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Culture: the Roots of Your Organization

What does culture have to do with buffet breakfast?

Jo-Anne Hill

By Jo-Anne Hill

Culture is the driver of business performance. It is the nucleus or foundation before anything else, even before the strategy is determined. “If I had to do it again, I would start with culture,” stated Jean Monnet, regarded by many as the chief architect of unifying Europe. Commenting on Monnet’s quote, Peter Aspden wrote in the Financial Times, “To focus on the continent’s most profound sense of common values could have set it (Europe) off on the right foot.” Whether it’s unifying Europe, establishing the direction for an organization or orchestrating a meeting, defining the culture, an umbrella term for finding the common or shared values of the individuals that make up the organization, is the first place to start to develop any successful endeavour. Positive values such as integrity, respect, innovation, caring, humour, quality or whatever values are deemed to be the core values of the organization create the foundation for working together as a team and it only makes sense that they are embedded into the meeting program.

What is Organizational Culture?

Culture is described as the roots of an organization. It is the beliefs, customs and acceptable behaviour and practices of the members of the organization. “It’s how things are done around here,” says Richard Barrett, of the Barrett Values Centre. “Culture is who you are and what you stand for.” Culture is defined by the values and behaviours of the organizations’ leaders and is evident in every interaction between counterparts, bosses, employees, suppliers and customers.

“Members of organizations with a strong positive culture know and understand the code of conduct; and everyone is clear that there are penalties when the values are compromised,” says Joe Marasco, CEO of Ravenflow.

Of course, what is written in a mission statement or on an organization’s website as the values they uphold, versus the values used in daily life such as interactions and employee behaviours, may be quite different. Reality may be that the organization is actually based on limiting values such as confusion, cost reduction or bureaucracy that get in the way of effective productivity and, more importantly, a caring environment for its members.

Every organization has a culture, whether it was developed through a formal process such as leaders identifying and articulating it, or the culture organically evolved without leadership giving it any thought. This is true whether it is considered a healthy culture, where employees and members are happy and able to get their job completed, or it’s riddled with limiting values that result in fear and distractions. Some type of culture defining acceptable behaviour and accumulation of values and beliefs exists in every organization.

Why Is Culture Important for Meeting Planners?

From a holistic perspective, meetings are an opportunity to support the organization’s culture and vice versa. It’s an opportunity for employees to understand the culture, for the culture to be reinforced, or even to begin the process to modify or transform the culture within the organization. Most important of all – a meeting is a chance to get everyone’s buy-in on why culture is important and what it looks like in practical terms.

In an ideal world, meetings are an important communication vehicle that is part of the annual or big-picture communication plan for the organization’s members. Whether it’s a company kick-off at the beginning of the year to get everyone on the same page or the annual general meeting for an association to disseminate new information, the values communicated must be consistent with what the organization stands for.

If the culture permeates everything, then it only makes sense that the core values for the organization be incorporated into the meeting or event. At the same time, if the reality of daily attitudes and behaviour conflicts with what is espoused in the mission statement, the meeting provides the ideal opportunity to address the incongruence and get the organization back on track.

Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, in the past 10 years, there has been a lot of attention on the value of meetings, including lots of discussion on how to quantify meetings into dollars and determine the return on investment (ROI). Why not shift the focus from the value of meetings to incorporating the organization’s values into the meeting. Research shows that companies with leaders who lead from a value-centric approach are more profitable; whether it’s because they can attract and retain the best employees, or it’s because employees spend less time doing unproductive activities (such as gossip or dealing with bureaucracy) and have more time to get the important work completed.

How Do You Incorporate Culture Into A Meeting or Event?

If culture is the nucleus, the foundation that drives the organization’s performance, incorporating the values that shape the culture into the meeting must start at the first planning meeting and carry on throughout the planning process.

The first step is to identify three to five core values. It may also mean identifying three to five limiting values and figuring out a way to highlight solutions, or at least start a conversation about them.

Using the data from 32 companies across Canada (Barrett Values Centre: Canada Report, January 2015), from a variety of industries, the top-three consolidated values were identified. Accountability: checks and balances are in place; Continuous Improvement: getting better, taking some risks, making decisions; and, Teamwork: working together as a team, trust is implied.

Here are seven ways a meeting can embrace these top-three organization values and transform intangible values into memorable experiences that leave a lasting impression.

1. Theme of the Meeting – The theme permeates every communication from the first announcement of the meeting to the thank-you notes at the end, and is a perfect way to emphasize the organizational values. Theming is the most blatant way of stating upfront that values are important.

2. President’s Message – If values are important to the organization, it’s because the leader has embraced them. It means that every communication inside and outside the organization incorporates the core values.

3. Activities to Develop or Enhance Values – Finding activities that remind participants about the importance of teamwork is easy. Coming up with activities with the message of accountability and continuous improvement may include connecting members of other departments to work together.

4. Speakers – Select a speaker that specializes in talking about accountability, teamwork and continuous improvement. They are experts at customizing a presentation based on the identified needs of the organization.

5. Visuals – Posters around the meeting room, a banner over the platform, a PowerPoint template with the values clearly stated, are all constant reminders to the participants to keep values top of mind.

6. Food & Beverage – Incorporating values into food and beverage can be fun. To exemplify teamwork, you might set up a series of dominos around the food on the breakfast buffet table. Once everyone is gathered around, have the senior leader push the first domino and, one after another, they all fall down. Accountability can be incorporated into the food display with stacks of checks and a “scale of justice” as the centrepiece. Build your own salad or sandwich can be labelled as continuous improvement with simple signage.

7. Take-Aways or To-Dos – Take 15 minutes at the end of the meeting to ask each participant to write down one activity, for each value, that they are going to incorporate into their work. Participants then sign their name and submit the follow-up list to a designated committee or person who is responsible for the organization’s culture. Everyone who completes their list of activities receives acknowledgement.

These are just some examples of how to incorporate values into a meeting, but don’t miss the opportunity to brainstorm with the meeting planning team, key executives and the meeting venue on how values and culture can effectively be incorporated. Most of the ideas are low-cost and easy to execute.

Who is responsible for the organization’s Culture?

While culture must be embraced and driven by senior leadership (and it is the responsibility of all members to follow), appointing one person or committee to ensure the core values are adhered to is crucial. This will ensure it gets done.

A word of caution – once an organization puts a stake in the ground to embrace values and becomes value-centric, leaders need to be seen as “walking the talk;” to be constantly aware that everyone will be looking to them and their activities to show the way. While everyone is human, and even senior leadership is vulnerable to transgressions, they hold a new responsibility to do everything possible to live the organization’s values both on stage and off.

What will result?

A meeting that is consistent with “the way things are done around here” serves as a reminder to all participants that values are important, right here, right now, to every member of the organization – in the meeting room, in the office and at the breakfast buffet table.

In 2009, Jo-Anne Hill founded JH Hospitality Consulting, bringing more than 25 years’ experience to bear. She has worked around the world for such prestigious brands as Dorchester Collection, Coppola Resorts and Shangri-La Hotels.

Appeared in Speaking of IMPACT, Summer 2015 Edition

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