Transcript: How to Build Organisational Culture (EP21)
Hello, everybody. I'm Brendan Rogers, the host of The Culture of Things podcast. And this is Episode 21. Today, I'm talking with Elizabeth Houghton. Elizabeth is a seasoned HR professional with broad industry experience across FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), Manufacturing, Professional Services, Information Technology, Engineering, Motor Sport, and financial services.
Her expertise in the HR leadership space stretches across coaching, leadership development, recruitment and selection, succession planning and people management.
Elizabeth's current role is People and Capability Business Partner at Dashing, which is a leader in the execution of retail campaigns offering design technology and production services.
Her greatest satisfaction comes from inspiring people to think differently and to capitalise on the evolving world of work.
The focus of our conversation today is building organisational culture.
Elizabeth, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.
Elizabeth Houghton: Thank you for having me, Brendan. It's really nice to be here today.
Brendan Rogers: We were joking just before we’ve hit the record button that you and I have just been chatting at the desk here for about an hour and a half. We probably should have hit record much earlier, right?
Elizabeth Houghton: Yeah, definitely. It was really good stuff that we were saying. (Laughing)
Brendan Rogers: We covered all other elements of stuff. Now, we're going to focus on some stuff that, you know, around organisational culture and building organisational culture. You're actually into a bit more stuff than what I've shared in the introduction. How about you tell us a bit about that and tell us what's taken you into this area of passion of yours in this Human Resources area?
Elizabeth Houghton: Yeah. So, I'll start at the beginning really of how I ended up in HR. There was no real grand plan to work in HR. I was like most 17-year olds filling out applications to go to Uni, not really knowing what to do. And for me, when you don't know what to do, you study General Business because it's just so open for opportunity going forwards. Well, that was my view when I was 17. I started uni a year later and really didn't enjoy quite a lot of the business modules at Uni. Counting and Economics is not my thing. So, I started to pick up more and more people-related topics. And really, from there, the rest is history.
I went for University for 6 years, studying HR and came out as an HR specialist. I'm very much a generalist. So, I don't specialise in any set area in HR, which lots of people do, but it wasn't for me.
I like a lot of variety in my life, so I didn't want to specialise. And that just started me on my journey. Along the way, I have worked for so many different businesses and with that, you get a real variety of different organisations. The way people do things is different in every single industry, but also every single organisation. And I was really lucky to start my journey in recruitment for a very large bank in the UK. And after about six months of just doing recruitment, although it's a really exciting part of the HR landscape and is probably it's the first point, it's the first interaction someone has with a business. So, it's really important to get it right, but interviewing people day in and day out was not something I enjoyed doing. Interviewing people every now and then is great but I wanted more variety.
So, I was then lucky enough to find a role in a privately-owned business. And with the business being quite small, it meant as a Junior HR person, I got exposure to absolutely everything which propelled me along my career and has led to where I am today.
And throughout my career, there's certain things about HR I really enjoy and there’s certain things I really don’t enjoy. And you take the good and the bad with any profession. But my real focus and what I love doing is asking why, questioning the status quo, and being in conversations where you're pushing people to question why they’re doing something the way they're doing it, why have they always done it like that. Is it still working or did it ever really work? And what support do we need and what type of business do we want to be? And with that, what type of culture do you want to have?
Brendan Rogers: We always like to get into the nitty-gritty side. So, you said there's some things you don't like about HR. How about you tell us what they are?
Elizabeth Houghton: I really do not enjoy the firing side of HR. I like to think most organisations, when they fire people, do it with as much dignity and humility as possible, but it's never an easy conversation. I've been in HR for over a decade. And my husband jokes that I've probably fired more people than he's ever worked with, which isn't a nice thing to be known for, but it is part of the role in HR and trying to do that in a way that you can say hand on heart, after the conversation, as a business, as a HR person, you've done everything you can to support that person, to ensure that person can be successful. That's how I've managed to get through it. That's how I've managed to ensure it doesn't impact me negatively ‘cause that's a really hard conversation. You're messing up someone's life. You’re taking away their livelihood.
And no one goes to work with the intention to do a bad job. No one wants to go and not be good at what they do. But then, as a business, sometimes, you haven't recruited right or something's happened along the way and there's been this disengagement or misalignment between that person and the business and what's required. So, you don't always have a choice, but to go down that route. Like, we don't always get it right, we don't always get recruitment right, we don't always get cultural alignment right. And having to have that conversation with someone saying, “We're just not the right business for you. It's not the right fit.” But yet, I don't enjoy that side of it. I don't enjoy any of the stuff with trade unions. In the UK, we don't really have them. So, for me in coming here, I'm fine coming to Australia and seeing that unions still have quite a lot of power and can dictate or try to dictate how organisations do things.
I found really, really interesting, like it adds this other layer of complexity. But my experience unfortunately, has been that union delegates behave in a way that I would never behave in. They have conversations in a way and a tone that I would never do. So, it's always, so you're going into battle straightaway. There's not an open conversation across the table just between two people. So I don't enjoy that side of it. They're probably the main areas of my role I don't enjoy. I really enjoy organisational development, structure, working with people, understanding the career paths they want to go on and pulling in place processes to support leaders, to lead their teams well and on an individual basis, instead of like this cookie cutter, everyone has to be the same.
Brendan Rogers: And that's certainly the area we're gonna dive into around organisational culture. But even before we get into the nitty-gritty of that. COVID, we're still in this situation and you've been impacted by COVID even though, you know, you're an HR Specialist. Can you just share a little bit about your experiences and how COVID has impacted you personally?
Elizabeth Houghton: Yeah, of course I can. So, COVID has been really difficult I think, for everyone. There's not a single person in the world I think who can say that it hasn't impacted them. It might not be that they lost their job. It could be that they can't go and get their favourite coffee anymore or they can't hang out at the local park, whatever it may be. Everyone has been impacted in some way. For me, I went through the challenge of supporting a business, going through downsizing quite quickly. Rightsizing the economy and the climate that we were in and it also impacted me as well, like my hours will cut back dramatically and I found myself having to find another way to pay my bills. The mortgage doesn't stop just because COVID is here. So, I was fortunate enough, right time, right place, I found a new role within two days and have managed to stay connected to the business I love and I am passionate about, but also go forwards on this new journey.
For me, it’s an interesting change. I guess I never thought at the beginning of this year I'd be changing roles, changing organisations, working with a different team. And that's a lot to get your mind around. Generally, when you look to leave a business, there's something that's happened or there's an emotional journey that you've gone on and you've decided it's no longer the right fit for you or you want progression and you can't get that within the business you're in. And when you find yourself in a position where you don't want to make that choice, that the business you love wants to keep you, but they just can't because economically, it doesn't make sense. That's a really hard path to go on. And I'm lucky. Well, one of the lucky ones, I guess, who managed to get a job really, really quickly. I know lots of people who haven't had that opportunity and are still looking now and I'm grateful for it. But at the same time, I think if I could wave a magic wand, it'd be great if I could go back to where I was, ‘cause I loved what I did. It doesn't mean I don't love what I do now, but it's just different. And it wasn't something I was prepared to do this year.
Brendan Rogers: Thank you for sharing that. And as you said, there's a lot of people who have been impacted and unfortunately, all this stuff's really outside of your, my or anyone's control. So, that's probably the hardest pill to swallow. Let's talk about organisational culture. Can you just explain what is organisational culture?
Elizabeth Houghton: Organisational culture is different for every single business. No organisation will have the same culture. It's all about the people you have, what you're trying to achieve and how you lead within a business. So, it's a set of shared values and shared behaviours that come into kind of like this micro environment within an organisation that you then support and build on. So, you have building blocks within a business. So, when a business is first founded, you have the Founder and they have their set of values or beliefs. And then, from that, in an ideal situation, those key values are written down and articulated and behaviours are attached to them. So, if you have a value of integrity, what behaviour do you want that to display? Like, how do you want that to play out within your business? If you have a value of speed and agility, what behaviours does everyone in your organisation need to display in a show to live that value?
But also, what impact does that value have? So, you could argue speed and agility. Well, maybe, you do things quickly. You may get them wrong because they're not for our or you don't have a quality product that might not have been your intention, but what connotations are attached to those words? And it's those foundations and those building blocks that build onto and create a culture.
Culture isn't static either. So, I think that's something that lots of organisations sometimes forget that they've set this culture. They've got their values up on the wall. Unfortunately, some organisations still don't have anything more than a value poster on the wall. Some organisations and more and more these days have gotten to outlining, well, what behaviours do these values pull on? And what, how does it play out within a business? But values evolve over time. Every new person that joins a business joins with their value set, their experience.
What has driven them to be part of that organisation? What journey they've been on to now be in that role? In that business? And that changes the culture again, like it shifts it slightly. And then, with every person that leaves and every person that joins, your culture changes because you have more people, you have different people, you have different thoughts, you have different values. So, there's a piece there that needs to be done right at the recruitment stage and I think I might have said this earlier around, recruitment is actually a really important part of the journey. And it leads into culture as well, because we, generally, when we recruit, we ask people: What skills do they have? What are they good at? What are they not good at? How they can bring those skills to our organisation and how that's gonna play out? But we very rarely sit down and I very rarely seen organisations do a sit down and say, “Well, what are your values? What do you value? This is what we value as an organisation. How does that align with you?” Because if you continue to bring in people with misaligned values to what your business is trying to stand for, then you have just this huge disconnect between what you're saying you stand for as a business and what you actually stand for.
Because these new people you're bringing in don't affiliate with those values, they don't align to them. They don't understand them, they don’t work for them. So, they bring in a whole bunch of new values. And then, you have this massive disconnect across the business, around well what behaviours are acceptable. Some businesses I've seen are very, very good at saying, “These are our values. These are our behaviours of our businesses.” Bring in new people, show you the poster on the wall. Don't really articulate what any of that means. And then, they accept the new behaviours that this new person brings in because it's easier. It's easier than saying, “Oh, we wouldn't have quite done it like that,” or “How did you use our values to drive your decision-making?” It's easier to just accept it as long as it's not been a massive error, it's easier to allow that person to behave with a value set and a set of behaviours that belong to that person, than kind of questioning it and changing it to say, “Oh, we would have expected this behaviour to get this result.”
Brendan Rogers: What do you see as your first challenge or the first thing to get going if an organisation isn't clear on their values?
Elizabeth Houghton: To understand their why. So, why are they doing what they're doing? And to ask the leaders and especially the CEO to articulate in a really clear way, what it is they want their brand to be known as, and then from that, you should be to get a couple of sentences of, “We want to be the leader in X, Y, and Z. And we want to be known for quality,” and whatever that statement is that their CEO is focused on saying, “This is what the connotation we want to attach to our brand”. And then from there, you kind of need to work through and go, “Okay. So, that's what we want to be known as, and what we want to be known for. That's what we want people to be saying about our brand.” “What do we want people to be saying about our team, our leaders, and what words come out of that?” And then, “Well, how do we do that? How do we ensure they're the words people use to describe us?” So, if we say, “We want people to say that we're supportive and a transparent leadership team,” well, how do you be a supportive and transparent leadership team? What behaviours do you have to display and show regularly and consistently to be described in that way?
Brendan Rogers: How do you work with organisations or leadership teams around these values and to get them to own these sort of things when they've never had it before? It's all a bit new, it's all a bit foreign to them. Can you just talk to us about those challenges that I know you've lived before in organisations and no doubt you will live again in future organisations?
Elizabeth Houghton: Yeah, definitely. So, in an ideal world, if you’re designing new values or structuring new values or changing your values for any reason, businesses go on journeys. And I said, culture evolves. So, values do need to be reassessed and re-looked at. In an ideal world, before you get to that point of pressing go and starting to articulate them to the wider business, the whole leadership team should be aligned and brought into them. That's not always the case in every business. And if it's not the case, it's then around, “Well, how did we get to this point? How did we pick these values?” It should never be something that's done in isolation. It shouldn't be an HR person saying, “These are great values. Let's use these.” It should be a collaboration. It should be a conversation. So, you bring people on the journey. And from my experience as the HR person, it's important to guide that journey.
It doesn't mean you force it upon people, but you do guide that journey. You bring them with you. That's a huge leadership skill. Not everyone can do that, unfortunately, or different points of being able to bring people on that journey. And then, that doesn't work. And I have seen it not work. It's around articulating the ‘why’. So, why have you picked that value? Why is it important? How does it play out on a daily basis? And I think that how does it play out is probably one of the most important conversations to have, because if you want to reduce policies and documentation and step-by-step guides that we've all seen in the HR space, looking at how your values play out on a day-to-day basis and being able to clearly articulate, “Well, we have this value. We connect all of these behaviours to this value,” which means that gives you the context in how you should behave and how you should make decisions.
And that should, having that conversation, and making that really clear should actually empower leaders who might not necessarily understand values or the importance of values, or really understand what is organisational culture and why do we need to even articulate what it is. We're here to come and do a job. I've had that many times. “We're all here to do a job and go home.” But that micro environment we live in when we are in an organisation is important to people. We all like connection. So, if you can explain how it plays out and how they can use it, then it should actually give them far more freedom to do their job. They shouldn't be stuck in these kind of rigid, “This is the process. If we do this.” It should be more around this open conversation of, “Oh, so we have this value. This is the behaviour we’re supposed to display,” or “These are the behaviours we're supposed to display.”
There shouldn't be this reliance on a detailed policy. People should just know. “Okay. So, we've decided we’re open, honest, and we deliver quality products.” So, you've got a, just say, we've got a team member that you need to have a conversation with, you're not too happy about their performance. Well, how do you do that? Well, you've said that one of your values is being open and honest. So, you have an open and honest conversation. You don't need to write that down. You shouldn't have to document, “Oh, okay, how do I now go and talk to this person?” There will be enough context behind it to enable someone to have that conversation and to have a conversation in a way that is human, open and honest, and everyone walks away with the same meaning and the same understanding.
Brendan Rogers: With that value set, how does that help or how should that help in the recruitment process specifically?
Elizabeth Houghton: So, when you interview people, you have all these data points. You know what your values are, you know what your behaviours are, you know how you meet decisions, you know how that plays out within a few key people within your business. So, at the interview stage, it's around going, “Well, these are our company values. What are your top three values? Can you articulate to me what your top three values are?” And very few of us in my experience really know what we stand for and what we believe in. We've gone through life and we've picked up these whole bunch of values from our parents, from school, from people around us, but we've probably never really sat down and thought, “What do I value as an individual? What is important to me? What are my core values?"
And at interview, if you want to bring people in to suit your culture and this isn't around not having diversity, like values play out in different ways for everyone, but it is around the fundamentals. What you need. Are the foundations within this person aligned to what you would want to achieve for a business. And then, asking those questions, understanding what, where that person sits and understanding whether or not there is alignment or there's not alignment. And if there's not alignment, being brave enough to say, “Hey, actually this business isn't for you. It doesn't mean you're not technically good at your job. You're probably phenomenal at your job, but this culture, we would be doing you a disservice if we brought you into it because there isn't an alignment from a value perspective.” And then, supporting that candidate. Not all organisations do this, but maybe, supporting that candidate and pointing them in the right direction around, What organisations have you seen play out with their values and supporting them on their journey? Because kinda the experience for me is really important and completely undervalued in the recruitment process.
I'm sure many people listening to this have kind of got that automatic response. “Thank you for your application. And we'll get back to you in seven days if you were successful.” And you'll probably sat there as a candidate and thought, “I spent three hours doing this application and I get an automated response.” And that’ kind of the same with interviews as well. I've also found that lots and lots of hiring managers now don't actually really like giving feedback. They like to send again the standard email response. “Thank you for coming to me” in this case you haven't been successful. But you're not helping that person. You're not setting that person up for success. If you don't have an honest conversation, and if honesty is one of your values, it needs to play out in every interaction you have with people.
Brendan Rogers: What's the toughest thing for you around coaching leaders to be able to have those what we can term as ‘tough conversations’? ‘Cause probably, they're feeling like they need to have a conversation because they're seeing behaviour that's not aligned with the values as opposed to behaviour that is aligned to the values. How do you help them get over that barrier, I suppose?
Elizabeth Houghton: Understanding that if you don't have the conversation, you're actually setting that person up for failure. Because if you, as a leader, you’re unhappy with someone's performance or unhappy with their decision-making process, and you don't tell them that, they don't know that. They don't know that they've kind of strayed off the path a little bit, and it hasn't, not in a good way, like we want people who stray off the path. We want people who question stuff. But when you have a firm culture that you're trying to manufacture effectively, which is what organisations do, as a leader, you don't say to an individual, “Hey, you know how you spoke to the receptionist this morning. That probably wasn't the way to go. By my observation, you came across as being rude or didn't acknowledge the receptionist,” whatever it may be.
If you don't have that conversation and that behaviour in this individual plays out for the next week, two weeks, six months, it becomes accepted. That person thinks it's okay because no one said to them, “Hey, that's not how we do things around here. That's not what we do.” And then, eventually, what I've seen in these situations is managers and leaders leave it go because they're scared or don't know how to have the conversation in an effective way. And then, it comes to six months later or a year later where they've absolutely had enough. “They don't want to deal with it anymore.” And they just want this person gone. But this person has never been told they're doing anything wrong in a constructive way. So, it's actually not that individual's fault.
So, the way I work with leaders in these situations is I've just had a very similar story to what I just did, if as a leader you haven't told them that's not okay. They're not mind readers. They don't know it's not okay. And it may be uncomfortable for you as a leader. I really don't like giving people negative feedback. I've been in HR for over a decade and I do it. I have to do it. It's part of my role, but it doesn't mean it makes me feel comfortable. But there’s a human way to have every conversation, you don't have to go into a conversation with your guard up and being authoritarian and directive. The way I coach leaders to kind of have these conversations is to ask questions. So, it would be around, “Hi, Brendan. I noticed today that you didn't acknowledge the receptionist and I've kind of noticed that you haven't done that for a while.” Do you want to talk me through why? Like, why did that happen? Why do you not do that?” And ask all of those why questions to kind of understand what's driving that.
And you might find out that they had a balmy that week over the coffee machine, who knows, right? It could be anything. Or it might be just that in their last organisation, no one ever said hello to the receptionist. So, why would they do it here? Because that was the accepted behaviour. But unless you ask them why, you don't know, and that's how you can have the conversation because you're raising it as a, “I've noticed this, explain it to me.” You get an explanation. And then you can kind of say, “Okay, well, I understand your perspective, but around here, this is the expectation.” And then, if you can link that back to the values, that's even better because you're saying, “We do it like this, because this is what we want to be known as a business. This is what we stand for.” It's not just your personal preference as a leader. It's actually the overall culture and the second you start letting one thing slide within a culture, the whole culture shifts, and it slowly goes downhill and deteriorates. And it isn't what you plan it to be, to start with. So, unless you actually kind of call it out, you can't control it.
Brendan Rogers: How do you call these things out in amongst the senior leadership group?
Elizabeth Houghton: These leaders in an ideal world have all committed and signed up to the values of the business and as an HR person, if you're seeing your leaders not display those values, it is your role. It is your duty. It is your accountability to call that out. But calling out with peers who don't necessarily have the HR background and we all make silly mistakes as well. And I think that's something that needs to, we all need to remember, like no leader comes in thinking they're going to do a bad job, or they're going to talk to a team member in a way that doesn't align with a value. So, it’s starting that conversation of saying, “Oh, hey. I noticed this yesterday, or I heard this.” We don't have eyes in the back of our heads as HR people. We generally build relationships really well within the business. So, people come and tell us stuff.
But that also helps us because we're not coming from this judgment perspective. We can, I have a conversation of, “Oh, hey, I just wanted to have a chat to you about what happened on Monday at X, Y, and Z. When you were talking about this, I've had some feedback that it wasn't necessarily potentially received in the way that you wanted it to be received. Can we just talk through that? How did you have that conversation?” And then just see how you can interject as a HR person to help and support that leader next time, ensure that a message is delivered in the way in which they intended it to be.
Brendan Rogers: In your opinion, who drives organisational culture?
Elizabeth Houghton: So, the foundation's definitely come from the head of the tree, so the CEO or whatever structure you have within a business, EGM. The culture and the behaviours in which people are supposed to be displayed needs to be displayed by the person in the most senior position within the business. And it's their responsibility to hold their team accountable for it. So, people always go, “Oh, it's the whole leadership team,” and it is, but the CEO has to hold their team accountable and then so forth and so forth throughout the organisation.
I have seen some organisations try the more Bottom-Up Approach of, “Let's really educate the frontline staff, because it's really easier to educate them, easier to get them to buy in”. And I know some HR teams do sometimes really struggle to implement at that real senior level. So, looking like you can go from the bottom up sometimes looks like a good approach, especially if you have good relationships at that level, because you have more day-to-day interactions with that level in terms of supporting on the day, say, people challenges, but that doesn't work either. Like, it's great that you can get it at that level, but eventually, they're going to hit this road block because they're going to go up through the organisation. And eventually, you're going to get to this group of people who aren't living those values and aren’t living those dreams, so, the people below that will lose interest or lose faith in those values. So, the only way, it has to be a Top-Down Approach.
Brendan Rogers: You talked a bit about recruitment. What are other important areas of the human processes part that help drive the right culture that that organisation is trying to permeate through?
Elizabeth Houghton: Absolutely everything, so, every communication, may that be email or verbal. What's the intent behind it? Has it been delivered in a way with the words that are aligned to the culture? Sometimes, this is where the mismatch comes in. Like values are great and you can educate people on values. You can deliver training, you can develop people, you can give them packs on what value links to what behaviour and how that's supposed to be, but if it's not their true value, and this comes back to the recruitment process of what are your values question. In times of pressure and stress, you start to see the truth.
So, if someone has to say, deliver a message that isn’t ideal, or is potentially gonna be perceived negatively, or they're doing it under a whole lot of stresses that they're going through. And that's when you see it kind of come undone where those core values don't play through because they’re not that individual's core values. There, that individual, not going to say as masquerading as their values, but there's not this true alignment. So, it's kind of stress testing. So, if under stress and pressure, those values are how people still behave. Then, you know they're right. They're aligned. So, that's kind of like the communication piece, but it also plays out in one-on-ones, any policy development, any process development. So, you could have a, let's take something really simple. And I'll take one that might resonate with a lot of people, the expense policy, right? So, you have a whole bunch of values that generally, like organisations, will use different words, but their values will all be around, “Do the right thing for the organisation. Do the right things for your peers. And be open, honest, have integrity in what you do”. And then you find a 20-page document that articulates to you what you can and cannot expense and how you are supposed to do that.
If you are aligned to your values, you shouldn't need that document because you should know what is right and what is not right. Can you buy yourself a home PC on your expenses? Or can you not? You shouldn't need that policy because you already understand what is acceptable behaviour. So, your values also should link into what documentation you have. And yes, there is documentation that is required. There is a legal standard that is required, but if your values are so aligned to that document, that document shouldn't need to be referred to, it shouldn't be needed to be used because every decision you make is driven by those values.
Brendan Rogers: Where does policy sit properly in an organisation?
Elizabeth Houghton: My approach and my viewpoint is if your culture and your values and your behaviours are so ingrained in people, you actually shouldn't need any because no one should do the wrong thing. And if the wrong thing is done, they should know how to deal with that through the behaviours in which, you know, to accept is what is acceptable. Like we all do dumb things and we're all going to have to have that conversation about doing a dumb thing at some point. And we'll continue to do dumb things. We're human, but your values in the organisation and the behaviours that you’re supposed to display should be connected enough to you for you to have those conversations and go through those processes without having a document. Now, I'm not going to say that you don't need them. Yes. There are certain things under legislation that you have to have. The Fair Work says you have to have a process and you have to have a well-documented process around things like whistleblowing, again, your performance-management process.
You need to, if it ever ends up in a fair work case, you need to be able to clearly demonstrate that you have a well-documented process. And you've followed that process. Now, that process doesn't have to be anything different than what the lawyers have written down in the Fair Work Act, but you do need to have it within your business. And I guess for me, that's the conflict that I have in my role as a HR professional. And if you were saying that you treat everyone with respect and integrity as one of your values, then it should never be pulled into question that you've done the wrong thing in someone's employment, or that you didn't manage someone correctly because you've got this behavioural set that is how you're supposed to behave. But then, on the legal side and lawyers make them feel a bit more comfortable as well, you actually do need to document it.
Brendan Rogers: It's almost like the legality and the compliance side of life and industries is sort of undermining the ability to build trust and transparency and authenticity and whatever core values are, but for organisations to really live core values and maybe not then have to spend so much time on things that are maybe not as value-driven activity as what they would rather spend time on.
Elizabeth Houghton: Oh, definitely. HR, as a profession, has gone on this big journey and we're not just a compliance function anymore. I think, we were maybe 10/20 years ago. That was the sole purpose. There was so much legislation that we were this massive compliance function, where it was all about what processes, what policies were in place. And that journey is evolving and it's still evolving today. And every organisation is on a different point in that journey where values and behaviours are being seen as more important. Sometimes, the legislation and the compliance side really hinders that human element of leadership, and the way you deal with situations, because legislation is written in a way that kind of says, “We all wear exactly the same shoes. We will have exactly the same shoe size.” And we don't. We're all individuals. We all need different things. We all need to be spoken to in different ways, and have different allowances made for us to ensure that we can be productive and effective at our roles. Where the legislation isn't written like that. It is very black and white, “You will do this. You won't do this.”
And it also doesn't take into account individual organisations either. It just kind of says, “Everyone has to be treated the same and everyone is the same.” And it might be the naive side of me, but I really don't feel that any organisation sets out these days to mistreat team members. But then, there's that compliance side that says you have to do all these things in this way, and that just might not suit your organisation. So, it's ensuring that you have the right policies and procedures in place to cover yourself as a HR team from a compliance perspective, but then, also writing them in a way that gives you flexibility, allows you to treat someone as an individual in an authentic way that aligns to the company values. And that's the real tricky part because legislation that's all there is, is black and white. There's no kind of blurred lines. It is, this is how you're supposed to do it. So, how do you take something that is so regimented and say, “Okay, so, this is the base process. This is the absolute minimum we have to do as an organisation. We have these values, these behaviours, we have all these unique, incredible individuals that work for us.” How do we write a document that enables us to have flexibility to deal with certain situations?
Brendan Rogers: How do you go about trying to influence that, you know, you've got this perspective of what your role could be or should be? What do you do to influence and make that actually become a reality over these future years?
Elizabeth Houghton: Keep having the conversation. So, keep asking why and having the confidence to question the status quo. So, all HR people, when you move around, you'll go into an organisation and there'll be a whole bunch of policies. Ask why you have them. Ask, “Are they fit for purpose?”. Ask, “Oh, how does the value set of the organisation lead into this?” Like, “How is that playing out in this policy document that we're holding everyone accountable to? Is it aligned or isn't it aligned?” And just continuing to be brave enough to have those conversations. And it's also around questioning other HR people.
I have a great deal of HR friends when you've been in the industry for a long time. As you all know, you kind of levitate to the same people who, you know, have the same industry experience as you and having those open conversations and questioning each other and feeding off each other as well. I think it gets to a point in, sometimes, in careers where you are just seen as this expert, so everyone just listens to you and you are not necessarily questioned so much or challenged in a way that you should be. And I think it's really important for all HR people to keep challenging each other and keep challenging the leaders in which they work with to look at new ways of doing things, but then, also opening up working with other organisations. So, let's stop being scared of sharing our weaknesses or things we don't do so well as an organisation. Let's open up that conversation and say, “Hey, I just saw that business over there did this. Why can't we do that?” or “Let's understand how they did that to see how you can make it fit for your organisation.”
Brendan Rogers: And we were talking off-air earlier about COVID. It's been a challenging situation for everyone. What are those challenges that leaders have come up against?
Elizabeth Houghton: I feel, in an organisation, so, let's look at more of a corporate business who have the ability for their team members to work from home. In that type of organisation, what's happened is people have been thrown into, we shouldn't be in the office, everyone gets to work from home and potentially, that wasn't always the case and potentially, we may have had leaders who have the mindset and I've certainly had it in my career quite recently, actually. Probably, we were in the last four or five years where I actually had a leader say to me, “Well, no. I expect you to be at your desk Monday to Friday 9:00 to 5:00, because if I need to call you, I'm going to call you on your desk phone,” regardless of the fact that I had a mobile phone and I could be reached anywhere. That expectation was, “You have to be at your desk.”
And I think not all leaders know how to manage without physically seeing their team members every day. And that's not any fault of their own. It's probably to some extent, the fault of the experiences they've had, the way they've been led previously by previous leaders or how they've come up through an organisation and through their career journey. But also, I don't always feel that organisations are really great at developing leaders. So, organisations, in my past experience, hire someone who's really technically good at their specialty and then say, “Hey, have a team,” but they've never led people. They could be the best engineer in the whole entire world. And that's how they've ended up leading people, but that's not necessarily their passion or not necessarily something that they wanted to do, but they've ended up there because the organisation wanted them there because they're a really good engineer.
And people leadership is a very different skill set. And through COVID, lots of leaders have been pushed into leading in a way that doesn't come natural to them and having to do that rapidly. You knew that happened overnight. That switched from being in the office to being at home, literally happened, probably, within a couple of days, for lots of organisations and all of a sudden, you’re having to make this decision of, well, how do you manage productivity and output and accountability when you can't physically see your team, how do you have those interactions and what do your team need? So, you'll have some team members as a leader who are really struggling being at home because they love being around people and they get their energy from people. And all of a sudden, their sat at home at their kitchen table on their own with no one to talk to all day and they're going a little bit crazy.
You'll have other people who are loving being at home and finding that it's so much more productive for them because they don't have all the distractions of an open plan office and all the hustle and bustle going around them. But then, as a leader, how do you know? How do you know which team member is struggling and which team member is loving it? So, you see quite a lot on LinkedIn right now. And every team is putting up their morning Skype calls and the pictures of that. And that’s a really good way to do it, to have these regular check ins as you go, but that doesn't necessarily come naturally to every leader. And also, it's not always the right thing for every single team member. You know, some team members might absolutely hate the fact that their Manager calls them every single day to say, “Hey, what are you doing today?” ‘Cause they may feel that that’s micro managing or that they're not trusted. So, it's, as a leader, being aware enough of your individuals in your team to know what they need and how you can support them. So, my view on leadership and especially through this COVID situation is understanding my team, understanding what they need. So, it's not around what my preferred style is, or my preferred method of work is. It's around, what does my team member need and what is their preferred method? And how can I facilitate that for them?
Brendan Rogers: What do you want to see happen in the future around HR and how HR supports organisational culture and how can you embrace that in your own journey and how do you be that force of change?
Elizabeth Houghton: In a perfect world, every CEO will give HR the time of day in an absolute perfect world. Yes, okay. There's the age-old argument that HR doesn't make money, but if your people aren't happy, you're not making money. So, that is really important to kind of focus on that. And I know every people listening to this go, “No. She would say that. She's in HR.” But people are everything. Without people, you don't have a business. Without people, you don't have a product. Without people, you don't have customers because who do they interact with? So, I think, in an ideal world, every single CEO would be connecting with someone in HR, if not daily, weekly, to continue to open up those conversations around people. And to ensure that there is this alignment between what the CEO wants to achieve and what the CEO's vision of his business is.
And the missing link between that is the CEO will have a vision. And yes, he's accountable for driving profit and making money and ensuring all of us get home and we get paid every fortnight or every month and that's a real, huge thing. But this is where the HR function comes in by having that alignment and understanding or what the CEO wants to achieve. HR people can come in and say, “Oh, okay. So, human behaviour, right? It's psychology. How can we do that? How can we drive this within our people? How can we ensure our people are aligned to this? And how can we ensure our people are making money and are productive?” And that's not always about selling budgets and selling sales targets. There's a whole human element of what behaviour is going to achieve that. So, do you want to be a business that says, “You want to make sales at any cost or do you want to make sales in the right way with the right behaviours?” So, I think it was Richard Branson that says, “Look after your people first and your customers second, because if you look after your people, your people will look after your customers.” And I think that is something that I want every organisation to see is how HR plays into it. You look after your people and then if you look after your people, your money will come and seeing that the HR function is a function that can support you looking after your people.
Brendan Rogers: Elizabeth, thank you for sharing that. How can listeners get hold of you?
Elizabeth Houghton: So, probably, the best way is to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Elizabeth Houghton, I'm pretty sure I have a personalised LinkedIn URL. So, I believe it's a www.linkedin.com/elizabethhoughtonuk/. And that is probably the best way to reach out to me ‘cause you never know what's going to happen in this COVID world, so, I'm sure if I give you my email address, it might change in a couple of weeks ‘cause we don't know what's going on. (Laughing) Hopefully not. That my LinkedIn will remain there and I'll remain having access to it. And I think Brendan mentioned this point before. So, yes, I am a HR specialist, but my keen interest is more around the development piece and how culture is developed and also, how that interplays with coaching. So, I do have my own side hustle, which is Sutton Full Potential. So, please do reach out to me there.
You can follow me on Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn again, and it'd be really interesting for you to share with me your stories within work. My real focus is around individuals who have kind of done everything right in their lives, but not necessarily what they're passionate about. So, that kind of real traditional upbringing of, “You go to Uni. You get a good corporate job and you're supposed to be happy and successful.” If you don't quite feel that, do reach out to me. I'm sure I have a way of helping you align what you do and how you pay your bills with your passion.
Brendan Rogers: I think everyone's got a side hustle or two or three nowadays. It's just the environment we're in.
Look, I just want to say thank you very much for coming on today. You're our first HR person on the show. I think that's congratulations, well done for coming on and sharing your experiences. I've never been in HR myself. I've worked with a number of HR people I do today as well in my consultancy business. And there's a lot of people out there trying to fight the good fight and they do get dragged into a lot of stuff that is probably not why you went into human resources in the first place. So, keep fighting that good fight. Once again, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on The Culture of Things podcast.
Elizabeth Houghton: Thank you, Brendan.
Brendan Rogers: HR people are real people. They have the same feelings as you and I. I liken HR people in organisations somewhat to those in emergency services. They experience some good, but they also experience a lot of bad. A lot of the bad side of HR is often as a result of poor leadership. For example, HR people often find themselves having to deal with the aftermath of a leader not having the conversations that he or she should have had with a team member. As Elizabeth said, six months later, she gets a visit from a leader who wants her to help fire that person. This poor leadership leads directly into poor organisational culture. If senior leaders take ownership of their organisational culture, with HR working alongside to support them, it will go a long way to improving the lives of people at work.
These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Elizabeth.
My first key takeaway. Organisational culture must be driven by the CEO. This is a responsibility that must never be delegated. The ultimate leader sets the tone for everything related to values and behaviours. They must set the tone by ensuring they live and breathe the core values and behaviours. And they must ensure they keep their team accountable and that their team keeps each other accountable. As they say, culture is a reflection of leadership. Human resources can and should provide support with this. But ultimately, it is the CEO who must be the driver of organisational culture.
My second key takeaway. Hire on behaviours, not on technical ability. Elizabeth mentioned how it is really important to stress test people, to identify their behaviours under pressure. This has to be part of the recruitment process. Don't have the standard interview in your office, get the candidate out and about with you, put them in environments where they will start to reveal their true self, put them in situations where they won't have time to think about their answer. I've had clients that have even set up situations where the interviewees’ order is deliberately stuffed up to see how they react to the serving staff. At all times, during the recruitment process, you want to be reassuring yourself that the interviewees’ core values are aligned with the company's core values. Employing behaviourally-aligned people will save you a lot of pain and suffering later on.
My third key takeaway. Human systems must reflect and reinforce the organisation's culture. These human systems include recruiting and hiring, orientation, managing performance, compensation and rewards, recognition, and even how you decide to let people go. Often, the legality and compliance requirements around human processes can undermine the ability to build trust. The best organisations strike the right balance between too much and too little structure. Someone once said, “An organisation has to institutionalise its culture without bureaucratising it.”
So, in summary, my three key takeaways were: organisational culture must be driven by the CEO; hire on behaviours, not on technical ability; human systems must reflect and reinforce the organisation's culture.
If you have any questions or feedback about this episode, please feel free to send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for listening. Stay safe. Until next time.
Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit thecultureofleadership.com to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.