Culture Washing

Banks, Parliament, Cricket Australia, Political Parties, religious bodies, the ABC – the list of national institutions that have come under fire for failed governance and even worse behaviour continues to grow. Commentators are blaming a lack of “culture” within these organisations.

Some Boards end up washing their dirty laundry in public….. Image Source: Max Pixel

Already we are seeing a “culture” movement, which will inevitably lead to “culture washing”, akin to “green washing”, and other examples of lip service being paid to stakeholder issues.

Just this past week, the interim report of the Banking Royal Commission prompted the Federal Treasurer to say that banks need a “culture of enforcement and a culture of compliance”. I can already imagine the “culture checklists” and the “culture assessment” surveys and feedback forms….

There are consulting firms building “culture risk” assessment tools. There may even be some empirical evidence to suggest that companies with better employee engagement and “culture” can generate better share price performance. Even the AICD is getting in on the act with its upcoming directors’ update on how boards can gain “insights on culture”, and how to set the “tone from the top”.

(Actually, all any director needs to do to monitor the “culture” of their organisations is to track social media and sites such as Glassdoor, Whirlpool, Product Review, etc..)

But corporate and organisational “culture” is organic, and cannot be built by design. It is a combination of strong leadership and core values that everyone in the organisation is willing to commit to and adhere to. It also means ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, and the consequences of failing to meet those standards are clear.

As for employee engagement surveys, one of my colleagues likes to say, “The only question to ask is: ‘Would you recommend this organisation as a place to work, and if not, why not?’” Another colleague regularly says to his own teams, “If this is no longer a fun place to work, then let me know”.

Next week: Why don’t we feel well off?

 

Startup Governance

The recent debacle involving LaunchVic and 500 Startups comes at a time when startups and entrepreneurs are facing increased public scrutiny over their ethical behaviour. Having a great idea, building an innovative or disruptive business, and attracting investors is not carte blanche to disregard corporate governance and social responsibility obligations. So how do we instil a better “moral compass” among startups and their founders?

The TV sitcom, “Silicon Valley”, is drawn from experience of the software industry, but it also reveals much that ails the startup economy. As funny as it is, the series also highlights some painful truths. Scenes where founders “trade” equity in their non-existent companies are just one aspect of how startups can develop an over-inflated sense of their own worth. These interactions also reveal how startups can reward inappropriate behaviour – if sweat equity is the only way founders can “pay” their team, it can lead to distorted thinking and impaired judgement, because the incentive to go along with poor decision-making is greater than the threat of any immediate sanction.

A key challenge for any startup is knowing when to seek external advice – not just legal, tax or accounting services, but an independent viewpoint. Many startups don’t bother (or need) to establish a board of directors – and if they do, they normally consist of only the founders and key shareholders. The role of independent, non-executive directors is probably under-valued by startups. But even an advisory board (including mentors who may already be guiding the business) would allow for some more formal and impartial debate.

Another challenge for startups is that in needing to attract funding, they can find themselves swimming with the sharks, so doing due diligence on potential investors is a critical task in building a sustainable cap table that will benefit the longer term aims of the business.

Equally, if startup founders are motivated to “do their own thing”, because they are driven by purpose or a higher cause, or they simply want to make a difference, they can risk having to compromise their values in order to engage with bigger, more-established companies. So they may end up emulating the very behaviours they sought to change or challenge. Neither startups nor big corporations have a monopoly on unethical behaviour, but if founders stray from their original founding principles, they will soon alienate their stakeholders.

Finally, nurturing the “conscience” of a startup is not something that should be left to the founder(s) alone. The vision has to be shared with, and owned by everyone involved, especially as the business scales. Everything should be measured or tested against this criteria – “does it stay true to or enhance our reason for being here?” Without a clear sense of what is important to a startup, it will also struggle to convey its core value proposition.

Next week: Digital Richmond

 

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

“I’m old, not obsolete”

In the recent “Terminator” sequel, Arnold Schwarzenegger coins a new catchphrase: “I’m old, but I’m not obsolete”. He may not be the latest android, but he has learned to adapt, he is still relevant and his purpose remains consistent. A bit like older workers, then: not ready to be consigned to the scrap-heap, consistent and reliable, and even capable of being upgraded (as Arnie is towards the end of the film).

Terminator Genisys

Remaining relevant is tough, even for a Terminator….  (Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures)

A great deal of the discussion on employee engagement, business productivity, workplace flexibility and career transition talks about what we do with older employees, particularly those in their 50’s, who often struggle to find comparable work when they are retrenched or “restructured”.

Many 50-somethings can vouch for the fact that making a career transition into another full-time role can be extremely difficult. In my own case, I left my last corporate position just after I turned 50, and I soon realised it would be virtually impossible to find the exact same or similar permanent role elsewhere. So I embarked on a portfolio of interests (non-executive board positions, consulting work, contract roles and entrepreneurship) in order to remain “economically active”.

Over the past four years, in order to remain active, retrain and build my professional networks, I have:

  • completed the AICD Company Director course
  • served on a number of advisory and pop-up boards
  • launched this weekly blog, and written for 3rd party sites
  • coached business owners and entrepreneurs
  • competed in a FinTech hackathon and a MedTech startup competition
  • consulted in the education, public, NFP, publishing, manufacturing, technology and professional services sectors
  • joined numerous MeetUp and networking groups
  • participated in the Lightning Conference on Victoria’s StartUp Future
  • developed a new app for employee performance management,
  • trained as a presenter on community radio, and
  • become a participant and adviser at the Slow School of Business.

As part of my plan to become familiar with new technology, I have also built a side-project to record and release my own music via Bandcamp and Soundcloud, incorporating many iOS apps for which I am a beta-tester.

Not all of this activity is remunerated, yet the people I work with all tell me how much they value my unique input and original insight, and so I keep on doing it. Given the need/expectation to work longer, and the continued tinkering with tax, super and income rules and policies, I’m not sure many of us can ever think about full-time “retirement” (whatever that now means).

I’m aware that there are some ad hoc initiatives to engage older workers as mentors for new entrants to the workplace. While such projects are well-meaning, and may have some desirable benefits, they are not yet financially sustainable, and don’t address the core issue that the expectation of full-time, permanent, lifelong employment is no longer realistic, and we will all have to adapt to these new circumstances.

On the few occasions I have considered full-time roles, I am staggered that so many prospective employers seem incapable of thinking outside the box: on the one hand, they say they want diversity and fresh thinking; but on the other, they resort to the habit of appointing square pegs for square holes.

There is a real sense among many of my peers that their age counts against them, because either employers don’t believe they can learn new technology or processes, or that their previous seniority means they are only interested in roles where they can wait out their retirement, or simply “direct traffic”, rather than getting their hands dirty. Which is both insulting and demoralising. I recall one early discussion where the recruitment consultant said, “despite what the ad says, the business just wants a safe pair of hands – someone who has done the exact same role in a similar organisation for the past 20 years”. How does that support diversity, in particular, cognitive diversity?

So, my question to employers, hiring managers, industry bodies and policy-makers is: when will you truly embrace the challenge of (and opportunity for) change in your hiring and employment practices, and how do older age workers fit into your thinking (if at all)?

Next week: Startups, VC’s and Entrepreneurs