Sage-Gavin: Why we need culture-makers right now

By: | August 21, 2020 • 5 min read
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

I’ve never seen more people feel the call to courage. Turbulent times tend to bring forth changemakers. And they bring forth culture-makers. Who are these leaders, and what can we learn from them?

CHROs Lisa Buckingham (Lincoln Financial Group and former HRE HR Executive of the Year), Christy Pambianchi (Verizon), Ellyn Shook (Accenture) and Pat Wadors (ServiceNow) come to mind. They designed and launched People + Work Connect in just 14 days to help companies keep people employed during COVID-19, free of charge to participating organizations. Since launching, People + Work Connect has engaged 1,400-plus organizations and more than 418,000 roles across 87 countries.

Related: ‘Leading with strong values in the crisis’

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These leaders strive to better the work world for people and their organizations—across industries and geographies. They are true culture-makers.

And there is room to join them. Research shows only six out of every 100 executives are culture-makers—leaders who see profit and culture as tightly interdependent goals, equally crucial to success. I consider these leaders the very best in moving the needle on positive change in organizations.

Portrait of a Culture-Maker

Culture-makers are advocates: They are more likely to speak out on a range of issues, including gender equality (52% versus 35% of all leaders) and sexual harassment and discrimination (51% versus 30%).

Simply put, culture-makers get it: They are more in tune with the workforce. They recognize the importance of such cultural factors as pay transparency, the availability of family leave and the freedom to be creative in helping employees thrive.

Lisa Buckingham

These leaders are the same people inside and outside of work. They are truly authentic; 85% believe senior leaders who talk openly about personal hardships and challenges are more influential.

It’s not surprising that they lead organizations that are growing more than twice as fast as those of their peers. They report their sales are 2.2 times higher and their profits are 3.2 times higher.

Interestingly, they skew female and younger. They are a more gender-balanced group, since 45% are women, whereas women comprise just 32% of all the leaders we surveyed. A full 68% of them are millennials, compared to 59% of all leaders.

Let’s pause for a moment on the skewing female statistic. It does not surprise me at all and only seems fitting, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women the right to vote.

Culture-makers know differences make an organization better if they can be celebrated in a culture of inclusivity. Without that culture of inclusivity, differences are—well, just differences. Their inherent value is easily lost, as it has been so many times in companies worldwide for whom culture was an overlooked issue.

One Company, Two Cultures?

The research shows most leaders say a culture of equality is essential and that they think their organizations are inclusive. But workers feel differently.

For the past three years, Accenture asked survey participants from companies worldwide to share their perceptions of leaders’ actions around building more inclusive cultures. Out of a score of 100, rankings have remained desultory in the mid-50s for three years running.

The perception gap becomes more apparent as we dig deeper. Two-thirds of leaders (68%) feel they create empowering environments in which, for example, their people can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure. Just one third (36%) of employees agree.

As a former CHRO and now an advisor to the C-suite, I empathize with the challenges of people management, but I am also a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusivity.

Related: HR’s mandate to model diversity and inclusion

Dr. Kelly Monahan, a social scientist I partner with, gave an excellent TEDx talk in which she reminded leaders that many times, whether we inherit or “grow up” in an organizational culture, we become accustomed to it. After some time, as we attend to what seem to be more pressing issues, we fail to see certain practices are no longer serving our people—or our organization—well. Many leaders try to “fix the human” instead of fixing a broken work culture in those times. It’s no surprise that culture-makers don’t do this. They address the root issue—creating an inclusive culture that works well for people and the business.

Channeling Your Inner Culture-Maker

Pat Wadors

Beyond inclusion, culture-makers share the traits outlined by global nonprofit Catalyst for a cross-cultural leader:

Accountability. They hold team members responsible for their behavior, development and work processes. They set expectations for ongoing constructive two-way feedback. Culture-makers seek feedback as much as they give it.

Ownership. They guide team members to solve their problems and make their own decisions. They share the broader purpose and context of the work, creating a clear line of sight, to empower their people to make wise choices.

Allyship. They actively support people from underrepresented groups. This means amplifying the voices of underrepresented or marginalized groups, as well as interrupting biased behaviors.

Curiosity. They proactively seek to understand different points of view. When questioned or challenged, culture-makers allow for the possibility that it will make them and their business outcomes much better.

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Humility. They take ownership of mistakes, learn from missteps, talk to their team about their failures and model how to use them for good.

Courage. They act by their principles, even when it involves personal risk-taking or is uncomfortable.

Culture-makers know who they are. They also know what they say and do, and how they drive change, matter. Like Buckingham, Pambianchi, Shook and Wadors, they take concrete steps to enable positive, profound change. They’re the kind of people who make me proud and honored to do what I do. Here’s to culture-makers, past, present and future. Our people and our businesses are better because of them.