Jane Watson on Corporate Culture as Competitive Advantage

The Burnie Group #EDGEtalks – Jane Watson on Corporate Culture as Competitive Advantage

“My background is in human resources, but before that, I studied anthropology in my undergrad. That earned me a lot of great questions about what I was going to do with that degree. What I found, actually, was that ways of thinking about human culture have really been very helpful in all the work I’ve done around organizational culture in my career.

I’m also going to start with a definition – let’s keep that theme rolling! There are lots of different definitions of culture that are good. I think that what I find to be the most specific about work culture are the values, beliefs and behaviours that people live every day in the workplace.

Each of our workplaces has a culture, whether we put in the work and time that Tom and Allan talked about to cultivate the culture we want, or it sort of evolved organically without us paying too much close attention. It’s there and it’s influencing the behavior of our employees every day.

From my perspective, a way that culture can provide us in our organizations with a competitive advantage, is when it aligns the values and beliefs and behaviours of our work force with the strategic objectives of our organization. I am going to talk a little bit about framework for how that works.

The alignment that I’m speaking about, between our values, beliefs and behaviours and our strategic objectives within our organization – has a lot of benefits for us in our organization. It provides us with a profound sense of clarity at every level of the organization when it comes to our prioritization and decision-making in our everyday work. It also gives us a really profound sense of purpose – shared purpose – for teams and individuals.

We know, whether you are in HR or not, that kind of purpose is really important for people to feel that their work has meaning, that they’re engaged, and that they’re committed to providing some additional discretionary effort in their day-to-day jobs.

But getting there is really not all that easy. We heard from Tom and Allan about the work – the long years that it took to get you to where you are today. I think that the reason that “culture” work can be so challenging is because it’s very different from the type of work we are typically accustomed to doing in our day-to-day. It’s not a project with a really clear start and end date. It’s not really a program. That’s because culture is being created and recreated on an ongoing basis all the time.

From an anthropological perspective, you have a culture that influences an individual’s behaviours every day, but the individual’s behaviours also legitimize and reinforce the culture. It’s a bit of a feedback loop.

The best analogy that I’ve been able to come up with for this – and I think about it an alarming amount – is a flock of birds. Do you guys know what a murmuration is? Have you ever seen those huge flocks of starlings? Maybe in real life or just on the nature channel? Graceful! They move as a huge unit across the sky. They don’t somehow scatter in a million directions but they don’t seem to crash into each other. A very simplified explanation of why that is, is that each individual bird in that flock is paying extremely close attention to the procedure of all the birds around it and suggesting its own course in real-time. To get enough of a direction change, one part of that flock will actually ripple through the entire group.

Culture works very similarly to that. I think this example is very helpful for two reasons. The first is that it tells us that any approach we take to culture change is probably not going to succeed if it’s just episodic or reactive. If you’ve got that reinforcing mechanism that’s happening, you’re probably not going to make a sustainable culture change with a single introduction. It also reminds us that while leaders are really, really important to culture (nothing personal, though) there is a limit to what one person can actually do to influence the overall culture.  

So, I think what we can take from that is understanding that any approach we take to culture change needs to be persistent and ongoing; and it needs to involve people at all levels across the organization so we reach that critical mass to move the direction of the entire group. Make sense?

Practically speaking, what this can actually look like, is focusing on a few key behaviours that are going to make the biggest difference to support your organization in achieving its strategic objectives, or responding to a new challenge or a change in the market.

Once you have those key behaviours identified, and I really liked your list that you had up; some of those were awesome behaviours that we would all like to see in our organizations. If you are starting this process you may want to limit it to a couple. And then putting a plan in place to communicate those behaviours across the organization, not just at a conceptual “words on the wall” level but really working to translate what those behaviours look like at every level of the organization for teams and for individuals.

An example that I wanted to share, I’ll just share one story of my own from early in my career that had a big impact on how I look at this topic, is when I worked at Maple Leaf Foods. I did not work at Maple Leaf Foods’ really nice corporate office. I worked at Maple Leaf Foods at a turkey slaughterhouse and processing facility and I had to be in the plant a few times a week. That was an interesting job. It was probably my second or third week and I was taking a small group of people on a plant tour, which we did before we let anyone accept a job there because some people would faint, and they probably weren’t a good fit for us. Not a great recruiting tactic! (Laughter)

We started in the deboning department where you would find workers who are just cutting up the raw turkey. If you could picture this, I walked in, and about 12 line workers, all holding knives, turned around and looked at me, and pointed and ordered me to get out of the plant. After I recovered from what was kind of a traumatic situation, I realized it was because I hadn’t removed one of my rings and that presents a health and safety hazard both to myself (it could get caught in the machine) and it could end up in someone’s food.

It was one of the first of many examples in my time at Maple Leaf that I saw how successfully they had embedded health and safety behaviours in all levels of the organization. I think a big part of the reason they were able to accomplish that is because they had almost daily conversations along the line with the line manager and the workers about what health and safety behaviours look like for them and what their role was, specifically of supporting the health and safety objectives of the organization.”

About Jane Watson

As Head of People for Actionable.co, Jane identifies, develops, and delivers people strategies and solutions that enable Actionable to fully deliver on its business strategy, provide an environment where team members can accomplish their best work, and set an example as a world-class virtual workplace.

Jane has 15 years of experience in Human Resources in a range of industries and organizations. Prior to joining Actionable, she held regional and national HR leadership positions and has a track record of partnering with teams and leaders to develop and implement people-related programs and initiatives that support the achievement of their business objectives. She began her HR career in the hospitality sector and subsequently worked in manufacturing, retail design, financial services consulting, non-profit, and the public sector.

In 2015 she was honoured to be a finalist for the HR Rising Star of the Year Award from Canadian HR and Beyond Boardrooms, and her blog Talent Vanguard, where she writes about organizational culture and HR, has earned her a Top 40 Under 40 HR Bloggers nod.