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Developing a Good Boss Culture

Kerry Larkan

Australia & Hong Kong

It's only a vision and values statement - if only that were the case. In fact, the opposite is more accurate and real. Values are everything, when setting direction and nurturing a positive, Good Boss culture.

"The success or failure of business doesn't necessarily have to do only with the numbers, but rather with personalities and character of the people who run it. People get so impressed with what they have accomplished that they can no longer see themselves in the context of reality."
-Dalia Moore, CEO, Rainwater Inc.

A strong culture tends to go hand-in-hand with strong financial performance, a fact once again reflected in data research. Best Employers experienced 13 percent revenue growth, compared with seven percent for other companies, as well as average profit growth of 21 percent in the same period, compared with minus 44 percent for others.

From my own research into Good Boss Employers, one of the characteristics that stood out time and time again was the ability to create an environment where employees share knowledge and have influence in the business, as well as the content of their work.

One of the businesses I spent time with was the Costa Group, which is Australia's largest exporter of fresh food produce. Its General Manager of HR, Casey van Berkel, had this to say to the question:
KL: "What are the three major contributors to your success in staff retention?"

1. A rock solid commitment to our values by the company leadership
2. Character as the basis for our core values
3. Using character qualities as the basis for hiring and firing

Mr. Van Berkel argues we employ mainly for skills and fire mainly due to character or a lack of. 'It's only a vision and values statement' takes on a completely new meaning, when they are values that are shared and values people believe in. They have the capacity to influence employee engagement and productivity, as well as profitability, as pointed out by Hewitt's research.

Values are like oxygen - they permeate the whole culture of an organisation and can have a positive or negative impact on;

Staff engagement (morale)
Profit (note it comes last in the list not first, as it isn't the key motivation)

Job satisfaction and engagement

People bring their head (logic) to work but getting them to put their heart into it is another matter, and it's not easy. As the labour shortage bites, finding and retaining talented staff becomes harder. Engaging people at the emotional level is four times more important, when working to retain staff.

Engagement Model


Figure 1. Discretionary Effort

Getting value out of an organization's vision and values is something that many in the business world have trouble getting right.

Whilst attending an HR conference earlier this year, I heard a gentleman by the name of Dr K S Lo speak on a panel about leadership and developing a corporate culture. He said, and I quote:

"Even outside of Hong Kong and China, in western countries, HR has a very important function and that is the creation or the establishment of a corporate culture and in this part of the world I find that culture is important
because it's a kind of family culture."

At this point, I nearly fell off my chair because that is the exact reason many businesses fail at getting the best from their people. Culture and values come from the top (the board and CEO), not HR, and by leaving it to HR we abrogate our responsibility. HR may implement but they don't strategize and decide on culture.

So how do you get real value?

This question is being asked more and more in organizational development circles. It is indicative of the pressure being applied to professionals in so-called soft matters, to show that the values are more than just a way to put a smile on employees' faces. And this is not easy.

Indeed, when times are tough, it takes real courage to argue that values should remain an important priority. Or, for the truly stoic, even raised a rung or two - especially since it is when things get tough that the confusion between "shareholder value" and "organizational values" is most prominent.

I believe this is an important trend that creates excellent opportunities for consultants like me to use proven tools to elicit the best results. The Communication Compatibility System (CCS) is one of several excellent tools we use for uncovering ideals and helping people reach agreement on a common set of these ideals.

It can play a significant role in helping organizations align their values (principles, signals, ways, or whatever they happened to be called) across all levels of the business.

My experience has shown me two key roles for CCS, which help organizations get real value from their values:

1. Getting everyone involved
2. Enabling team leaders to build the values with their own teams

Getting Everyone Involved

Many organizations now seek to exploit the lucrative organizational and business development power embodied in their values - rather than just publishing their values in brochures and induction manuals, then simply getting back to doing things the way they have always done them.

This means they are recognizing that their people (all their people) must genuinely identify with the values and must, in some way, be involved with determining how the values will be 'lived - out' throughout the business. This is not a new idea - but it's new to be truly making it happen.

Using the CCS (Communication Compatibility System) to help clarify and interpret values

A person's behavior is generally driven by the values and beliefs they have adopted and modified from their individual life experiences. This means their interpretation and understanding of a particular set of values may differ from those of others in the same organization. It is therefore important to give people a way to think carefully about the corporate values and contribute their personal perspective. This builds an employee's understanding of the corporation's values and helps secure their ultimate enrolment in the chosen behaviors.

In face-to-face and self-reflection activities, the CCS process is known to add fun, interest, creativity, depth and clarity. It also helps to highlight common and unique subjective ideas across a group, which is one of the main reasons I love to use it.

For values embedding, CCS helps people fully explore and illustrate what each value means to them. It gives them an interesting way to think about, talk about and remember the values and associated work behaviors.
We see evidence that by spending a few moments using the CCS to first consider the meaning of a value, a person will commonly provide a more committed and heartfelt response, when asked to offer appropriate work behaviors. Furthermore, the emotional connection that many people experience with their CCS card choices assists them in the communication and retention of their responses. It also provides an engaging way to communicate the values data back to staff and a focus for the subsequent programs that seek to build the resultant behaviors into the workplace.

Enabling Team Leaders to Build Values with Their Own Teams

These organizations increasingly want to delegate the responsibility (in the best sense of the word) for communicating and 'living' the values to their team leaders and managers.

Furthermore, they are expecting that these leaders will actually and consistently be looking for ways to help people incorporate value-driven behaviors into their daily work practice. This is in contrast to simply having leaders hand out a document, listing the values and not really ever mentioning them again until performance review time.

With a little bit of educated guidance and perhaps a few notes, even managers, who are not accustomed to facilitating whole-team events, can successfully run an enjoyable team-building experience that results in a genuinely common set of meanings and behaviors from their teams. If all managers deliver such a session with their teams, the responses can be combined to produce a set of data based on genuine ideals from across the organization - a shared vision.

This is itself a stand-alone reason for encouraging managers to deliver value sessions. But there are several other positive side-effects:

The manager feels great
The team feels united on something that is important to the organization

The team is more likely to look for ways to be consistent with the ideals they agreed upon (It is our common finding that people do not easily argue with their own data. There seems to be few things more self-motivating to a person than first publicly raising their own set of ideals and then finding that their standard daily practice falls short of this ideal.)

The team sees the manager as committed to the values, as well as more trustworthy and leader-like.
Having had a good experience, the manager is more likely to want to facilitate further team sessions, leading to greater team performance.

Live and breathe it or lose it

In working with businesses to create an employment brand, we use a variety of tools to shift and improve the organization's culture. Another of these is a Strategic Alignment Questionnaire, which we conduct on-line. It looks at eight values that are crucial to culture and success.


Straightforwardness: People are clear about what is expected of them

Honesty: Having high standards of honesty in everything we do


Receptivity: Giving new ideas and methods a fair hearing

Disclosure: Communicating openly one's own ideas and opinions


Respect: People are valued for who they are

Recognition: People get the recognition they deserve


Seeks Excellence: Striving to do our best in everything we do

Keeps Commitments

People follow through on their responsibilities

In the questionnaire, employees are asked two questions about each of these values:

How important is this to you personally?
How well does your organization operate by this value?
When I spoke to Rita Bailey she had this to say;

"It was always the belief that if you focus on PEOPLE and the things that are important to them, they will take care of the business. When you treat people like owners and stakeholders they care about cost and other factors that keep the business strong. Keeping cost low and customer service high was everybody's business!"

-Rita Bailey, former Director of HR, South West Airlines

Once you get the culture (Value and Vision) right, there is the need to keep it in front of people, make it visual in documentation and to model the behavior across the business.

Display it in orientation documents
Display it at workstations
In meeting rooms, training rooms, in dispatch and in the board room
Talk about our values in meetings
Conduct value sessions (Ideal for the CCS System)

In many cases, strategy around values and vision fails through short sightedness. People more often than not start with where they are, rather than ignoring current constraints and asking what do we need to do to build the organization of the future. A straight line extrapolation from where we are to a future organization is simply planning, not really creating a strategy. The diagram below shows this more clearly.

Planning versus Vision


Figure 2: Creating a Compelling Future

The Hong Kong-based Noble Group, a global supply change manager of industrial, agricultural and energy products, runs a number of programs to reinforce its values and culture:

Open House, Noble Ambassadors, Lunch and Learn, "Noble Five Stars" Awards, Off-site Team Building, Noble Trainees, and Noble Managers, all designed to lift standards and to retain talented people. It is constantly reminding and reinforcing in its people the importance and value they bring to the business. The difference at Noble Group is they actually walk the talk, where as most simply talk the talk and wonder why people are cynical. It is striving and working hard to make people feel like they really do matter to the business. I shall watch with great interest to see how they perform across all metrics.