Investec's Lesley-Anne Gatter delivers organisational culture masterclass

This week's CHRO Community Conversation reminded HR leaders why culture is so important.

The CHRO Community Conversations, hosted in partnership with Workday, have been a great platform for HR leaders to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, blow off steam and compare notes of what it's like to be in charge of the people agenda during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Tuesday evening’s discussion was about culture and the role it plays organisations, especially when facing the reality of lockdown and working from home.

Investec's Head of People Lesley-Anne Gatter led the discussion in which she shared how the Investec culture is a significant driver of decision-making and problem-solving.

Lesley-Anne has strong views on the role culture plays when looking for answers and working towards decisions that drive the business forward and highlighted how that has played out at Investec in the Covid-19 era.

“Culture forms regardless of intent or deliberation and that’s why, at Investec, we have been very intentional and deliberate about shaping our culture. Whenever we are unsure about a way forward, we often ask ‘What would our culture say?’, and use that to guide our actions,” said Lesley-Anne. 

What does it smell like?

To illuminate the power of culture, Lesley-Anne referred to lessons from Professor Sumantra Ghoshal, a management guru who once delivered a riveting speech at the World Economic Forum in which he used the metaphor of “smell” to refer to the corporate environment and culture. He contrasted the smell of “Downtown Calcutta in Summer”, which made him feel tired due to the high temperature, with that of “Fontainebleau Forest in Spring” which made him feel revitalised and energetic, and explained how corporate environments have a similar impact on the people within them. 

Furthermore, he said top management’s strategy, organisation, process, infrastructure, and policies can create “smells” that either constrain or stretch people depending on whether they are based on compliance, control and contractual agreements or versus being hinged on support and trust.   

Culture fit more important than performance

Lesley-Anne said that, at Investec, cultural alignment is a performance criterion taken seriously and far more significant than many other criteria. 

“When people don’t have the necessary skills it’s something that can be addressed but when people don’t fit the culture it’s a much bigger problem. Competence can often be fixed. People who don't resonate with the culture will struggle to cope” she said, adding that the company has organisational development and HR consultants that are deployed into the environment to work with individuals and teams to imbue culture, coach leaders and work with team dynamics. 

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Lesley-Anne said that “culture is not something that is taken lightly nor should it be. Culture is facet of organisational life and human interaction and that engagement are significant to the system that is the organisation. Culture can mean different things to different people by way of attachment but culture, by definition, is a shared system of meaning – it is the way we do things and guides the rituals, customs and practices of the organisation.”

Key to survival 

Following Lesley-Anne’s introduction, HR leaders had the opportunity to share their experiences around organisational culture and how it had informed their decisions during Covid-19. 

Alton group executive for HR Dolores Mashishi said “one thing that we have learned for sure is that organisations that did not prepare themselves in accordance with a predetermined culture or set of values have struggled. When Covid-19 came to our shores, organisations looked inwards. They could not look outwards to their clients and partnerships. It was about everyone within the organisation pulling together in the same direction, and in cases where the communication, practices, and leadership behaviours were not aligned with the values that the organisation espoused, things went horribly wrong.”

Although Altron has been around for 54 years, Dolores said the culture reset they embarked upon in 2017 meant the company is actually closer to three years old in so far as being a company with a clearly defined culture and shared value system. This, she said, has been a significant contributor to their ability to weather the storm.

Feeling valued

Workday business development director Kiveshen Moodley said Lesley-Ann's presentation got him thinking about his own career journey because, as someone that has worked for a number of competitors in their industry, he joined Workday because of the culture. 

“People are among the pillars upon which the company is built and, with the founders being heavily involved in the daily operations of the business, I have seen first hand that it's the value that really rings true,” said Kiveshen. 

"We believe that happy employees create happy customers and that has been something that has remained a guiding principle. For example, with some of our colleagues heading back into offices, the company has communicated to us all that we shouldn't be put under pressure to return to work unless we are comfortable and safe enough to do so. Small things like that go a long way to making us feel a lot more valued by the business."

The event turned out to be more of an organisational culture masterclass from Lesley-Anne, and the attendees left feeling more invigorated to drive the values that their organisations espouse to remind leaders to lead by example when it comes to shaping the culture of their organisations.