The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Five Steps to Effectively Improve Your Workplace Culture“
March 2, 2020
Intro: Do you believe your workplace culture is linked to your organization’s outcomes? Today, we discuss why it is important to keep your culture in focus, with five specific steps that Compassion Australia uses to build a healthy workplace.
Female: This is the Flourishing Culture Podcast. Here’s your host, president of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Al Lopus.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. We are here to help you eliminate workplace distrust, improve your employees’ experience, and grow your organization’s impact. And before we meet our special guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
Also, if you could share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would really mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
Deborah Adams is executive director of Compassion Australia. Through its child-sponsorship program, more than two million people are currently being released from poverty in Jesus’s name. As an executive director of ministry services, Deb is all about managing and guiding Compassion Australia’s workplace culture to advance and fulfill Compassion’s ministry goals and priorities.
Deb, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Deborah Adams: Thanks, Al. It’s great to be with you.
Al: And we’re so glad that you’re here. But let’s start off with this question: On behalf of those who are listening and have not yet traveled to Australia, what would you say is distinctive, maybe something good, about Christian workplaces in Australia compared to, say, North America? I bet you have maybe a favorite story or two that’s caused you to say, “Now that’s what it means to be Australian.”
Deborah: Oh, I think that’s a big question to start with, but here goes. So perhaps I’d say that we’re fairly relaxed or maybe even just like to think we’re pretty relaxed and easygoing. We’re happy to work hard but then also value that downtime, that free time, to get outside and enjoy the outdoors and feeding those other parts of our lives. But for Australian workplaces in particular, we actually are also subject to a lot of rules and regulations designed to protect employees. And so that in itself can cause sometimes there to be a little bit of “us versus them” mentality between the workforce and management if we don’t lead through that well.
But then maybe on a lighter side, I’d say we have a pretty good sense of humor and some would say a little bit warped sense of humor. We love to laugh together and joke with one another, and we don’t tend to take ourselves too seriously. And I think sometimes our sarcasm can get us into a little bit of trouble with our North American friends, but I guess for us that humor is a way of connecting with one another and bringing some lightness and energy to the task at hand. So in the Australian workplace and in Australian Christian workplace, you’d see a lot of banter and frivolity.
Oh, and we love coffee. We love our coffee.
Al: Okay, yeah. And tell me, Deb, where are you located?
Deborah: Yeah. So Compassion Australia has a presence across Australia, but our main office is in Newcastle, which is about two hours north of Sydney. And then we have a few area offices throughout the other capital cities.
Al: I think every person listening to our conversation is going to gain some new awareness of why the health of workplace culture must be a priority in organizations. So tell us a story about how this has really become real and relevant for Compassion Australia. Where was the temperature rising or what was starting to bubble to the surface that caused you to begin to really focus on this topic?
Deborah: Yeah, the last few years have been a really powerful process for us to rediscover the value that is in healthy organizational culture. And so we would say that at Compassion, we’ve always valued the health of our culture. It’s always been something that’s been important to us. And today we have that solidly healthy culture, which is great. But our experience over the last couple of years has caused us to dig a little bit deeper.
And so to unpack that a little, let me take you back to 2018. And so that was the year when our Survey results revealed to us that we’d actually dipped into that critical-moment territory. And that was a bit of a shock for us, seeing those results come through the Survey, particularly after having enjoyed multiple years of healthy culture. And so for me, for us, that served as a wakeup call not to take our eyes off culture, because as we saw the results and started to unpack them and think through and reflect, what we realized is we’d stop talking about our ministry values. We’d stopped being intentional about building good, healthy culture. And on top of that, what we saw was that our organizational outcomes, what we were able to achieve, also dipped. And so we were able to make that link between the health of our culture and what we’re able to achieve as an organization. And so that value of good, healthy culture became really real for us. And being a purpose-driven organization, seeing that dip, hurt. There was an emotional response to that.
But with that intentional effort and the help of the feedback through the Survey, we were able to rebuild that cultural health and improve organizational outcomes in the space of a year. And so for us, we had three lessons during that time. Firstly, don’t take your eye off culture. Like any relationship, it needs continual attention. It must be a priority. Secondly, measurement is your friend. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. And then thirdly, you can actually make a sizeable impact in the health of your organizational culture in a relatively short space of time if you’re intentional about the change you want to see. So they were our three lessons through that time.
Al: Wow, those are great lessons. Don’t take your eye off culture—absolutely. Measurement is your friend, and you have to sometimes be bold and courageous when you receive the results, as you’ve just shared. And then you’ve made a sizeable impact just in a year as you’ve come back. And we’re going to talk more about that.
But you and I have talked about the reality of every organization, that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. You’ve already really referred to that. So workplace culture has been one of your priorities, I know, for several years. And when you started on the journey, what were some of the reasons you wanted to measure the health of your workplace culture?
Deborah: We had two main reasons for wanting to measure, and that was, firstly, to understand where we’re at. I get asked all the time, “So tell me about the organizational culture. Tell me about the health of your culture.” And so for me, being able to hear that feedback through the Survey is a good testing of my own perception of how we’re going. And secondly, it was about helping us to know which strengths to leverage and which opportunities to address to make the most positive impact. And so for us, that Survey is a great way to hear the collective voice of the workforce.
And if I go back in time further, I think it’s, like, the early 2000s, we actually administered our own internally created survey because we wanted to hear the voice of our people. But what we found was, when we tried to unpack the results, we’d waste so much time debating the validity of the question, how it was worded and what did people understand that to mean and all of that, that we’d actually fail to make real progress. And so when we came across the Engagement Survey from BCW, which was administered by experts who could help us interpret the data, was aligned with what we wanted to see in our workplace culture and enabled us to benchmark with other like-minded organizations, we jumped at it because we saw that as an opportunity to focus our effort and energy in making tangible progress rather than debating the validity of the results.
Al: We see that over and over again, no question about it. That’s great. So really focusing on the outcomes, not debating the questions or the way they’re worded or could it be worded differently, that’s a big step forward.
By surveying your employees, Deb, their honest, candid feedback is something that you really were looking for. And when you did that, what did the results reveal? What did you discover?
Deborah: Yeah. When you give your people the chance, they will give you feedback. And so if I go back to that 2018 Survey, so this is kind of one example of what we heard was that they told us that we weren’t seeking their feedback enough. We weren’t consulting with them sufficiently or engaging them in discussions that would affect them. And when we saw these results and then stood back and actually thought about it, we could see that we dropped off some of those best practices that build trust and bring about better outcomes by actually engaging your people in that discussion. And so armed with that candid feedback, our managers were able to reset and be intentional about listening to their people and engaging them in the discussion that together resulted in the better outcomes.
And then last year when we resurveyed, we saw that we’d moved 40 points in that question about seeking and acting on feedback. And so for us, that was an example of hearing candid feedback; being willing to accept it; then respond in an appropriate way, not overreacting; and then making tangible progress that actually improved the health of our culture.
And then I guess for me, that’s an example of how simple it can be to intentionally build culture. I think it’s really easy sometimes to overcomplicate this. And I know at Compassion, we have an H.R. team. We’re big enough to be able to have that. But I know many organizations aren’t. And so these past couple of years have really cemented in me that it’s about the response of management. It’s not about your H.R. team, because I think managers have the biggest impact on workplace culture. And so what the Engagement Survey does for us is it puts in front of managers hints and tips on how to better leverage the power that’s in their team.
Al: Wow, that’s great. I know in the past couple of years you’ve really worked through some of these challenges. You’ve already outlined a couple of them. What would you say is maybe one unmistakable takeaway, a benefit, of surveying your people to help meet and solve your workplace challenges?
Deborah: I’ve got to say that it’s that ability to invest limited resources wisely. So it’s that intentionality, because the Survey gives you quality feedback that you can then use to work out where to focus your effort. It’s that concept of, we can’t do everything, but we can do something, so let’s make that something count. And like any workplace, we have our challenges that impact culture. But with the insights from the Survey, we’re able or more able to take quick and targeted action to address those issues before they become too big. And so to me, that’s an active stewardship, hearing the feedback and then being able to apply limited resources wisely to effect change.
Al: Yeah. I love that. And your story really sets the table, even, for this next question. I’ve always wanted to ask, today Compassion Australia’s culture is clearly solidly healthy and particularly in several measurable strengths, such as you have a sustainable strategy, inspirational leadership, healthy communication, uplifting growth. These are all really great strengths. So here’s the question: Once you had your Engagement Survey report of the measurable results, what initial steps did you take to improve your culture from that point?
Deborah: Yeah. There’s five things that we do each year now when those results come in. So we communicate them. We share them with our staff openly and honestly. The second thing we do is we put the information in the hands of our managers so that they can see both the organizational results, but also the results from their team, because that then allows them to work collaboratively with their teams to identify even just two or three things that together they can do to build healthy team culture, healthy culture. Three, at the organizational level, we look for those two or three things, also, that we can do that will flow through the organization. And again, they don’t have to be complicated. Number four is that we keep telling the stories. And so this has been part of our journey with you and hearing your advice to keep reminding ourselves of how we’re going. And so for us, part of our language now is things like, in our Survey last year, we heard you say x, y, z, and that’s why we’re about to, whatever we’re about to do. And that’s about walking in that metabolizing of learnings from the Survey; reminding ourselves that we’ve asked the question, we’ve heard feedback, we’ve carefully thought about how we best respond, and then we’re working that out. And so we try to tell the stories to link that through. And by that, we metabolize learnings. And then number five, we retake the Survey. And that’s a way of holding ourselves accountable to making progress and building trust. So it’s not just once-off thing and then a couple of years later. We’ve built it into the rhythm of our organization.
Al: Yeah. Five steps to improve your organization’s health. I love it, Deb. Thanks.
Deborah: Well, it’s taken a few years for us to work this out, but I feel like, okay, yeah, that’s working for us.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast. We’ll be right back after this brief word about a valuable tool that can pinpoint the true, measurable health of your culture.
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Al: All right. Now, let’s hear more from today’s guest.
That sounds like a good blog post to me. Okay, yeah.
As you well know, Deb, improving a culture certainly doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve been doing this for a long period of time. It really takes commitment. Where do you see some more measurable immediate growth that caused you to say, “Building a better culture can happen. Measurable progress is for real”?
Deborah: Yeah. So, just to be honest, I’m someone who can quickly fall into that trap of thinking, oh, we’ve got this gap or this area of opportunity. We’ve got to do some big initiative to address that. But so often the answer is so much more simple than that. And if I just use the example of that question in the Survey that says, is there someone who encourages my development? So my temptation is to think, oh, okay. That’s something that’s going to take a few years to work through because you’ve got to identify the development needs. Then, you’ve got to build the programs that you can provide them to develop, and then wait for them to see the outcomes. But actually, that’s just overcomplicating it. With a few simple tweaks, within the space of a year we actually made about a 42-point increase in our score in one year to that question. So can I tell you what we did?
Al: Oh, absolutely. I can’t wait to hear it.
Deborah: So we said to our managers, can you talk with your people about development? And we gave them a simple structure, a little Word document, where they could jot down their development goals for the next 12 months, some development goals in light of their longer-term career aspirations, and then some simple action steps to take this quarter to take for the coming three months. And those action steps tended to be things like read a particular business book, or meet with a team member or a contact who could help them work through a particular challenge they were facing, or to go and spend a day with another team to better understand their processes and practices. They weren’t complicated things. And now we had some teams who had taken a more thorough approach to development. But when I look at the results across teams, what I could see was even those teams that I know took that really simple approach still made measurable progress. And so to me, that was an example of how you can build culture in really simple and easy ways.
And now we’ll check again in April this year when we redo the Engagement Survey. But I’m optimistic that we’ll see that continued progress and that continued strength now, based on what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing across the organization.
Al: That’s a great example. I love it. You can build culture in simple and easy ways. And that’s a perfect story to make that point.
Let’s move on to trust and specifically trust between your leadership and staff, because that has really improved recently. What’s the story there? What did you do to go about building trust, which is such an important foundational element?
Deborah: Yeah. We were really encouraged by the progress that we saw in this space. And there were a few things that we did. But for me, it comes back to the conversation that we had with Cary, when we were unpacking the feedback and the results from our Survey. He helped us understand that trust is one of those lowest-scoring questions for organizations and is typically slow to move. And so this helped us hold it in context and set healthy expectations for ourselves.
But he also gave us a clue. So he let us know that building trust is often the byproduct of other things. And we’ve seen that now. We’ve seen that as we’ve worked on healthy communication, on accountability, developing people, we’ve seen that trust build.
But there were a couple of things we did do specifically conscious of that trust area. And I’ll share three of them with you. The first was sharing our Survey results, sharing them openly and honestly with staff, even the bits that felt uncomfortable, because I think that demonstrated that we were in this together, that we wanted to be real. Secondly, we genuinely wanted to understand what was happening. I think people could see that because we asked questions, we leant in, we listened, and we worked collaboratively on what we together wanted to do to build health. And then the third thing we did was we created the all in. And so this is where we bring all of Compassion Australia, the whole work force, together, and it’s a chance for anyone to ask any question of leadership. There’s no taboo topic. And so this was an example of us walking in and role modeling how we want to have healthy, authentic, open discussion at the organizational level. Now, of course, there’s times where there’s topics that are confidential or there’s aspects that we need to be sensitive about, but they’re fewer than we often think. And so what this is allowing us to do, and we’re still growing in our ability to do this, but it’s developing that muscle at the organizational level to have healthy, open dialog. And I think that’s helping build that trust.
Al: Wow, I really like that, Deb. And building trust, many organizations really struggle with that. But I love your three-step process here—to share the results of the survey can lead to listen to understand. That’s really a key step. And then I love the way you call it the all in, where you bring people together, and you can ask leaders candidly any question about what’s happening. That in itself is a trust-building experience. Yeah, absolutely.
As you look toward 2020, what are some of the areas inside your culture that you’re focusing on now to improve?
Deborah: Yeah. So we’re continuing in that learning of being intentional. And so far this year, we’ve got three focus areas. The first one, we’ve already done most of the heavy lifting. It’s just about embedding those new behaviors, and that one was around project execution. The second one that we’re working on this year is to do with cross-team communication, because the feedback tells us that we don’t have as good a teamwork across departments as we would like. So that’s something that together we’ve decided to get after. And the third one is about developing our managers. And so we’ve defined five core capabilities that our managers need to build healthy and high-performing teams. We’ve worked collaboratively to develop that. And now we’re going to be working with our 30 managers to develop tailored development plans around that.
Al: So five core competencies for managers at Compassion Australia. That sounds great.
I’m curious to ask, Deb: How did your leadership go about determining where to focus this last year and kind of other Survey years? What do you do to really determine what should you work on? Where do you want to focus?
Deborah: Yeah. Our leadership team here is really engaged with the feedback from the Survey. So we hear the feedback at the organizational level and then also at the team level because we want to know how we’re tracking and we don’t want to burn energy working on the wrong things. And then, also, we don’t want to limit what our organization is able to achieve because of issues in our culture. And so for us, it’s really been, through a series of discussions, of prayerful discernment to help identify, what are those key areas that will make the most change? And it was through that discussion that we landed on those three that I’ve just unpacked.
Al: So prayerful discernment as part of that process. Glad to hear it.
I’ll say it’s truly inspiring to see some of the faces and hear the stories behind the thousands of children that Compassion Australia is releasing from poverty in Jesus’s name. Is there one story, just give us a sense of the work that you do, is there one story of a child that you’d want to have us remember and pray for, and who would that child be?
Deborah: Yeah. There’s so many I could share, but let me share with you about Ratna. She’s a 15-year-old girl from Bangladesh, who managed to stop her own wedding. And so last year, on the 22nd of March, Ratna’s mother informed her that she would be married by nightfall to a boy from a neighboring village. She explained that the wedding would take place in darkness to avoid attracting too much attention, because child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh. And so through that day, Ratna considered what was ahead of her, and this young girl decided that she didn’t want this. She wanted something different. And with the help of her local church and Compassion staff, Ratna was able to stop the pre-arranged marriage, and in doing so, send a powerful message to her community. And since that day, there’s that renewed sense of confidence amongst the girls at the Child Development Center, because Ratna’s situation was a reminder to them that their local church and Compassion staff would stand up for them. And for Ratna’s family, reflecting back, her parents are now thankful that her daughter was spared from that, and her father went on to say thank you to the Compassion staff and the church for loving their child in that way. And so for me, Ratna’s story is one of hope, but it also reminds me that so many children face issues like this and others on a daily basis. And that’s why we need healthy workplace culture. That’s why we need to see our organizations be as effective as they can be, to help reach more children like Ratna.
Al: That’s fantastic. I really appreciate you sharing that.
Deb, it’s really been enjoyable to think about all the things we’ve learned today. I just look back,the way you focused on the importance of keeping culture a key focus in your organization and how you’ve been able to link the health of your culture and the outcomes that you’ve experienced, including the one you’ve just mentioned. Also, the importance of keeping an eye on culture, how measurement is your friend, and how you can make a sizeable impact in your culture with doing some simple things. Of course, I really like your five steps to building a culture, and I think we all can learn from that, by really communicating with all staff; by working through team managers with their team information and team snapshots; to having an organizational goal, maybe two to three goals for the organization overall; to remind people—we say this over and over—tell your employees that you’ve listened to them through the Survey and as a result, you’re taking action, and these are the specific action steps; and then resurvey again, absolutely, for accountability. I mean, these are all just great things that you’ve shared with us.
Is there anything else you’d really like to add to what we’ve talked about that you haven’t mentioned already?
Deborah: It’s probably just to recap just that concept of know the health of your culture and be intentional. And so for us, that Survey provides that candid feedback that enables us to then intentionally apply those limited resources towards maximum impact and that that annual cycle is that good rhythm of checking and accountability.
Al: Absolutely. And now to put a bow on the interview, how about one final thought or encouragement you’d like to leave with our listeners.
Deborah: Yeah. So my encouragement to all of us is that as leaders we have that opportunity to role model, how creating a safe and productive work environment allows us to care for both our people and results. We don’t have to choose between one or the other. And by focusing on both, we will see the impact of our organizations grow.
Al: Deborah Adams, executive director of ministry services for Compassion Australia, thank you for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for investing yourself in everyone who’s listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today.
Deborah: Thanks, Al. It’s been a real pleasure to share some of our story. And I just want to say thank you to you and your team for helping us build healthier workplaces.
Al: Thanks, Deb.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba. Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.