Stan Slap puts culture in the spotlight during CHRO Community Conversation

Renowned thought leader Stan Slap discussed maximising commitment to culture during tough times

All attention was on Stan Slap in a highly pertinent and entertaining CHRO Community Conversation, made possible by Workday. The author of two New York Times best-selling books (Under the Hood and Bury My Heart at Conference Room B) plus a third in the pipeline, Stan is a San Francisco-based culture expert who has helped the likes of Google and Deloitte ramp up their performance by putting culture front and centre.

CHRO community manager Sungula Nkabinde rightly introduced Stan as “a culture fundi”. Founder and CEO of an international consulting company called SLAP, Stan was the first to identify company culture as an independent organism that exists to protect itself, and he is also the first to distinguish between managing culture and general employee culture.

Joined by Warren Maasdorp, who is SLAP’s senior vice president and runs the company’s African business unit, Stan kicked off the Community Conversation with a fascinating presentation titled: “Tough Times: Tougher Teams”.

During the presentation, Stan explained how culture is the key to move from an environment of surviving to one of thriving. To introduce his point, he showed the audience a black and white image of a man in uniform. This was Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a Prussian field marshal and military strategist, who famously said, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength.”

“The enemy you're dealing with is the fierce turbulence of uncertainty – in which you have to land a human capital strategy. You feel like a blind man in a dark room, searching for a black cap that isn't there,” said Stan.

According to Stan, even the smartest companies in the world subscribe to the most dangerous strategic myth: strategy must be planned well to be successful, when, in fact, a strategy has to be implemented well. “That starts with being able to enrol your culture with ferocious support of that strategy, transformation, or performance goal. If you can do that, you're well on your way to achieving strategic success.”

Stan pointed out that, for many CHROs, recruiting and retaining top talent, adapting them to change, and creating behaviours of accountability and high performance, are still top priorities. But to get people to stick with you and urge others to do the same is the million-dollar question – even more so in an uncertain, pandemic-driven world.

“In a perfect world, your culture would immediately grasp the logic of these strategies and devote itself wholeheartedly towards achieving them,” said Stan. “In the real world, neither business logic nor management authority will ever convince an employee culture to adopt a corporate cause as if it were its own.”

Welcome to the jungle

Stan encouraged the audience to imagine they lived in a jungle. They’d never met another person, and their only concern was how to survive. “You'd constantly be taking in information to vet it: is this path safe? Are there snakes in the trees? A great thing that can happen to you is if you finally meet someone else who lived in the jungle; now you have your information about how to survive, you have their information, and both of you are exponentially safer. The best thing that can happen to you is if you meet a lot of other people who live in that jungle – now you have everyone's information about how to survive and you can look beyond survival; someone will want to be chief, for example. This is a culture.”

A culture is a self-protective organism that exists to improve the chances of everyone’s survival, and it requires a sense of safety – if it feels unsafe for any reason, it will detach. “A culture also seeks information: what’s being said, what’s not being said, facts, rumours, patterns, happenings; it vets everything for credibility and then shares it obsessively and exclusively amongst itself. It’s a close society and won’t naturally reveal to you what it believes. To reveal too much could make it vulnerable,” added Stan.

Solving problems, looking around, and feeding your heads

Stan pointed out that it’s almost impossible for the human brain to simultaneously maintain opposing emotions: you can’t be happy and sad at the same time. A culture is the same: it can't be hopeful and hopeless; energised and exhausted.

“You have an unprecedented scale of problems. The key is to create a culture that takes its energy from solving problems. Solving problems is confirmation to your culture about how smart, unified, tough, and special it is. The culture needs to believe that solving problems is its sense of self.”

To end his presentation, Stan offered next-step suggestions. Firstly, he suggested that HR executives should “look up, look down, look around”. In other words, look to companies that are experiencing unprecedented success, not despite these tough times, but because of them.

He urged the audience to find examples of companies that have done just this, no matter their size or location. Their teams can then unpack these examples to figure out how they did it, and what lessons can be applied to their own company.

Secondly, he encouraged the audience to focus on what isn’t changing, as it’s critical to retain a culture’s perspective. “Even in the name of beneficial human capital strategies, when you're introducing what's changing you must also take the time to explain what isn't changing,” said Stan.

Lastly, he encouraged the audience to “feed your heads” – the organisation’s heads, that is. He emphasised that managers have had to be weight-bearing, and that weight has become much

He wrapped up the presentation with his most urgent recommendation: the necessity of passing the humanity test – something that every company will now pass or fail. “You can lose a lot of things as a company during these tough times, like margins and profits. But you can’t lose your soul,” said Stan.

It was then time to start the discussion, which was lively and packed with real-world insights. Celiwe Ross, human capital director at Old Mutual, noted the challenges that remote work poses to connecting to a culture on a human level and asked Stan how HR executives can engage effectively through a screen. He replied that it’s important to recognise that even if people are returning to work in some form, either physically or not, they’re not the same as when they were “forced to flee”. 

“Companies are used to creating a sense of belonging through busyness, buildings and badges,” said Stan. “The culture will find a way of getting together; you need to find a way to sponsor that, be transparent, and recognise that your people are having issues at home.”

Ruth Wotela, the people wellness executive at SilverBridge, commented on how SilverBridge is encouraging a problem-solving culture. She noted, “We are in the process of reorganising how we structure ourselves and the way we work, for example, through having smaller teams, and reducing the reliance of top-down problem-solving and goal-setting by supporting, encouraging, and enabling teams to be self-directed. At the end of the day, different teams have different problems to solve, and if we trust that we employ competent people, and we want to treat them like adults, then we must give them the space to investigate the problems, understand why they have them, and come up with solutions to solve them.”

On the issue of managers bearing the brunt of these tough times, Khanya Magudulela, human resources director at Hyundai Automotive, commented, “Surely that responsibility cannot be borne by one person? For any glimpse of success, I'm of the view that all leaders need to buy into the same culture and values for success."

Bess Skosana, MTN’s executive head of human resources, commented that MTN used to run annual surveys around culture, but it was decided that short, bi-monthly pulse surveys were more effective. She noted that MTN tallies what people are saying with the results from their system, as it can be difficult to know whether people are telling the truth or not.

“We tell them it is important that they respond so there's a bit of cajoling. We also make it competitive with all the opcos by encouraging them to respond with a 100 percent response rate on the first day we open the survey."

Penwell Lunga, the human capital executive at KAP Industrial, asked an important question: “If you are a manager and exist outside the employee culture, how do you gain insight into an employee culture, which is critical for you to shape it towards a specific direction? Do we send spies?”

Stan responded by saying, “Don't bother to send a spy; the culture will mail you back the body parts!”

He explained that a culture will always trust itself more than it trusts you, the HR executive. He continued his explanation by talking about the concept of legends: stories that serve as proof points to the culture. According to Stan, once something achieves legend status in a culture, good or bad, it's been thoroughly vetted by the culture, and it’s carefully protected. It’s a private database of stories that it consults to decide what's the safe thing to do, and what it shouldn't do. Everyone in the culture knows these legends, and they're gifted to new members.

“Once you know this, you can write the script the culture will read to itself by deliberately creating cultural legends. You do this by declaring emphatically and dramatically what’s most important, then you do something significant to prove that you mean it,” said Stan.

“A culture will pick that up and it will become a cultural legend. From outside you can only do so much, but this conduit exists,” he concluded.