Good Culture, Great Results

Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 11:16

Transforming an organisation's culture is no easy task, but the benefits from getting it right are substantial. By Amy Birchall

Children's cancer charity Camp Quality knows laughter is the best medicine – and not just for sick children.

After negativity almost crippled the business (both financially and emotionally) in the early 2000s, it transformed its culture to focus on positivity and hope, boosting staff attendance, donations and corporate partnerships in the process.

Camp Quality CEO Simon Rountree recognised the organisation was facing high employee turnover, low team morale and was running at a $1.5 million loss due to a decline in donations. Gripped by a culture of grief, despair and a focus on cancer equalling death, Camp Quality was also at risk of losing its New South Wales and Victoria fundraising licenses.

Rountree enlisted founder and CEO of Emotional Intelligence Worldwide Sue Langley to assist in transforming Camp Quality's culture.

"We needed to uncover what we stood for – our soul – and develop a credo that we would live every day," Rountree says.

He followed Langley's advice that change is most effective when implemented in a variety of ways across an organisation. Langley says: "Eventually, these things start breathing a life of their own. Once you have a core team who are committed to making change happen, it's up to them to run with it. I say to them, 'I'll teach you what you need to know, but you need to put it into practice'."

Camp Quality's leadership team redefined its values and mission, while the marketing team rebranded its logo, website and office space to remind people of Camp Quality's motto: laughter is the best medicine.

The program team instilled optimistic values into activities with parents, children and volunteers. Team meetings now start with an optimistic message or joke, while new staff members receive "Oh the Places You'll Go" themed induction manuals with positive messages.

"If the right tools and approaches are introduced and applied with the full commitment of senior management to embrace the change journey, amazing outcomes can follow," Langley says.

As a result of the cultural transformation, Camp Quality saw a 40 per cent reduction in sick leave and a 560 per cent increase in income.

Like Rountree and Langley, Australian Drug Foundation CEO John Rogerson is familiar with the benefits of fostering positive organisational cultures.

"If you get the culture right – and that's assuming that most organisations have a strategic plan and know why they exist – you can create an environment that's positive and you become an employer of choice," he says. "Employees want to give their all. You end up with an effective organisation, whether that's in the not-for-profit sector or in corporate."

When Rogerson became CEO of the Australian Drug Foundation in March 2008, one of the first things he did was run a workshop with all staff to develop a better organisational culture.

"We thought about why we're here, what we're trying to achieve from a strategic perspective, and how we were going to work towards that. We started that journey from day one," he says.

According to Rogerson, good company culture comes from aligning why (the reason your organisation does what it does), what (strategic plan and goals) and how (agreed behaviours).

His approach to culture was influenced by Carolyn Taylor's The Power of Culture: Turning the Soft Stuff into Business Advantage, which was published by AIM in 2004.

Taylor writes: "Culture is about messages. So, culture management is about message management. To change a culture you have to recognise the sources of the messages your people receive about what is valued and then change them."

Taylor outlines three ways cultural messages spread: behaviour (does the management team walk the walk?), symbols (actions, decisions and situations to which people attribute meaning, such as how time and money are spent and who gets promoted); and systems (ways of rewarding, measuring, managing and communicating what is deemed as important).

"That book had an amazing influence on me. We've taken that approach into account," Rogerson says.

He says that as leaders, CEOs have a responsibility to live out their organisation's missions and values and show others what is considered acceptable behaviour.

"You can talk until the cows come home, but people will only remember your actions. People watch what I do as CEO and that has to be consistent with what I expect from others. If you can't do that, you don't stand a chance at creating change."

If an employee resists change or refuses to conform to a new set of values or mission statement, Rogerson advises they may be better suited to another organisation.

"You can model good behaviour and talk to them about their behaviour, but sometimes people just don't get it. When it gets to that point, you have to encourage them to go somewhere else so they can get the most out of themselves."