be? How important is parity? How will you think about differentiation, reward and performance? Your values will guide your answers to these questions. This is not an HR exercise, this is top team work, your senior leaders should co-create this and will inevitably have to ‘disagree and commit’ (emphasizing the commit), finding a top team that aligns on the same principles across talent decisions is never going to happen! What is important is that these principles are consistently applied across all functions for a truly authentic (and fair) colleague experience.
  4. People Practices – ‘what’ you offer. Your guiding principles will inform decisions about what you offer colleagues in terms of people practices through the talent lifecycle i.e. hiring, onboarding, reward and performance, learning and development, progression etc. If you haven’t already aligned the leadership team on a talent philosophy, it’s a great place to start. Go back to #3 and take inspiration from The Talent Strategy group who have some useful tools to help you facilitate these discussions. Decisions about how you hire, promote and recognize performance, for example, should follow naturally once you have aligned on principles. I recommend taking time to define your colleague value proposition i.e. why should anyone work for your company? Do some horizon scanning and find out why working for your company is different than the competition, be unapologetic and transparent about what the environment is really like. No surprises. I’ve included a value proposition framework in the original article here. It was written for a startup audience but there will be takeaways for more established corporations too.
  5. Experience – ‘how’ your colleagues experience work. This is the litmus test of #1-4, if you’ve followed the steps and stayed true to the organization’s ‘why’ this will have a ripple effect and the lived experience of your colleagues will be aligned.  Don’t forget to think about the colleague journey through an ‘experience lens’ for maximum engagement of your people. That means taking each touch point in the journey, gathering data-points on what works and what doesn’t and engaging colleagues in redesigning a given practice for superior experience. For example, traditional HR people practices that follow an annual cadence and focus more on the process or enforcement than a desired outcome or colleague experience should be swiftly replaced by more progressive or dare I say ‘agile’ practices that suit the modern context of work. Those that put people and experience at the heart of design.

While the steps above are set out in a linear fashion, they will absolutely be iterative and cyclical in nature as you work them through your people strategy. It takes time, frequent dialogue and most importantly, authentic leaders who are perhaps the strongest lever for culture. We’ll save that topic for another time……

Hannah will be joining the expert speaker line-up at the ATD 2021 Middle East Conference and Exhibition, taking place both online and in Dubai this June. The event brings over 30 panel discussions, interviews, keynotes and case study sessions, along with 3 ATD certificate programs and 3 months of networking.