3 Ways Boards and CEOs Can Shun Scandal and Sustain a Positive Culture

Businesswoman leading collaboration session with postit note board, possibly engaging the Board and CEO.Boards and CEOs bear enormous responsibility for the well-being of their organization’s people. In turn, organizations rely on fully engaged and motivated employees to deliver on their mission. Much is written about how ‘trust’ affects each employee’s engagement. Employees should be able to trust their organization to provide a safe environment that evokes pride and provides ample support for them to thrive in delivering quality work to the communities they serve. Employees are also expected to share values aligned with their organization and to come to work each day prepared to do the best they can. Informed leaders know that most employees share this goal. So when employee performance goes amiss, it’s frequently because the culture, including the systems, processes and tools, impedes their success.

Leadership creates culture. To build a culture of trust, ‘walking the talk’ as boards and CEOs is imperative.

The rising number of harassment incidents recently making headlines is a wake-up call for all boards and CEOs. Sadly, in numerous cases, the issues were known and ignored. Employers’ responses to these incidents are also alarming. For me, it raises the question: What is the priority for boards and CEOs?

To mitigate media exposure crises, contracts are usually abruptly terminated but what about long-standing workplace harassment issues employees face each day? What’s the impact to emerging leaders who may view the way senior members (leaders or staff) behave as the way to lead or get ahead?  What message does it send to employees? Does it suggest inappropriate behaviour is ok, as long as you can get away with it, but if you’re caught, you will be fired? These characteristics don’t belong in organizations that espouse to be just, caring, learning and innovative.

When harassment issues emerge, we should ask: What kind of governance and leadership processes might have mitigated damage to the organization, its employees and stakeholders?

In my previous post, I addressed the relationship between the board and the CEO, how to ensure each can simultaneously fulfill their role in harmony through meaningful conversations, particularly generative dialogue, learning and a united workplan.

Boards and CEOs need this harmony to meet their key mandate: To advance the organization’s mission. This mandate includes protecting and growing the organization’s assets. To achieve this mandate, the board must provide effective board governance oversight and the CEO must efficiently manage the organization.

At the heart of this accountability is managing our most important assets – the employees who deliver on our organization’s mission.

Sustaining Trust

Here are 3 ways boards and CEOs can work together to support our employees and sustain a culture of trust:

#1. Seek out the story behind the data –

Boards monitor performance indicators to gain insight. This must include setting performance goals and monitoring indicators that relate to culture and people practices, such as employee engagement, turnover, sick time and grievances. Data only gives us part of the picture. Its complement is insight into the story behind the numbers.

You uncover this story through generative dialogue with the CEO. To work effectively, we must give board members opportunities to use their intuition and judgement to ask the CEO probing questions.

Boards and CEOs must also be open to feedback from all stakeholders. A leading practice in performance assessment is the 360° feedback process. This can be cumbersome and the traditional process alone is outdated in today’s dynamic environment.

With social media and rapid learning cycles, we can connect this process to more dynamic feedback loops. CEOs can gain more dynamic feedback and insight through tactics like trusted blogs, town halls and webinars. Board members should seek opportunities to connect with the broader stakeholder community, gain feedback on their organization’s reputation and how it looks from the outside. Employees also talk about their work environment and their experience reflects how the organization interacts with its stakeholders.

If boards and CEOs listen, while connecting internally and externally, they can’t be blindsided by a longstanding, toxic work environment.

#2. Watch employee interactions throughout the organization

Boards and CEOs must have visibility into the work environment and how employees interact at different levels. How the CEO engages with senior staff, how executive team members support committees or communicate in board meetings often indicates how these leaders interact with the entire organization.

From the governance level, CEOs and boards can also look at internal relationships by participating in key events, such as recognition ceremonies, learning sessions or celebrations. When board members observe how employees and leaders interact, they discover context behind the data presented to them. CEOs must also make it their priority to spend time with all teams to get insight into rapport or tensions between management and employees.

#3. Prioritize and structure HRs’ role appropriately –

Human Resources (HR) must directly report to the CEO. This structure enables HR to advise the CEO and give the board the support it needs to deliver on people practices oversight and the organization’s culture.

We must also remember the HR function is not responsible for the culture. Culture is the role of the CEO. However, we expect HR  to ensure all leaders and employees have the tools they need to apply leading practices to their work and fulfill their roles. Equally important, it must be a strategic partner in ensuring the work environment enables its people to create the best outcomes for the organization. This role includes having: policies that protect employees who come forward with complaints; processes and standards for investigating these complaints; and learning best practices so that everyone knows their responsibilities. The board must provide oversight to ensure these appropriate policies are in place and reassessed, as required.

Caroline showing leadership with three other people participating in CN Tower Edge Walk
Toronto’s CN Tower has created a safe environment that fosters the trust visitors like myself need to attempt its Edge Walk. CEOs and boards must also create a safe workplace with a culture that gives employees the support they need to thrive.

There are no quick fixes to transform a contentious or negative culture. A long-term commitment to applying these 3 ways to foster the well-being of an organization’s people will start the journey.

Now is a good time to reflect on the past year, take stock of your organization’s culture and make plans to strengthen your long-term commitment to its people or most important asset.

What steps will you take in the new year to sustain a positive culture built on trust?  What needs to change, if anything?

I look forward to your thoughts on this subject.

Best wishes for the holiday season and for a positive 2018!

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