Err on the side of culture

In a relentless bid to revamp their company culture, leaders often find themselves trying to solve problems that may not need solving. What if leaders looked at things differently? What if, instead of attempting to paint a pretty picture of their organization, they embraced the good, the bad, and the ugly? Phil Burgess, Chief People & Operations Officer at C Space, explains why you should start saying yes to the mess…

Phil Burgess

Chief People & Operations Officer at C Space

Phil Burgess is Chief People & Operations Officer at C Space, where he focuses on leading our people strategy. Phil is passionate about building an inclusive business – striving to create an agency that is dedicated to attracting and retaining the best talent. In 2017, he led the team that won the MRS Best Agency Award as C Space London’s joint-managing director, along with Felix Koch. For Phil, a typical day at work includes a lot of listening, several cups of coffee, and plenty of culture revamping. Outside of work, he’s likely to be found out and about in Massachusetts, where he recently relocated with his family.

I n a leadership meeting last week, I confessed that I sometimes add things to my to-do list that I’ve already done, just to tick them off. It sounds silly, but it helps me feel like I’m in control and making progress. Four other people in the room admitted that they do the same!

In my role as Chief People Officer, I’m committed to fostering a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive culture. It’s by far the most complex thing on my to-do list, but also the one thing I wouldn’t dare put on it. Because I can never tick it off. Culture is fluid. Being tasked with overseeing and nurturing it is an ever-evolving challenge. It’s constantly on my mind, and I’m always searching for answers about how best to go at it.

So I was struck recently when I read Peter Block’s, The Answer to How Is Yes. He argues that our relentless focus on getting stuff done, our tendency to too quickly ask, “How can we solve this?” and move to action, limits our effectiveness and enjoyment of work (and life).

“We live in a culture that lavishes all of its rewards on what works,” he writes, “a culture that seems to value what works more than it values what matters.”

I’m quite taken with Block’s argument that “the diversity and imperfection of human souls is, ultimately, what makes institutions engaging, humane, and habitable. Human systems are imperfect, the homes for unsolvable problems.”

We spend our days solving problems – within ourselves, within our business – where we get in our own way. Because we’re too inwardly focused on finding the solution, we limit our ability to consider new perspectives about the problem. But there’s something liberating in embracing the idea that the problems we grapple with aren’t always solvable. Unsolvable problems have the potential to humanize the corporate culture where we spend so much of our time.

What if, instead of agonizing over problems we can’t solve, fixing systems and optimizing processes, we reframed this messiness, the flaws of being human, as a source of strength and a way of helping us focus on the things that really matter? I believe the answer is that we should embrace the messiness of business and culture – of the people who work in our agencies and the complex motivations of our clients. But what, exactly, would that look like?

Instead of criticizing ourselves for pendulum swings in strategy, and bad decisions we made in the past, organizations would be more transparent about our mistakes. We’d be less frustrated by what “leadership” does or doesn’t do and more forgiving of an imperfect decision made by John, or Sally, or me, or some other human who’s not always going to get stuff right. Leaders would be more comfortable to say, “I don’t know,” and quick to admit, “I need help.”

We would reward humility instead of advising people to raise their profile. Recognize people who give credit to others. Ensure we elevate the unsung heroes in our organizations, the people who are committed to developing others but don’t put themselves in the spotlight. We would bring customers into the organization to talk about the problems they have with our brand, our product, our experience, and we’d be open, honest, and collaborative about how to fix those problems.

More managers and leaders would share their annual reviews with their teams (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and they’d welcome honest feedback about areas where they can improve (then get to work on improving). We’re a work-in-progress, but at C Space, members of the leadership team are starting to talk openly about their mistakes and failures. We just held an all-staff meeting talking about clients we’d won, but also those we’d lost, the mistakes we made, and what we learned in the process.

These are just some of the cultural outcomes I envision when we answer, “How?” with “Yes.” Coping with a messier, human environment requires paradigm shifts. (Not so easy, I know.) It requires working with people to build their resilience to change and be more accepting of ambiguity, more welcoming of raw emotions, passions, and conflicts. We’d need to embrace vulnerability and have the courage to dive into difficult, awkward conversations about diversity, inclusivity, and change.

I’m increasingly convinced that we need to focus on building more human organizations. Or, as Block suggests, we need to make “space for wonder, gratitude, surrender, grief, and compassion” at work, and accept that there isn’t always an answer. We should do more of that, instead of looking for the next thing to tick off our lists.

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