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Rethinking business culture

IB puts on its thinking cap to explore challenges and best practices in shaping a winning business culture.

Photographs by Sarah Maughan & Chelsea Weis

(page 1 of 3)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Most business operators are familiar with the late Peter Drucker’s belief that culture eats strategy for lunch, but how many of them agree with it? Moreover, of those who agree with it, what percentage acts upon it?

Based on feedback from IB’s inaugural Think Tank on business culture, there is agreement about Drucker’s wisdom, but business organizations are searching for some best practice advice. Several years removed from the recession, the good news is that companies have taken more interest in how their culture impacts their business strategy and more of them are ready to tackle the challenge.

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Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager for the Madison office of staffing firm Robert Half, presented at the Think Tank and senses that local employers are starting to give organizational culture the attention it deserves. “Coming out of the recession, it was about building the team back up, so hiring was a priority,” she says. “Now, a lot of companies are more focused on the retention portion of the culture.

“Talking to human resources managers in the Madison market, while they are still growing and hiring, a lot of them have put forth more effort to develop criteria or strategies to further define their company culture or identify what factors are more important to their employees for retention. There has been a little bit more of a shift there.”

Those attending the Think Tank heard from a lineup featuring Truckenbrod and other speakers who offered advice on how to take on this challenge on several fronts.

Filling generation gaps

Every generation views the generation coming up behind as somewhat suspect, but at a time when some organizations employ members of five generations — from traditionalists of the greatest generation, the smallest part of the workforce at less than 1%, to Generation Z, whose members are just beginning their careers — those misunderstandings can negatively impact culture. The ability to communicate and manage these differences, while stressing the commonalities coveted by each generation, can be the difference between a well-oiled machine and a dysfunctional workforce.

The most talked about generation is no longer the baby boomers; it’s the millennials who now comprise the largest segment of the workforce (37%). Scott Lesnick, a generational expert and author, is one baby boomer who believes that “millennials rock,” but he realizes he could be in the minority.

Baby boomer Scott Lesnick, an author and generational expert, thinks “millennials rock.”

When it comes to building relationships with millennials, Lesnick says communication is a key for baby boomers who once lamented their own parents misunderstanding of them and now find that the shoe is on the other foot. During the Q&A portion of Lesnick’s presentation, several people mentioned the importance of communication and he endorsed that.

“Think about it. With anybody in our life outside of work, if we have a relationship with them, and it’s a good relationship, part of that is because we have communicated well,” Lesnick says. “Why is that any different at work? Today, we sit down, we talk, we share some stories, we can get personal about family and kids, but it’s more about being on the same playing field. The respect is there if you’re a boss or a manager, but ideas and thoughts must be shared a lot more fluidly than they used to be.”

While stressing the common things valued by each generation — respect, ability to listen, mentoring/training, and positive feedback — is one way to establish cohesion, respecting differences is the best way. Different generations bring refreshingly new ways of thinking, such as the Gen Xers (born between 1965–1980) wanting better work-life balance, something boomers probably wanted but were afraid to ask.

Lesnick believes the generations begin to appreciate one another when those changes take place. “They do because then it takes the focus off of work and it shows caring about the individual, not even in a generationally specific way, but it allows them to say, ‘Okay, all of the sudden I’m being looked at and cared for as an individual. My opinions, things that are important to me, actually matter. I like that.’ Sometimes they go back to a time when work-life balance didn’t matter that much, and they didn’t like that feeling.”

It’s all about being inclusive and the workplace culture, he adds. “That’s very, very important. We talk about that all the time, but you can tell the companies that thrive and retain employees. Workplace culture is a big part of it.”

Lesnick touts the importance of giving younger workers different organizational roles to help them grow in their careers, or risk losing them to an organization that will. The millennial characteristic of being fast learners who think outside the box is well aligned with their embrace of challenge, and managers must realize they don’t have much time to win them over.

Think Tank attendee Amber Hansen, a human resources generalist with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, agrees that she and her fellow millennials want to be challenged. “The best thing that employers can do is embrace millennials and not try to make us fit into roles or organizational structures that don’t also align with our goals,” Hansen states. “We want to be challenged, have opportunities to expand our skillsets, and have meaningful opportunities to contribute to the success of the company.”

If an organization is unwilling to provide such opportunities, or change the way it is currently doing business to support this desire, “then we’ll find another organization that will embrace us and reward us,” Hansen adds.

Obviously, it’s important for managers
to know these generational differences, but it’s also important for the overall workforce to understand them, especially if you hope to shape the entire corporate culture and because, as Lesnick explains, “sometimes now you’ll have millennials literally managing Gen Xers and boomers.” If they can understand some of the nuances, it helps them to communicate more effectively and have a better opportunity to get different ages and generations to work well together.

“Now, that’s just millennial to boomer, but the more we understand, not just about generations but even about the culture, the more people feel included, and the more apt they are likely to feel appreciated at work and not be looking for another job.”

Diversity, the business driver

A strategic embrace of diversity and its sometimes undervalued companions, equity and inclusion, can go a long way toward attracting, retaining, and developing a diverse workforce. More studies have demonstrated the bottom-line value of diversity and inclusion, which is necessary to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse customer base, according to Angela Russell, director of diversity and inclusion for CUNA Mutual Group. “It comes down to the changing demographics of the country,” she notes.

To achieve diversity, organizations must commit to being transformed, says Angela Russell.

Russell cites the importance of having high-level (C-suite) support and a long-term commitment (beyond 3 to 5 years) to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) so that it doesn’t become the flavor of the day. Doing this effectively means committing the organization to being transformed.

She notes that one of Bob Trunzo’s first acts upon becoming chief executive officer of CUNA Mutual was to add inclusion as one of its corporate values. That means it provides opportunities for all employees to contribute, advance, and build value.

An inclusionary best practice at CUNA Mutual is the establishment of various employee resource groups, including groups for African-Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBT employees. With ERGs, people who have similar backgrounds can connect with each other.

To create two-way pressure for cultural change, CUNA Mutual established a D&I counsel of team leaders who can help set the tone and the agenda for diversity and inclusion and take it back to their respective units to infuse it and embed it throughout the business, and an employee advisory committee to percolate ideas up from the grassroots.

There also is a willingness to learn through programs such as racial justice training and come to terms with individual biases, whether implicit or explicit. Russell encourages people to take the free, online Harvard Implicit Association Test, which uncovers bias on race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other forms. It’s never easy to acknowledge the existence of bias, but organizations that don’t undergo such self-reflection can’t identify and address the biases that exist in their business practices.

“We all have them,” Russell states, and when we let them seep in, they can drive our behavior.

(Continued)

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