14 May 2019
Six Questions About Culture with Kim Carlin
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"Great cultures attract the best people and retain them. It’s the ultimate competitive advantage."
Kim Carlin knows a thing or two about working with leaders and helping them grow high performing teams. With over two decades of management consulting expertise working with over 200 leading companies across five continents, Kim has a proven track record for analyzing business problems, defining a vision for change and implementing sustainable solutions. She is also the Executive Leadership Coach supporting the Global Executive MBA for Healthcare and Life Sciences at The Rotman School of Management. Kim has an MBA in Strategy and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership.
Kim Carlin recently spoke alongside other inclusion leaders at our Culture Hacks for Leaders event at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.
1. Why is Culture so important for organizations to get right?
At the heart of it, I believe that culture defines the identity of an organization. It’s the beliefs, principles and ideologies that bond people together and create meaning. Getting culture right means having employees that actually want to be there—where they feel empowered to be creative, productive and decisive in their decision making and ultimately deliver great business results.
Great cultures attract the best people and retain them. It’s the ultimate competitive advantage.
2. Why is it so difficult to affect organizational culture?
Many organizations treat culture as a project with a timeline. But that’s not how it works. To shift culture is a monumental undertaking – you’re taking the entire value system of an organization and of a people and trying to change the narrative around that.
A common metaphor for culture is to consider an iceberg. From an outward projection, you can only see above the waterline. This may equate to the strategy, vision for the organization, the processes and structure, but that’s only a piece of something that’s much more complicated. Below the waterline are the stories that the business tells, the deeper beliefs and narratives, the biases and assumptions.
Many organizations that I meet with are trying to affect change by only addressing the tip of the iceberg, but they need to move deeper to really create change. There needs to be training or programs at every level of the business, but particularly at the executive level. Executives need to be leading culture at the business strategy level, and they need to be consistent and constant in their communication. They also need to be prepared to measure and monitor outcomes.
3. So what are leaders getting wrong when it come to culture?
I typically see organizations making three common mistakes. First, I see culture shifts and a D&I (diversity & inclusion) projects being assigned to HR. But culture is not a project. Culture needs to be aligned with the business strategy and it doesn’t have a timeline. It’s ongoing and it’s iterative, and every leader within the organization needs to be involved for real change to occur.
Second, I see many organizations choosing diversity targets and making it a numbers game. For instance, they set a diversity goal of 50% female leaders and are looking to check a box when they achieve that goal. But influencing culture by changing the parameters of the people can’t be a checked box. Choosing a target might be one piece of the plan, but organizations also need to work to create and promote a culture of inclusion and that takes real leadership and executive sponsorship.
The third mistake I see are organizations trying to enforce change from the top down only. The reality is that behavioural change needs to be acknowledged and modelled at every level of the organization.
4. How do organizations model this behaviour throughout the organization?
It starts with a vision and/or mission for change. This vision should be embedded in the strategy of the business and communicated throughout the business from the Executive level. Leaders at all levels must be aligned to the vision and must be willing to emulate it or it will fail to take hold. The strategy and vision need to be operationalized through the business through the integration of tools, behaviours and language to start to solidify the change. This can include key performance indicators, reward and recognition systems, management positioning and even how people interact with one another.
5. What can we learn from the organizations that are doing it right?
The best-in-class organizations are setting real KPIs into their performance metrics. They’re creating D&I goals and looking at them in the same ways that they review profit and EBITA. The very best organizations are the ones where executive communication is really coming from the top –the CEO and C-suite--and they’re modelling the behaviour to the organization.
Many of these organizations are also asking for help. They’re looking for professionals in the market place who specialize in helping create behaviour change. I liken it to personal health and fitness goals. In many cases, leaders know and understand how to create change, but they still need a trainer to help create and execute measurable goals.
6. What simple actions can individual leaders take to impact culture?
Simply put impacting culture is not simple. It's difficult and it is an ongoing journey, not a special project. Culture is largely invisible, it’s difficult to measure and hard to manage. It's an environment, often void of tangible presence. The culture of a business is the behaviours of its leaders. In order to impact culture, you need to change the narrative of the business and that takes time to impact beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Leaders must emulate the behaviours they want to be projected in the business and as such, they have the most influence when it comes to impacting culture. It takes a concerted vision, communication strategy and the discipline to maintain consistency around a cultural shift. Having leadership alignment is the single largest determinant of success in this process. If you do not have alignment, the process will fail so investing time, energy and skill development in your leadership group is an integral component of developing a high performing culture.