Interview: Communications is key in sustaining a healthy culture, but cannot build it

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THE words ‘authenticity’ and ‘lip service’ are often used in conversations about company culture, but how can organisations live by their values, be true to their culture and deliver on what they say they are doing? Strategic’s editor-in-chief, Orla Clancy recently caught up with Cat Colella-Graham to hear her views.

The innovative employee engagement professional who founded Cheer Partners, an award-winning employee experience agency that helps companies transform their culture, is known for being a trusted C-suite advisor to fortune 100 leaders with a specialty in building and growing diverse, high performing teams.

When it comes to advising CEOs on company culture, she said the foundation is to cultivate trust. “Trust enables all employees to feel valued, safe and productive. It’s important to follow through on actions, and have regular conversations with employees so they feel part of the whole, not just a cog in a machine,” she said. “Psychological safety is another key pillar. If people feel safe from retribution in voicing dissenting opinions, or raising concerns, they connect on a deeper level and are apt to put more discretionary effort into aligning with their work, and the organisation.”

Colella-Graham said the smallest unit of culture is between manager and employee. She advises CEOs to empower their managers to humanise their relationships, and regularly connect with employees to socialise initiative, solicit feedback, and share the why behind all decisions.

She said in a post pandemic world, imposter leadership syndrome has become the norm. Leaders thrust into the unknown were unprepared, and focused on optics rather than substance. They say all the right things, but do not follow through on them because they feel they can fake it until they make it.

“Authenticity is so important because it allows leaders to be vulnerable, and when they don’t have the answer, to admit it and socialise with their colleagues a way forward. The rise in optics over substance has disillusioned many employees and is a factor in the great resignation we witnessed,” she said. “The leaders who are authentic, and vulnerable, are modelling level 5 leadership, and their organisations are thriving. Those who are trying to be the oracle and share internal and external narratives of bravado, lose trust and engagement.”

When asked how central communications is in having a strong company culture, she said, “The old adage you cannot over communicate is long gone. Particularly in the last two years, communicators have started listening to employees more than ever before, and realise not everything rises to the level of communication,” she said. “Content, cadence, candour and creativity matter to engage employees in the fabric of the culture, and two-way communication where employees are feeding the content matters. Communications is key in sustaining a healthy culture, but cannot build it.”

When it comes to communicating company culture, internally and externally, the best place to start is with purpose, according to Colella-Graham. She often advises clients to create a credo, which focuses on who the company is, what they value, and their commitments to employees, customers, community and investors. “The spray and pray photos of company meetings, wins, or service days is not going to accurately communicate your culture. Ultimately, if you have a solid foundational approach, leaders, employees and all your stakeholders should be able to communicate your culture,” she said. 

Change has been a constant, and culture can change with leadership, acquisitions, growth and more. “Culture, like any living organism, needs care and nurturing. If you find your culture is not healthy, or feedback you receive is that what is said is not lived, consider a cultural DNA analysis,” she said. The outcome, said Colella-Graham, will give you what is static about your culture and must remain intact, and what can change. You then have a blueprint of your culture as it is now, and how you can engage multiple stakeholders to shape it into what works for your organisation.”