Winning Workplace Cultures: An Imperative for Enabling Business Success

We’ve long known that culture and its day-to-day climate influence business outcomes and results. They affect how we, as individuals feel, behave and perform. More recently, sound science and corporate numbers show that culture drives performance… and leadership drives culture.   

I talked with leading Canadian executives in the private and public sectors, researchers and authors.  Common themes emerged across these diverse worlds. Bottom line: healthy, high-performing, innovative workplace cultures enable business success.  A winning culture is truly the ultimate competitive advantage.

With our interviewees’ insights, I will paint the current picture, identify obstacles and enablers, highlight solutions and speak to the business case; we will pull together key tips to build and/or strengthen healthy, winning cultures.

“…culture starts with a defined set of behaviours and the values that govern it  –  behaviours that are then reinforced, communicated, and aligned throughout the organization.  And driving those behaviours is leadership.…2013 winners of ‘Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures’ outpaced the S&P/TSX 60 by an average of 400 per cent, in terms of a three-year compound annual growth rate.” –  M. Parker, CEO Waterstone Capital and author of Culture Connection        

“The best path to achieving a sustainable competitive advantage in a dynamic marketplace is through the development of an innovative and winning corporate culture” – Darren Entwistle, President & CEO, TELUS Corporation (which generated a 135% shareholder return over ten years) in Culture Connection

What is the Current Picture in the Work Place?

Waterstone’s research proves there is not one picture, but many. Bonnie Adamson, CEO of London Health Sciences Centre agrees. “There is a lot of diversity in workplace environments, even within the same organization. It’s all about culture. Culture is an outcome of leadership styles, beliefs and values at all levels. To achieve a healthy work environment, one that is safe for people emotionally and from a team perspective, leaders must create a culture in which people can speak up, be trusted and respected and empowered to do the best they can. People must be able to fulfil their purpose….They must take personal accountability to align with the organization’s values, but leaders must ensure their people have the resources and supportive relationships. Employees must be able to engage, collaborate and feel safe.”

Senator Michael Kirby, Chair of the Canadian Mental Health Commission, says “mental health issues are costing up to $50 billion yearly in Canada. Employers pay out of the bottom line; many don’t acknowledge the problems…of absenteeism…and ‘presenteeism’…people not working at levels they are capable of….The incidence and cost of workplace mental health issues is increasing…and so is the urgency to act.”

Mary Deacon is head of Bell’s Mental Health Initiative. Bell has been a major corporate funder of the work of the Canadian Mental Health Commission and a number of mental health stakeholders across Canada to develop a voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. The standard was launched in January, 2013. Deacon, who previously headed the CAMH Foundation, says stress is the leading cause of absences (500,000 people off work on a given day; the single largest category of short-term disability claims at 30%, representing 70% of costs; disability costs at 4-12% of payroll; drugs for depression and anxiety as the most rapidly rising component of drug plans). She emphasizes, “…the biggest issue is getting the Standard adopted.”

Waterstone’s Parker cites Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan as a notable success. “What aligns them is their pension promise….They know who they are. HOOPP is one of the best workplace environments. People feel good because their work involves taking care of other people.” During a time of significant changes, HOOPP collaboratively developed a crisp, focused strategy. They supported their people by building leadership capability, resilience and agility for change. Several charities benefited from their significant corporate social responsibility efforts. Despite global trends towards pension shortfalls, Parker states, “HOOPP’s performance was, and continues to be, incredible.”

What are the Obstacles and Enablers?

First key obstacles: In Waterstone’s 2011 Corporate Culture Study, over 90% said leadership is the number one contributor to culture, that culture is the number one contributor to performance…and, therefore, leadership drives performance.”  Yet Parker says “sometimes leaders forget or they get too busy….They don’t take time to assess and know themselves and their organizations; they try to change the culture too quickly….They don’t have a broader leadership team that drives change through their own behaviours.”

Alignment of culture with the business strategy, mission, vision and values was often cited as an obstacle. Sanjay Malaviya is CEO of RL Solutions, which provides patient safety and infection surveillance software for 9 of the top 10 US academic medical centres, and over 1300 hospitals world-wide. He says personal ambition, building personal brand and putting personal achievements ahead of the company’s or team’s goals can get in the way in many organizations.  Some environments, of necessity, are complicated in terms of where the power lies, where decisions are made and how complex the goals are. Individuals can find it challenging to know what the team is trying to achieve and to build supportive relationships with co-workers and bosses.”

Other obstacles mentioned included: conflicting priorities, volume of priorities and business demands; years of ingrained culture; longer-term pay-off of efforts; generational differences and lack of understanding and tolerance; the mental health stigma which continues; and lastly, leadership. “When an organization’s leaders say something is a priority, things happen,” Deacon says.

Next, enablers of winning, healthy cultures: Malaviya says “people need to believe the success of the organization is directly related to their success; they need to have clear goals they can believe in.”

Brian Hughes is VP of Human Resources for JMP Engineering, recently recognized as one of the ‘Top 50 Great Places to Work in Canada’. Hughes points to the importance of “open dialogue with employees where people feel comfortable to have the conversations and deal with conflicts and differences of opinion. We need to enable the conversations…explain our healthy workplace strategy and set expectations for treating people equitably.”

Leadership was frequently cited as a primary enabler. Adamson identifies as key, leaders who are willing and able to make this shift to a winning culture, see it as their accountability and will take action to drive the transformation.

Dr. Mamta Gautam, psychiatrist, consultant and author of The Tarzan Rule, points to other catalysts that can encourage action. “A critical incident with a faculty member’s health at a university’s medical school precipitated development of an innovative wellness program for physicians.”  She speaks to success generated by “level 5 leadership…leaders that…truly care about their people.”

What are the Solutions for Achieving a Healthy, Winning Culture?

The solutions posed by interviewees can be grouped under four categories:

Mission, vision and cultural alignment

Alex Robertson is Executive Director of Sick Kids’ Camp Oochigeas which runs camps for kids with cancer. He identified as critical “knowing our mission is meeting a need and having staff and volunteers feel connected to the mission so they understand what we are doing.” He talks about how they “stay fresh, relevant, connected to the community by ensuring the community, alumni, donors and the parents are involved in development of the mission. It’s the ‘connection thing’. Staff and volunteers thrive when they are deeply involved in achieving the mission and funding it.”  

Hughes emphasizes collectively defining and sharing a clear picture of what the workplace will look like, with vivid descriptions and clear behavioural expectations, so people know what they are moving toward. “Make culture part of your branding….people want to work with leading companies and successful people.”

Values, behaviours and communication

Values, as well as mission and vision, drive behaviour. “The number one thing,” says Malaviya, is to establish trust so everyone will trust management and one another….Ask yourself after each decision, what drove the decision? Was I caring about myself, the team, individuals? If you are honest, the answers are telling. Also important is doing things together outside of day-to-day work and creating a sense of comfort and connection with the people you work with.”

Hughes points to JMP’s focus on employee engagement. “We looked at surveys and our own systems; we asked employees for input and responded as best we could to their needs. We explained where we couldn’t act. Our trust survey showed employees trust that we will do what we say and that builds engagement.”

“Values, mission and vision must be communicated in a variety of formats, more verbally than ever before,” says Parker. “Generation X and Y grew up as kids with phones at the table…. we must work hard to engage them, cut through and hold their attention. We need to let them have a voice,  challenge the status quo…and see us react.” 

Learning and training

Education and training is needed, in any change, to help people adapt and align. The learning can involve mindsets, skills, behaviours and practices. Sharing the evidence…data on costs of doing and not doing…helps influence mindsets and get buy-in and commitment.

Deacon highlighted management training as the single biggest game changer in Bell’s healthy workplace efforts. She cited a Conference Board report that uncovered interesting information re the disparity between what employers and managers think. “Managers felt equipped to deal with employees with mental health issues. Employees said no! The training sessions were an eye-opener. Feedback showed managers feel more confident and knowledgeable after the training.”

Leadership and Self-Awareness

Parker draws on Socrates…”Know thyself…and thy culture. We need to take time to assess, to understand the current state….it’s like turning an aircraft carrier in the Welland Canal…we need to go slowly and carefully…to start with areas of strength which people rally round, before going to the next level, to more aspirational items.”

Adamson believes the most important task of the CEO is to create an environment that enables employees to be the best they can be…to ensure changes to structures, processes and systems that support their performance and learning.” She says, “In an organization of 10,000 people, the commitment of the senior management team is critical to sustainment. The CEO may be the driver, but the senior team must live and breathe the changes and help cascade them through the system.”

What are First Steps to Evolve to a Winning, Healthy Culture?

Interviewees identified first steps in three areas:

Mission, vision and values

Mission defines who and what we are. Vision captures our preferred future. Alignment is critical to success…alignment of our culture, our strategic goals and priorities, plus alignment of the contributions and performance of employees to our mission and vision. A clear vision of what a high-performing culture looks and feels like for each organization is critical.

Values that drive respectful, trusting behaviours are central to a winning, healthy work culture…one that cannot be replicated and one that differentiates us. Malaviya advises focusing on “making sure people respect each other at all times. You demonstrate respect by being open with results, numbers, personal goals…I try to be an open book…one behaviour at a time, but over time people realize they can trust you and that builds respect.”

Gautam emphasizes the importance of communicating and raising awareness about any change. With healthy workplaces and wellness, “we often don’t know when we are not healthy, when stress is increasing. It is helpful to have some programs or tools available….It’s about talking openly about workplace health and normalizing stress….none of us is immune.”  It’s better to intervene earlier, for our health and for cost reduction.

Embedded Change Framework

Healthy workplace culture is not a program. It needs to be integrated into everything we do: talent management, compensation and benefits, recognition and celebration…and into our structure. Deacon says: “At Bell, we started our healthy workplace effort with the help of the Standards guide, ‘Psychological Health and Safety: An Action Guide for Employers.’ The guide builds mental health literacy and identifies the right concrete first steps for us. We trained managers and sought their feedback. We also looked at changes to our ‘return to work’ process. We are continuing training and extending new offerings and tools.”


So many have said it all starts with leadership.  Adamson identified key starting steps: “Truly listen to issues of the frontline and follow through with change or help them to understand implications; empower staff to take risks and make it safe for them to bring ideas forward and implement; and harness the power of frontline and interdisciplinary teams.” Adamson states, “High-performance teams must start at the top, then cascade throughout the organization.  The healthier the work environment, the more engaged employees and teams are and the more positive the outcomes for patient care and efficiency…..Receptivity for such change also starts at the top.”  

Why is Building the Business Case so Tough and What’s to be Done?

Interviewees identified several challenges regarding the business case: there are always other priorities; our focus is on the short term; the issue is off our radar. Hughes says, “We rush around, so focused on today’s outcomes and results. We must still make the work environment supportive and responsive…. we must make it part of the urgency” to get performance and results.

So what’s to be done. The list of benefits achievable with a winning, healthy workplace is long:  recruitment and retention of talent, employee health; reduced costs of STD, LTD and absenteeism; personal, family and social costs; employee engagement; client satisfaction; and brand marketing and reputation in the community. All of these also contribute to business success.

“Research  shows highly engaged employees contribute to the bottom line,” says Dr. Ian Arnold, advisor to the Mental Health Commission. He advises several ways to increase the urgency to act. “First, there is a significant cost benefit of a healthy culture (See Guarding Minds at Work.). A healthy workplace also provides competitive advantage and meets increasing public expectations. Finally, it is important to measure as we change; employee engagement is an early indicator of change as we improve workplace health.”

To create a compelling business case, we must gather the research and communicate so the right people can hear. We must share successes; be willing to pilot, monitor and adjust; utilize executive sponsors and change champions, recognize and celebrate…and persevere!

Parting Advice and Concluding Insights

Interviewees provided “parting advice” for CEO’s wishing to embark on this culture-building journey. In their words:

  • Understand your existing culture; it starts by lots of listening, engaging, assessing who you are….Evaluate the level of tolerance for change. (Parker) Look at this shift over the longer term…and be persistent.” (Gautam)
  • Create a shared, clear vision of what you want the new culture to look like, how to grow the business, what opportunities to create for employees. With a clear vision and employees being successful and contributing input, any CEO can lead an organization to success. (Hughes)  
  • Be honest about why you are changing your culture and, most importantly, your own leadership abilities to model the culture you want.” (Malaviya)
  • Ensure leadership capacity to lead and sustain the change….it must be driven by the CEO, supported by a strong, fully committed senior team; provide education to help people adapt and align.” (Adamson)
  • Take care of your team and your people…ensure they feel connected to one another and to the organization’s purpose.” (Robertson)
  • Build a strong management system and framework, agreed to by all key stakeholders, to tackle the stigma and to train managers….Pick some things and get started!” (Deacon)

A final thought: Creating a winning, healthy workplace culture is the right thing to do…for employees, the organization and society.


About the Author

Joanne Reid is Managing Partner of JReid Consulting, a strategy and organizational change firm based in London, Ontario.