A lot of leaders struggle to define what culture is. They might point to a written mission statement or values, but they’re meaningless without the behaviour to back them up.
Because culture seems a woolly concept, people think it doesn’t matter. But have you ever worked in a bullying culture? Or where communication is poor, staff rivalries obstruct effectiveness or good ideas are mired in a process-driven, risk-averse bog?
Culture and values are "the way we do things round here" – the way we behave and expect others to behave. This can have a huge impact on staff turnover and talent retention, and therefore on service quality and fundraising results. So, apart from the chief executive, who sets the tone for that culture?
The heads of the most populated departments have a major role to play. But there is another role that, if properly treasured, sets the tone even more: the HR director.
Is your HR director keeping their ear to the ground to find out who isn’t getting on with whom? Are they advising on solutions, guiding managers on how to handle difficult people and influencing recruitment so that people with emotional intelligence are more likely to be appointed? Ours is.
But it must go further than that. The relationship between the chief executive and the HR director is critical to a workplace that values and gets the most out of its people.
I’ve worked in charities where the head of HR doesn’t report directly to the chief executive. Consequently, they don’t have a seat at the senior leadership table and can’t exert the influence they need to. Arguably, the bigger the charity, the more critical HR is, because greater size brings greater variation in managers’ behaviour and far more complex communication.
In our workplace, although I am ultimately responsible for the care service and spend a lot of my time fundraising, I sit next to our HR director Diane de Souza (in a quiet area of an open-plan layout). We frequently speak about people situations that need fine tuning: who to advise and steer to avoid escalation into crises. We also lead skills development initiatives, and we jointly train all line managers in advanced interpersonal skills.
You simply must have the right person in the HR leadership role; not just someone with the knowledge and experience, but someone who also listens attentively, who has their finger on the pulse of the organisation and who people will come and talk to. Many people won’t go to the chief executive because they don’t want to take up their time, or maybe they are worried about being judged. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the badge you wear.
Between us we have created many training schemes, an employee counselling service, succession planning for all management roles, staff and volunteer surveys, and focus groups to diagnose the latest management skills needs. Staff turnover has fallen, requiring proportionately less time and money spent on recruitment. Routine sick leave has fallen, there are fewer grievances and managers with poor interpersonal skills are led more promptly towards a crossroads. All of this means we can achieve the charity’s mission better.
A perfect culture without mistakes doesn’t exist, but we have made HR "mission-critical". Culture is behaviour, and the most influential behaviour is that of the chief executive and the HR director.
Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, the Dorset and Wiltshire children’s hospice