Why every decision about employees should also be about culture

James Thomson Editor

Why every decision about employees should also be about culture

Published 14 November 2013 00:44, Updated 14 November 2013 11:09

Phil Di Bella has a message for any leader who is setting out to write a “culture statement” for their business – don’t bother. “You don’t make your culture from the top. When a customer walks in and tells you over a cup of coffee what your culture is, that’s your real culture,” he says.That “real” culture doesn’t come from the top down, Di Bella argues, but from the bottom up. A cultural audit at his business, Brisbane’s Di Bella Coffee, revealed five words to be at the heart of his business: passion, accountability, consistency, inspiration and integrity. “That came from our people, not from our senior management. That makes me very proud.”

Di Bella was speaking as part of a panel in Brisbane in September, which formed part of BRW Momentum seminar series.

The event, sponsored by GE Capital, focused on how to recruit, manage and retain great people.

Joining Di Bella on the panel were Brisbane entrepreneur Andrew Northcott from LSA Recruitment, Aussie Farmers Dairy chief executive Peter Skene, and Michael Burke, executive general manager of equipment financing at GE Capital.

If there was one resounding message from the panel it was that every decision involving the people should revolve around one thing: culture.

And that starts with the recruitment process. All members of the panel argued it is best to hire for attitude and train for skill. What leaders need to look for is potential employees who will fit seamlessly within the culture the business has set.

“The way I recruit and the way the organisation recruits is about ticking the cultural fit box,” Burke says.

“As a recruiting leader, it’s your responsibility to understand the culture and clearly articulate that, and articulate your expectations.”

Burke says this means being prepared to tell the story of the business “warts and all” – even if that means “selling against the job” as some in GE’s human resources department have accused him of doing.

“My reply to that is that I’m not selling against the job, I’m being transparent. You don’t want to be facing that situation where somebody has to say to you, “Hey Michael, I didn’t realise it would be like this’.”

It’s a point that resonates with Skene.

“If a person comes and you’ve oversold the business, it’s not just the damage to that person. They are at the coffee table, they are in the lunch room, and you end up affecting other staff and your culture.

“Attitudes are contagious.”

Where do you want to be in three years?

Skene and Northcott make the point that leaders need to know how their business and culture are changing.

“There are also the right people for the right stage of your business,” Skene says. “There were some people in our business who were right for the start-up phase, but there are some people where the business is now, when we need a certain level of process, who don’t fit.”

Northcott agrees.

“Nine years ago it was me sitting in a living room. Today, including labour hire, we’ve got 1500 people. Throughout that journey you’ve got people who fit a certain purpose. It’s a balance between losing that knowledge and making sure you’ve got the skills to perform for your customers.”

Di Bella admits he has largely been removed from his company’s recruitment process for the simple – but very good reason – that his obvious passion for his business can be a little overwhelming.

But he has a simple test to ensure his “hire for attitude, train for skill” mantra works.

“I’ve never seen a resume that says ‘employ me, I am not going to turn up to work, I am an absolute idiot’. They are all trustworthy, they are all punctual, they are all brilliant and they’ll all make you millions.

“I ask two questions: ‘Tell me what you want to achieve in 12 months; tell me what you want to achieve in three years.’ If they can’t answer those questions there is no way they are going to add value to my business if they can’t add value to their own life.”

Di Bella’s new recruits get a taste of the culture of his organisation from a number of different angles – new staff spend their first 30 days travelling around every different department. There are a few reasons. First, it allows the new hire to see how the different parts of the business work together.

Di Bella’s is a vertically integrated business that does its own sourcing, manufacturing and wholesaling, and runs its own coffee outlets. Understanding how the supply chain works means new staff understand how their contribution affects the wider business.

Di Bella says it also has the benefit of allowing staff to “self-select” and decide whether working at the coffee group is for them. “The best way to see if someone isn’t working is that they put their hands up and say ‘This isn’t for me,’ ” Di Bella says. “If they don’t self-select out in the first month after they’ve worked in every single department, there will be no grievances down the track with people thinking, ‘This will get better.’ ”

The process also allows Di Bella and his managers to further map out a career progression for the new staff member and help them to get to where they want to be in 12 months or three years. If an employee wants to be in account management working with retail clients, they might start out on the road as a customer service representative. “We’ve got a matrix internally that says ‘If you want to get to this position, you should start here.’ ”

It’s an extensive process, and one that has been refined over many years by Di Bella and his team.

“You are never going to get it perfect, because perfection is impossible. But if you get the processes right, you limit the variables. And if you limit the variables, you limit the cost. And people are serious costs.”

Keep the culture alive

Recruitment of course, is only the start of the process of ensuring all your staff live your culture. The communication provided to team members has been shown to have a huge impact on staff retention and Burke argues it is leaders who must show the way on the issue of feedback.

“I love going around to my staff and saying, ‘Have you got a moment, I’d love to give you some feedback’.

“But people hear me say that, and they shut up. Why? Because there’s a negative perception around feedback.

“It’s our responsibility as leaders to give as much positive reinforcement as we can, as regularly as we can.”

It’s particularly important, Burke argues, to ensure the annual performance review process doesn’t become the only time feedback is delivered.

“When employees walk out of those discussions surprised, it’s a poor reflection of me as a leader.”

Di Bella agrees on the need for regular feedback, but takes a different – and somewhat less positive – approach to “setting the landscape” around these discussions.

“I come from this position: I want you to be aware that 90 per cent of my job is to focus on the 10 per cent that’s got to be better – 90 per cent of what you’re doing is fantastic, so let’s focus on that 10 per cent.”

Retention, the panel agreed, is also about understanding what motivates a staff member. Di Bella says research from Harvard has shown a common hierarchy of motivations, starting with job security, followed by flexibility, appreciation, feedback and – finally – money.

In Skene’s experience, money won’t necessarily be the difference between a staff member staying or going, but if it’s not managed correctly it can start to erode a company’s culture.

“Take the example where someone new will arrive and will be paid more than someone who has been there for five years and has been a great employee,” he says.

“That sort of thing needs to be watched so money doesn’t become a demotivator.”

So how hard should you fight to retain a staff member?

Andrew Northcott says that while an entrepreneur’s natural inclination is to keep every person, you need to protect your culture carefully. It isn’t always possible to change the mind of a staff member who is unhappy, and convincing them to stay leaves open the possibility they will keep eating away at your culture from the inside.

“If we have a conversation [with someone] who is thinking of going and we convince them to stay, you can bet that we’ll be having the same conversation in three or six months’ time.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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