Volume 5, May 2023

Welcome to the fifth issue of Fieldnotes,

CFAR’s CultureLab newsletter on organizational culture

Whether organizations are actively recruiting, successfully retaining talent, or creating an environment where people feel a sense of belonging, psychological safety, productivity, and engagement — culture looms large. The dynamics around talent and the workforce change depending on sector, location, and organization. They are further heightened in the late-Covid environment in which we are constantly renegotiating the social contract for work and managing burnout. This issue of Fieldnotes looks at recent thinking, writing and resources at the intersections of culture, talent, and workforce dynamics. 

When researching this topic, we discovered a piece in Fast Company titled, “How to spark a revolution in company culture that will boost employee retention.” According to the piece, “Glassdoor found that 77% of job seekers evaluate a company’s culture before interviewing.” The article cites one of our intellectual influences, Edgar H. Schien from MIT, who wrote, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.”

A complementary article in Forbes reinforces this finding, opining that, “the broader sense we are getting from the Great Resignation is that people want to feel good about their work, which makes a strong company culture the best protection against turnover.” Additionally, MIT Professor Donald Sull has found that that the “highest driver of attrition of employees was a toxic culture”.

Elaine Varelas, Executive Partner at Keystone Partners, is the writer and consultant behind the “Ask the Job Doc” column with the Boston Globe. In a recent column, she advises her readers on how to ensure a company’s culture is the right fit, before they even walk through the door. She explains, “organizations that have grappled with recruiting and retention have recognized that increasing the success of their recruiting efforts and increasing their retention levels have come through the development of strong organizational culture.” In order to get a sense of how a company’s culture is lived, she adds, it is essential to speak with people who currently work at the organization. This exercise will give you a sense of the culture you are stepping into, beyond what is conveyed in a company’s mission statement.

Workforce challenges are especially rampant in the not-for-profit world, and show up in our work across the sector. This piece by the National Council of Nonprofits has a host of helpful resources culled from a report they issued, titled “The Scope and Impact of Nonprofit Workforce Shortages.” The report highlights the need to prioritize equity from the outset; dedicate time and resources for yourself, your colleagues, and your team to address stress and take care of everyone’s wellbeing; and discover, nurture, and develop talent in nontraditional ways.

Culture Shapers — A Conversation with Jim Ward of the Ward Group

We see this cultural dynamic around employee engagement and satisfaction in our work with family and owner-led businesses, where culture and values are often critical to the company, its founders, and its future. Our colleagues at The Ward Group are in the people business, as well as being a family firm in their own right.

In a recent conversation with Jim Ward, the founder of the executive search and organization consulting firm, he reflected on how culture sits at the forefront of their recruiting work with their client companies and how they think about sourcing quality candidates. The Ward Group helps their clients understand that “mission statements are one thing…but your culture must reflect those values.” It’s not enough to say what your culture is — you have to live it. On the candidate side, Jim says they ask for their candidates to put themselves in the same place, asking candidates to convey not just what they have accomplished, but how, in order to best get a sense for their lived experience. “​​As we recruit, we try to immerse ourselves into the culture, and we systematically get to understand the culture of who we’re working with — we’re relationship driven.”

Members of CFAR’s Healthcare Practice participated in several focused discussions on culture and work in healthcare when they recently attended the American College of Healthcare Executives National Congress. They came away thinking about two critical themes — that workforce challenges remain present, and that building stronger, more inclusive and productive organizational cultures can address these challenges.

This has also been our experience with the organizations in which we work. We enjoyed the insights from this Harvard Business Review article by Patrick Ryan and Dr. Tom Lee of Press Ganey, who shared interesting data to answer the question, “What Makes Healthcare Workers Stay in Their Jobs?” We wholeheartedly agree with their conclusions and guidance that “leaders must be clear about their values, their commitment to safety, the reduction of suffering, and a culture of respect and inclusion.”

Lastly, in higher education, institutions are paying much more attention to workforce issues than they have in the past. One piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at hiring challenges during a time when schools are understaffed, campus culture is fractured, and the pool of qualified and interested candidates is shallow, given the salaries higher education typically offers. And the recent review of “Serfs of Academe” (need we say more?) in the New York Review of Books, includes a description of a self-published horror story about working in higher ed. Titled Adjunct, by Geoff Cebula, the book illustrates “why horror…becomes the natural genre through which to depict the life of the contemporary adjunct, which is to say, the majority of academic workers today.”

We end with an invitation to you, our readers, to share any thinking and resources about how to make our way through this challenging moment and create the work cultures we need to support engaged, satisfied colleagues and enable successful organizations. If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please share it via your social networks, forward it to other people who may appreciate it, or send us your feedback and ideas. We look forward to hearing from you!