The culture trap – the undervaluing of great people management (SCA (NSW) ESSAY 2020 WINNER)

As it entered ‘shots’ time at Friday drinks, a senior manager loudly bellowed “How good is our culture! Everyone is here!”. The then 22-year-old me was there and was loving it and I did think it was great. Who was I to question free drinks?

In accordance with our ‘good culture’, a few of my colleagues and I had our free shots, thanked the boss and got back to gossiping about him and the colleagues and processes we did not like.

That night always stuck in my mind. Was that good culture? Or were real issues being ignored and being made worse in that environment?

In the (sober) light of day I became intrigued with the notion of what good culture means within a workplace and how dangerous the cheapest ‘answers’ to perceived cultural problems can be.

A few years later I joined a famous global brand. My new workplace had little to no social interaction but had the greatest culture you could ever imagine. I felt safe, supported, appreciated, I knew what equalled success and worked non-stop for four years. Clear boundaries and goals were set and I knew where I stood every day. It was full of mutual respect, high expectations and delivered profit margins beyond most of our wildest dreams.

It was a lesson that I took with me as I moved into Senior Management and Executive Teams. The lesson being that you cannot get lost in gimmicks when it comes to strong culture, the answer to improving culture is ensuring you have the best line and people managers working within a clear framework.

In the strata industry, we can fall into the ‘promote the best strata manager’ trap, or the ‘we promoted them because they were going to leave’ cases. This is not to say the best strata manager will not be your best people manager, but you should be asking yourself a series of questions before handing over the keys to your most important assets, your people.

Being promoted to manage people can be seen simply as a reward for a job well done. This undervalues the purpose and value of people management and the potential return on investment a great people manager can deliver, it also has the potential to undermine a business.

Strong culture is built on feeling safe and happy. To feel safe and happy, a company must do many things right. However, the one thing that is vital is having a supportive manager who cares about your development and gives you honest, consistent and respectful feedback.

Businesses need to spend time determining the framework for any leadership role, the responsibilities, reporting structures and what the successful output and outcomes for such a role would be.

It is vital that senior management understands that this contributes directly to profitability. Paying little attention to the very important factors required for successful people management means you are likely to miss a significant opportunity to increase your return on investment.

The strata industry is unique and has very diverse ownership and management structures, ranging from sole operators, couples, small, medium and franchise to corporate. The move to line management structures can be challenging for many hands-on owners and senior managers, but one they must adapt to if they want to realise the full potential of their teams. It is vital that a people manager is always supported, never undermined.

Some businesses spend a lot of time ignoring the real cultural problems in their business and throw everything at the dartboard. A table tennis table sounds fun but will not help your team support each other during a pandemic, either will weekly drinks. These are not bad things though; they can be positive but remember you can have every gimmicky Googleinspired fun thing in the world and still have a horrible culture.

Do not confuse ‘cool’ with having a great culture.

People management problems are often ignored because they are the hardest to solve when they have been left unmanaged. Therefore, you need people managers who will set boundaries, goals and call out unacceptable behaviours.

Over recent years my company has removed some of the culture ‘standards’ such as birthday cakes and weekly drinks as our size made them unsustainable, instead replacing them with other opportunities. The push back was immense at times. However, we stuck with our business plan which also included a new focus on people management. Our business was being transformed into the corporate business we are today.

Despite the pushback, engagement and pulse surveys have now improved to the point they are the strongest they have ever been.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic changed our business’ way of life our HR team has run weekly check-ins via a survey that allowed the team to report issues and ensure general happiness. The clear feedback was gratitude for people managers and HR and overall happiness.

Having a robust strategy around people is vital and will include a variety of measures such as recognition programs and measures that support mental health and well-being. However, these are almost meaningless without great people managers.

We must as an industry develop a passion for the development of our people that goes beyond legislative requirements such as Continuing Professional Development (CPD). We need the best people managers taking our teams to the next level within a framework that supports all of our employees and provides straight forward solutions for those employees who are not performing.

Great culture leads to greater return on investment, supports innovation and will lead our industry towards becoming an industry that the best and brightest want to join and toxic people want to escape from.

We all like free shots on a Friday night but when it comes to cultural gimmicks, don’t get caught in the culture trap, instead invest in your people by ensuring they have the best people manager available, set goals, boundaries, ensure consistency and take your culture to the next level.

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