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Is it time for a culture check-up?

Organizations are increasingly recognizing that culture is far more than just a buzzword.
By: | January 27, 2020 • 9 min read
organizational culture

When Lisa Bettinger Buckingham took the HR reigns at Lincoln Financial Group in December 2008, the financial-services industry was struggling to survive a global economic crisis that many economists today believe brought the world to the brink of a second Great Depression. Just weeks into Buckingham’s tenure, the Radnor, Pa.-based insurance and investment-management company laid off 12% of workers in its Lincoln Financial Distributors division. A few months later, Lincoln announced it would accept $950 million in capital as part of the government’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), made a public offering of $600 million of common stock and sold Lincoln National plc, its United Kingdom unit that sold life insurance and retirement-income products.

Already a 20-year HR veteran, Buckingham—who currently serves as executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer and, in 2017, was named HRE‘s HR Executive of the Year—wasn’t surprised to find morale was low among Lincoln’s then-8,500 employees (Lincoln’s workforce is now 12,000). While she and the rest of the management team were confident the company would weather the storm, Buckingham knew the workforce would have to be engaged and motivated to rebuild once the dust had settled. Yet, she was concerned about Lincoln’s prevailing culture, which she describes as, “That’s how we do it. This is what we do. We’ve done it this way forever.” For the high-energy Buckingham, who left her position as senior vice president, global talent at Thomson Reuters to come to Lincoln, that simply wasn’t going to cut it.

A firm believer in building a strong team, Buckingham brought Chief Diversity Officer Allison Green onboard in 2009 to help implement the changes she believed would not only engage Lincoln’s workforce to help the company emerge from the financial crisis, but become a destination employer for the best and brightest in the financial-services industry. Accomplishing that goal would entail cultivating a best-in-class organizational culture, an absolute must for any organization that wants to succeed, according to Dave Whittington, partner at Calliope Learning, a Victoria, British Columbia-based company focused on leadership and learning.

“High-functioning organizations have this wonderful symbiotic relationship between their organizational strategy and their organizational culture, where the strategic objectives of the organization are supported by the culture, and the culture supports the delivery of the strategic objectives,” says Whittington. “A lot of organizations claim they value their culture and consider it a key to their future success but, if you are not measuring it, how do you know that for sure?”

See also: 2020 vision on 2020 corporate culture

The notion of measuring culture is a challenging one, primarily because it has long been regarded as “too intangible, subjective and elusive to track,” according to Greg Besner, vice chairman and founder of CultureIQ, a New York-based provider of culture-management software. Yet, as business leaders—and HR executives, in particular—are increasingly recognizing the role culture plays in determining an organization’s success or failure, there has emerged an understanding of the need to effectively measure it.

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“Measuring the culture at your company means understanding how your HR policies, programs and benefits impact everything from employee productivity and retention to your company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen,” says Annmarie Neal, chief human resources officer at Ultimate Software in Weston, Fla. “Measuring the return on cultural investments can feel more intangible than measuring the ROI of implementing a new product or system, but when you invest in putting your people first, the impact on the business is invaluable.”

Avenues of Measurement

Recognizing the need for a streamlined framework, a number of consulting firms and software vendors have developed processes and platforms for measuring the components that typically comprise an organization’s culture. While surveying the workforce—from top to bottom—is the predominant means of gathering such information, which components are measured varies from tool to tool, says Whittington. Deciding which one to use is a matter of “finding the right fit.” A values-driven organization would be better served by using a cultural-values assessment, he says, while a more technically oriented company is likely to get more bang for the buck by employing a quantitative approach.

At Lincoln Financial, four measures comprise its “engagement index”—passion, effort, advocacy and retention. Originally, Lincoln management scoffed at Buckingham’s proposal to include a passion measure, but she fought to keep it—and won.

“There was a view in the organization that it seemed weak or light-hearted, so I had to make a very big case to include it,” recalls Buckingham. “How I broke it down was, ‘How do you feel on a daily basis when you are driving into work or taking the train or going to your office in your house? What keeps your passion alive?’ ”

Lincoln employs a number of avenues for gathering culture-related data. These include a biannual all-employee survey, periodic culture and engagement pulse checks, and culture input sessions, consisting of 60-minute conversations about Lincoln’s culture with employees and leaders at all levels and in all areas of the business. This year, the company will pilot “daily culture pulse checks” with Vohtr Inc. using kiosks in three of its 12 city locations. Each day, a new question will be posed to all employees who choose to visit the kiosk. Some questions will be fun in nature and are intended to spark a conversation or connection, while other questions will be specific to Lincoln’s progress against strategic, cultural and engagement goals. The resulting data will be aggregated and available in real time.

“In this digital age, where everything is on your phone, we chose to have kiosks because we wanted something employees could feel and touch and go up to and be seen giving feedback,” says Green. “They can see all the responses of what people are saying, and we can use the data in real time to help us pivot, if necessary, around initiatives and practices and as we are thinking about rolling out new programs or positioning messages.”

Communicating both good and bad responses is important, but maintaining confidentiality is key to ensuring high participation and honest feedback, says David Shanklin, managing director of culture solutions for New York-based CultureIQ. “Measuring culture in an anonymous or confidential way is important because it’s not always safe to speak up, or we may be hesitant to share with leaders our views on the frontlines,” he says.

With that in mind, Buckingham’s team doesn’t provide a team-specific report based on the engagement and pulse surveys to any leader with fewer than eight people in their organization. Instead, those responses are rolled up into the next level. She credits this approach for enabling Lincoln to achieve participation rates of 88% to 98%.

More Than a Snapshot

At Ultimate Software, three annual surveys help the company assess if it is living up to its “people-first” culture. According to Neal, this “regular cadence of surveys” provides “strategic, recurring opportunities to check in with employees around the world.”

In addition to posing questions related to how employees feel about their overall experience—if they’re happy at work, whether the company’s programs and benefits are effective, etc.—the surveys focus on daily interactions between managers and employees, the effectiveness of communication and the development of leaders. The surveys are primarily comprised of open-ended questions, says Neal, because that allows employees to provide “honest, personalized feedback, rather than having to tailor their answers to predetermined responses.”

At Lincoln, continuous measurement helps mitigate one of Buckingham’s concerns: that data collected at a specific cadence could be skewed by recent events or the mood of the employee on a specific day. “When you are taking a pulse survey or a biannual survey or an annual survey, I always wonder whether the results are because of where they are in that moment in time or whether they are really taking that thoughtful step back,” she says.

Buckingham’s concern is a legitimate one, according to Susan Chu, founder of Philadelphia-based Culture Crush. “Engagement or climate is a snapshot, a moment in time, whereas culture is the implicit and passive aspects of the company, the stuff that’s underneath that you just know and feel and it’s understood,” she says.

Related: See CultureCrush in this tech spotlight

Recognizing that culture measurement can’t just be an annual or even biannual event, Buckingham led the initiative to create a Culture and Engagement function within Diversity and Inclusion to fulfill her vision of evolving “engagement being synonymous with a survey event to it being part of the way [Lincoln does] business and work[s] together every day.” Launched in 2019, the function is responsible for “diagnosing, measuring, and enhancing [Lincoln’s] organizational culture and engagement levels.”

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In Seattle, Wash., Tammy Perkins, chief people officer at Pacific Market International, agrees that surveys are just the beginning when it comes to measuring culture. “Throughout the year,” she says, “you need to create different types of touchpoints, so you aren’t relying solely on some big annual survey that’s more activity than impact. It’s part of the rhythm of the business.”

On a continuous basis, Perkins and her team seek to “activate channels of communication and find ways to gauge and assess the pulse of the environment.” In addition to inviting employee participation and feedback, that includes looking at metrics related to performance, rewards, attrition, diversity, advancement opportunities, succession planning, turnover cost per hire, referral rates and more. Externally, Perkins looks to Glassdoor feedback to help compile a reliable picture of PMI’s culture.

“It’s an ongoing leadership initiative,” says Perkins. “It’s not just the fact that you are measuring the culture that’s valuable; it’s the message it sends that management is listening and holding itself accountable, as you take a regular employee pulse as the basis for your culture assessment.”

Whatever tools an organization employs to measure their culture, it’s imperative that the resulting data are used to enact visible change, says Shanklin. People are typically more than willing to share their thoughts, he says, but only if they see action being taken as a result of employee feedback.

Since Buckingham’s arrival, Lincoln’s approach has evolved from “measure” to “celebrate and fix” and is currently in the process of becoming “elevate,” which entails arming leaders with specific practices they can adopt to make improvements and then holding them accountable. Ultimately, Buckingham says, the goal is to get to a place where Lincoln’s approach to culture and engagement is best-in-class, where “values, behaviors and practices that promote increasing levels of engagement are the cultural norm.”

While HR typically leads the effort, Buckingham says, it’s important not to view culture as merely the purview of HR. It requires the commitment, support and participation of the entire business, not just to undertake a culture measurement, but to use the resulting data to improve the organization.

“For those that are trying to learn about culture, they have to really embed themselves with the business and their CEO and leadership team and make sure they are all working towards the same goal,” says Buckingham. “If you are measuring your culture and your engagement and you see themes and you are not addressing those, you’re going to lose out.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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