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Creating a high-performing culture starts at the top
April 25, 2022 |

Webcast panelists say leaders must embrace empathy, accountability

Creating and maintaining the right culture for your organization is essential, and it starts at the top with assessment and follow-through.

“CEOs have to look at their own behavior and start to realize, ‘If I continue to do this, I’m not going to be able to create this culture we said we all want,'” said Jamie Notter, a culture strategist and co-founder of consulting firm PROPEL.

“You assume when you’re CEO that you’re in charge, you get to do what you want. Well, OK, but there are implications to that,” he said.

Notter was part of a panel convened for the April 20 CEO Update LIVE webcast on workplace culture. The other panelists were Wylecia Wiggs Harris, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association, and Tom Bohn, chief executive of the Association for Corporate Growth. CEO Update Editor-in-Chief Lynn McNutt moderated the discussion.

As so much about work has changed during the pandemic, a culture that engages employees must respect family time and work-life balance.

“Part of the culture that we are building at AHIMA is that we are caring and empathetic,” Harris said. “The pandemic has forced us to have empathy and compassion on display. … We can be compassionate leaders and still be extraordinarily effective leaders and that’s what this world is going to require.”

She noticed in 2020 and 2021 that many staff were not taking all their vacation time: “Therefore we shut down Christmas week (or for some employees, the week after) and we are planning to do that again this year as a way of making sure that our staff had quality time with their families.”

Harris said that when she joined AHIMA as CEO in 2018, staff did not have a strong understanding of the mission and where AHIMA was going as an organization. She made building a new AHIMA culture a priority with staff, the board and members. As a result, AHIMA experienced high employee turnover, though turnover is decreasing now.

“I meet with each new class of staff quarterly,” she said. “I ask them, ‘You have options. What brought you here? And what I’ve begun to hear since the fourth quarter of last year is that it’s the culture.

“The other question I ask is, ‘Tell me what you’ve heard from me as a CEO. Is that the exact same thing that you heard from your hiring manager? Tell me what you’ve heard that’s different, because what I’m looking for is alignment in our culture.’”

Another aspect of culture is CEO accountability, Harris said. That goes hand in hand with compassionate leadership.

“We do have to lead differently and we have to be willing to be vulnerable. We don’t always get it right,” she said. “I don’t want (webcast attendees) to believe that every aspect of our culture works—I have made my share of mistakes. I’ve owned those mistakes and I expect my leaders to own their mistakes. That’s a part of creating a culture.”

Partly in response to employee feedback, AHIMA moved to fully remote work, Harris said. A survey showed clearly that staff were not ready to go back to the office. AHIMA has 125 employees.

“I’m a firm believer in ‘Don’t ask questions if you’re not prepared for the answers,’” she said. “So we are now 100% remote.”

‘Grand experiment’

ACG, which represents the private-equity investments industry, also is a fully remote-work organization. Bohn said this enables him to hire the best employees from around the country. But the group has gone even further by instituting a four-day work week.

“Families are the first priority,” he said, and making it possible for staff to meet their family needs is essential: “You get a much more committed employee who’s not just there for the salary or the title. They feel like they’re part of something a little bit more important that protects them.”

With the four-day schedule, Bohn says he trusts employees to just get the job done rather than necessarily working a 10-hour day. He credited ACG’s work with consulting firms Korn Ferry and Root, a unit of Accenture, with identifying a staff desire for the remote work and shorter work week.

“I and the team quickly realized that if we didn’t change, we were going to lose some really great talent,” Bohn said. “I am proud to say that not only did we not lose anyone that we didn’t want to lose, but we were able to grow and hire when others were struggling to do so. When I came on board, we were only 25 people and we’re now 68 staff.”

“The four-day work week came about from this grand experiment,” Bohn said. “We did it as a summer four-day work week because we were sensing a burnout. We started and we saw our productivity go up. I couldn’t believe it.”

But Bohn said the remote environment isn’t about saving money on office space. ACG spends big on periodic staff get-togethers, which includes bringing the entire staff together in person twice a year and other meetings for groups and teams.

“Yeah, there were savings, but you can’t approach it that way because there’s also a significant expense in making sure that you are bringing people together face to face, whether those are small groups or a whole team,” he said. “We spend a lot of time and focus doing that because nothing replaces that one-on-one personal connectivity that is so critically important.”

Focusing on culture is not optional, Notter said.

“You can’t afford to do nothing on it. You’ve got to be doing something,” he said.

Organizations need to be rigorous and clear about their cultures, he said. Otherwise, some may feel that CEOs’ notions of culture are just a “vague sense” of being able to hire people they like.

A culture assessment can identify patterns at an organization.

“A lot of annual surveys are more what I would call engagement focused and they’re more about, ‘Are you happy? Do you like the culture, do you like your manager?’ Finding out the sentiment—the happiness, the good, the bad—that’s important data, too. But that’s different than the culture data, from my perspective.”

Notter said an organization’s culture should evolve over time.

“You should always be realigning your culture because the world is always realigning itself,” Notter said. “Every leadership team should be meeting regularly to look at areas of culture friction.”

The pandemic, of course, is a prime example of how culture can be affected by new forces, such as the demands for remote work.

“You’re humming along, but what happens is, something changes somewhere,” Notter said. “And now there’s friction. So, it should be a regular and not dramatic thing to talk about, ‘Where’s our culture off right now?’”

Notter said a critical part of inculcating culture is letting go of people who don’t embrace the culture, even if they are high performers.

“If you tolerate behavior that is the opposite of your culture, the behavior wins,” he said.