Good culture starts at the board table

Posted on 15 Oct 2018

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

ICDA's executive director and head trainer Patrick Moriarty says the strife striking down organisations across the globe often boils down to a failure of culture.

Moriarty Patrick
Patrick Moriarty knows that culture can make or break an organisation

Having trained hundreds of not-for-profit board members and executives, Mr Moriarty says culture often falls through the gap between values and actions, but he says getting a handle on the health of your organisation's culture doesn't have to be a hard slog.

Mr Moriarty suggests getting back to the basics, before getting into the nitty gritty of cultural reforms - if they're needed. And you can start by asking yourself a simple question.

"So you have a value statement, but how's this actually working in practice?"

Organisations need to keep asking whether their culture "fits the reason we exist", and whether their activities continues to be in that organisation's best interest.

Many of the the recent failures in the RSL, ABC, big financial institutions and troubled sports clubs can be traced to conflicts within or between management and the board, in which unhealthy, unhelpful relationships have prospered or the proper roles of the board and of staff have begun to break down.

"In the worst cases there'll be a stated value, but the way we're behaving is totally in contradiction to that."

He cites the example of big businesses - and small ones too - that trumpet the claim "Our staff are our greatest asset", and the next minute mercilessly sack those same staff without remorse.

And he says a failing culture that isn't addressed can slip further into entrenched problems.

He says the most breathtaking examples of institutional corruption, such as that which infected the International Olympic Committee, the later years of Queensland's Bjelke-Petersen Government, and the Catholic Church in its cover-up of child sex abuse, were allowed to fester for years as a result of organisational cultures in which corruption simply became "accepted practice".

Of course, these are all worst-case scenarios, which brings us to Mr Moriarty's tips for community directors wanting to cultivate a healthy culture:

  • Take responsibility for values and culture - don't leave it to management
  • Maintain a bridge between the board (governance) and the management (operations) to help you to maintain standards you've committed to, and identify problems early
  • Conduct an annual cultural review, which may involve surveying staff and others
  • Make use of 360-degree staff and volunteer reviews (in which they're encouraged to air their views of their superiors and the organisation), to gain feedback about how you're really performing
  • Keep an eye on tell-tale signs of dissatisfaction such as staff absenteeism, sick days and turnover
  • Find out from funders, suppliers and clients how they see you exhibiting your values
  • Put your values and culture on display, literally posting them in a prominent position in your office and on your website
  • Examine your board's adherence to its own commitments - you can use easy measures such as how frequently you're turning up to the board meetings
  • Do your homework by taking heed of good cultures, well-explained, such as the Hawthorn Football Club's strategic plan
  • Invest in governance training and refresher courses.

Of course, it starts by knowing what your values and culture are.

"If you don't have any stated values, and if you're not really articulating what the behaviours of those are, well, it's pretty easy to have the culture you don't particularly want," Mr Moriarty says.

And once you've established your values and stated them, you'd better stick by them to avoid future sticky situations.

"It's a mutual respect and a shared responsibility for the whole organisation, to be true to the values that we actually do articulate."

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