In conversation with Siobhan McHale on Organisational Culture in New Normal
Siobhan, Culture Transformer, Author, Head of HR at DuluxGroup, Thinker50 Radar 2020. She has worked across four continents, helping thousands of leaders to create more agile and productive workplaces. She spent the first decade of her career as a management consultant, jetting in and out of organisations, helping leaders to manage change.
Following this decade, Siobhan moved to an “insider” role, becoming the executive in charge of culture change in a series of large, multinational organisations.
One of these inside jobs was a radical seven-year change initiative at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited (ANZ) that transformed it from the lowest-performing bank in the country into one of the highest-performing and most admired banks in the world. Professor John Kotter used Siobhan’s work with ANZ as a Harvard Business School case study designed to teach MBA students about managing change
Siobhan is currently the head of HR at DuluxGroup, an international paint company based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of the recent book The Insider’s Guide to Culture Change where she shares her “insider’ secrets to making change happen faster, and with less noise.
Q- How is your industry impacted due to Covid-19?
Home improvement has been a “two-speed” story during COVID times. Some products are selling fast because people are spending more time at home, decorating and doing repair jobs. Other home improvement categories are not faring as well – such as kitchen or garage door installations – as people are delaying making bigger purchasing decisions in these uncertain times.
We have also seen the industry rapidly adapting to the people challenges presented by COVID-19. Many HR teams have stepped into the role of “crisis managers” to enable employees to work from home, handle concerns about employee health and well-being, implement social distancing requirements, help manage a remote workforce, and deal with issues of burnout.
In addition to these people challenges, there have been commercial threats and opportunities that the crisis has emerged. For instance, in our business in New Zealand, we faced some of the severest restrictions implemented by any government globally, as all retail stores were closed when the country went into lockdown. Within a matter of days, we’d built a website that allowed customers to shop for their favorite Dulux paint colours and have them delivered to their door. How? We decided not to let perfection get in the way of speed to market. Why not get our most popular products online first and then continue to enhance the site over time? The crisis is hammering home the need to move and adjust in disruptive times.
Q- What have been the impacts of COVID-19 on organisational culture?
The shift to working from home is the first big impact on culture. The challenge it presents for HR and people managers can be summed up as: “How do I maintain the team culture and energy levels when people are working remotely”?
The most successful managers nurture the culture by stepping into the role of “connectors” to build a sense of team cohesion. In taking up this role they maintain a focus not just on task completion but also on the relationships at work. They take the time, for instance, to check in with people at the beginning of each meeting: “How are you doing today?” “How was your weekend?” “What’s been a highlight for you this week?”. These “check-ins” allow team members to share their personal stories and to replicate the “corridor conversations” in traditional workplaces.
Another big impact on workplace culture has been the need to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, when the virus arrived in Australia in early 2020 we saw a surge in demand for face masks but limited availability, due to broken supply chains globally. A local family-owned company Med-Con, was the only Australian company producing face masks and within weeks the firm had hired additional staff, added new equipment, and ramped up production ten-fold in its small family-run factory. We are hearing these stories of rapid adaptation everywhere. The moral of this story is that your company needs an agile culture in disruptive times. Those who adapt will survive and thrive; those who don’t will perish.
Q- How can HR professionals take up their role in disruptive times?
I had a video conference meeting recently with an ex-colleague (let’s call her Sarah) who is a senior HR professional in the home improvement industry. She described how
the COVID crisis was presenting her company with opportunities to provide new products and services to customers in digitally-enabled ways. Sarah described the clear need for more “agility” in the firm and how some managers were “slow to change”.
I asked Sarah how she was taking up her change role at this time to help managers to create a more agile culture? Sarah’s brow furrowed as she admitted that she had been so focused on her role as “crisis manager” that she had not given the time and attention to her culture change role.
This is a common story and highlights the need for HR professionals to step more fully into their change role at this time. The culture that got you to this point, may not be the culture that your company requires to prosper in the future.
Q- How do we need to be viewing culture at this time?
For too long culture has been framed almost purely in terms of employee experience – with a focus on building trust, engagement, inclusion, flexible working, and psychological safety. Employee experience is, of course, a critical element of workplace culture, but it is not the only element.
Culture impacts multiple stakeholders, not just employees. You can decide to build a culture that is adaptive, customer-focused, environmentally responsible, growth-oriented, performance-driven, commercial, sustainable, innovative, or agile (and the list goes on). The patterns within the culture govern every aspect of how your business operates, including how you design, manufacture, and sell your products or services. We’ve got to start framing culture’s broader commercial role within our businesses.
Any concluding remarks?
Agile companies will be the ones to survive and thrive over the longer term. Managers (at all levels) are looking to HR professionals for advice and tools about how to create more agile, flexible, and resilient workplaces. The old tools – including Values statements, engagement surveys, and skills training courses – just won’t cut it. The question for HR professionals right now, is how are you stepping into your change role to help create more adaptive workplaces?
Thank you, Siobhan!