Interview: Human interaction key to company culture

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DURING a recent conversation with Strategic’s editor-in-chief, Orla Clancy, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) CEO Alastair McCapra said company culture isn’t a problem to be solved, it is like a garden that needs constant watering, weeding and pruning. 

As CEO you are chief culture officer. In many organisations CEOs have traditionally been more focused on tangible outputs such as programme delivery, financial success and customer satisfaction. ‘Culture’ was whatever got you those outputs,” he said. “Now more organisations are looking at this the other way round – if you want to be resilient, sustainable and successful over the long term, you’ve got to attend closely to what it feels like to work in your organisation.”

McCapra said you can’t be serious about EDI without committing to culture change. “The slow progress we see in many places in equality, diversity and inclusion doesn’t necessarily come from an unwillingness to tackle those things – it’s just that they can’t be tackled unless you put time, and effort into how you and your colleagues behave, communicate and interact with everyone, all the time. Many organisations approach EDI as ‘how do we carry on as we are but with more diversity?’ You don’t.”

While virtual working makes culture both harder and more vital, McCapra said the CIPR has been 100 per cent virtual for two and a half years. “We’ve had to become much more explicit in expectations, direct in our approach to problems, and determined not to let uncomfortable things slip by. People won’t pick up by osmosis all the things they might have done in an office environment in the past,” he said. 

The conversation inevitably moved to achieving genuine culture in organisations. McCapra dislikes the term ‘authenticity’ – he thinks it’s too much to ask. “Recently, a CEO in Ohio posted a selfie of himself crying because he had to make employees redundant. Was he being ‘authentic’?, he asked. “I certainly hope so, but did his authenticity gain him any support? No, he was derided by thousands of people around the world. His authenticity, if that’s what it was, was not welcome. Some people thought he should be tough enough to deal with these situations if he was a CEO. Others thought he was attention-seeking and trying to deflect sympathy away from the workers who had lost their jobs. Do CEOs forfeit their right to be ‘authentic’ because of their positions? How should we encourage everyone else to be authentic if we should not permit ourselves to be authentic too?,” he asked.

McCapra said that while many say you should bring ‘your whole self’ to work – and he believes people should not feel they have to conceal vulnerabilities with their colleagues – he asks people to bring ‘their best self’ to work. The best of their endeavour, patience, creativity, and willingness to collaborate. “We’re not all at our best all the time, but I think we should be asking people to bring the best game they can, rather than bringing along every bit of baggage and bad habits and expecting others to work with it, or around it. As CEO what I seek to offer my colleagues is not my ‘whole’ or ‘authentic’ self, but the best of the bits that will be useful to them, and an honesty about what I’m not personally well-equipped to deal with,” he said. 

He continued by saying that ‘lip service’ is easy to slip into when you feel pressure to make a statement of good intent but don’t really have much idea how to follow it up. “People have been saying ‘we have much more to do’ on diversity and inclusion for more than a decade now. Whenever people say that, I want to ask them ‘ok so what have you actually done?’,” he said. “In many organisations the mantra of needing to do more has turned into a cover for doing little or nothing. It has become ‘lip service’, perhaps unintentionally, because, as I said above, if you want to make your organisation diverse and inclusive you have to tackle culture as a whole and some CEOs find that unfamiliar or difficult territory.”

McCapra is hopeful that the current rise in ESG reporting will help us find a way forward here. “If you hold yourself accountable on a much wider range of metrics than are covered by a traditional company report, you have starting points that allow you to work back and see what needs to be changed,” he said.

When it comes to the role of communications in culture, McCapra said that an organisation (like CIPR) can work without an office. An organisation (though not a business) can work without any money, but the only thing it must have is communication between people. “The old command-and-control model of a company was based on the military, but that won’t work for most modern organisations. You establish your culture through communication and you maintain it through more communication,” he said. 

A company culture has to be based around no more than four or five common values that the team should be involved in crafting, said McCapra. These have to be based on your purpose, but they have to explicitly focus on how people are expected to interact with each other. “It’s a culture, not a cult, so don’t try to prescribe everything. In an increasingly virtual world there is a real value in human interaction and the time you spend together is critical for establishing your norms and expectations,” he said.