Culture – what is it?
A set of shared values and beliefs. In the workplace, these define the organisation and the way people work in it.
‘I think that culture is something that constitutes the totality of the population of the company. Something that I talk a lot about with my team, for example, is the fact that when we do acquisitions, we sometimes talk about the culture of a company as if it were some sort of essence that exists apart from the people. The point I am making is that you are the company; you are the culture. To paraphrase Gandhi: Be the culture you want in the company.’ – Craig Silliman, general counsel, Verizon
From the top down – shared values and beliefs
What can shared values and trust networks do to promote culture change? Pretty much everything.
Business thinkers like Michael Porter argue that capitalism, by its very nature, needs to have strong aspects of values, in the sense of ethics versus value creation or profit. Increasingly, Porter argues, companies can and should leverage their business expertise into societal problems and augment a strong sense of shared values, both as a company, and as a company-society partnership, effecting an overall societal change.
‘Inevitably, the most fertile opportunities for creating shared value will be closely related to a company’s particular business, and in areas most important to the business. Here a company can benefit the most economically and hence sustain its commitment over time. Here is also where a company brings the most resources to bear, and where its scale and market presence equip it to have a meaningful impact on a societal problem.’ – Porter & Kramer, Harvard Business Review, January 2011.
For PayPal and its GC, the company’s mission and values are the key to its culture – and an inherent part of its drive to diversity.
‘Following our separation from eBay in 2015 and in becoming a new, independent public company, we had the unique opportunity to redefine who we are and what we do by way of our values as we think about our broad mission to democratise financial services. We came up with a set of guiding values, which include innovation, inclusion, collaboration and wellness as the four core elements. These values are all inter-connected and can’t exist exclusively of one another; we take all four very seriously and they underpin everything we do.’ – Wanji Walcott, general counsel, PayPal
‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’
While no one is sure if Peter Drucker actually said this, the sentiment is coming to define modern business practice: it’s no longer enough to talk the talk; you have to walk the walk too.
Increasingly, employees are choosing their workplace based on values and culture – and not simply financial incentives or career advancement.
Culture and Diversity
Employees are aware that there may be a disconnect between what companies say in their mission statements and their initiatives, and will tend to look more at how their colleagues are treated as a true barometer of the company’s culture. This is doubly true of inclusion and diversity.
‘I can have any goal I want as a diversity goal, but I’m not going to get there if I don’t have a culture and a way of operating that makes Cisco an attractive place to be.’ – Mark Chandler, general counsel, Cisco.
‘I love the quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you have a culture that goes against it, it won’t happen. Culture is years and years of patterns and habits. To change, it requires a strong voice from the entire legal department. Diversity is something our general counsel constantly talks about.
If you don’t hear your GC talking about it, then it isn’t being talked about at leadership level and your GC is not on message. Our GC, Dan Troy, has set up a strong legal inclusion and diversity committee. I sit on our legal department management committee, and inclusion and diversity is on the agenda every time we meet.’ – Brennan Torregrossa, associate general counsel, GlaxoSmithKline
Stepping out of the box – understanding bias
Unconscious bias is one of the most insidious enemies of a diverse culture. It’s not propagated by one group only, or by ‘bad’ people; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Understanding that is key to working with it.
‘The teams that are the most effective are the teams that create an environment of psychological safety, which fundamentally means that there’s a shared sense within the group that everyone can throw out ideas, can share their thoughts without fear of being mobbed or censured or shut down in some way. So then how do you create that sense of psychological safety?
I think we need to think about that sense of psychological safety as culture. Naturally it creates an environment in which there is a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, but also a very dynamic, creative environment – which is the type of thing that we all describe as what we want out of culture.
Part of that comes from the top down, but a lot comes peer to peer, and I think that is where we have seen some success. There’s a lot of different writing on this. It really comes down to: “Know thyself” – the oldest (and, I think, still among the wisest) philosophical advice in history, dating back to the ancient Greeks – understanding how our own brains work.
Understanding unconscious bias is just realising how we put others in a box, and de-linking that from a sense of moral condemnation, of saying “You’re a bad person because you’re biased”, rather than understanding that, actually, our basic evolution has led our brains to operate in certain ways that make perfect sense from an evolutionary biological perspective but that can lead to suboptimal outcomes in 2017 in a work environment.
Making unconscious bias training and tools available to people is, I think, a very important first step, so that we all come to the table understanding: “I’m prejudging people in certain ways, and I need to be conscious of that so that I can correct it, and avoid putting barriers up between us.”’ – Craig Silliman, Verizon
‘If you have a culture that encourages hiring the very best people, who bring a diversity of thought to complex issues that you are facing, then you sit around a table in a healthy way and debate the issues with a diversity of thought. You can have healthy conflict from different opinions, but by that very process you will end up with the very best result for the company. You will achieve fundamental change.
‘In law, I don’t think it’s the best way to tackle complex legal issues if you have ten people sitting around the table who think the same. You celebrate a legal department that can think differently. We had a litigation case where the allegations involved birth defects. If that was a team solely run by white men, would we have achieved the result we did? I think having women lawyers was a fundamental part of that defence because of their experience of pregnancy. In all litigation, diversity helps, as you are speaking to judges and jurors and need to reflect the diversity of those panels.’ – Brennan Torregrossa, GlaxoSmithKline
‘It’s almost like a vicious cycle. We all agree, and studies have shown, that diversity means you get the best results. But a lot of this has to do with focus – making sure you have diverse input and making sure that input matters. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when everyone is the same, and thinks the same way, and you don’t have that diversity of viewpoints and experience. Once you get the diverse perspective, you can use that to create a culture where people feel empowered to speak up and speak out.’ – Wanji Walcott, PayPal
It’s not what you say, it’s what you do…
‘It’s interesting that the culture of an organisation is generally not written down, therefore, for both men and women, seeing the reality of experience for other employees will have the greatest impact, versus policies.’ – Michelle Gyimah, Working Forward Relationships Manger, Equality and Human Rights Commission.
‘A few weeks ago, I said to a lawyer on our team who is African American, “Why did you come to work for Cisco?” And she said, “Well, when I was interviewing I tried to get a feel for the place and a sense of what kind of place this is to work. For example: is this a place I’ll be comfortable? Is this a place that’s diverse-by-numbers, or is it a place where diversity is actually valued in a real, day-to-day way and where you’re not put in a bucket based on diversity?” She said she talked to a lot of people and came in feeling this was going to be a comfortable place to be – and she still feels that way.’ – Mark Chandler, Cisco
Have the (difficult) conversation
‘It’s often tough for companies to gain the outsight to be aware of how they are viewed. It can be very easy to point to initiatives, forgetting that they do not exist in a vacuum and need to be adopted by people in order to actually change behaviours.
I just think that conversation doesn’t happen a lot. One of the things I’ve been learning through outside organisations is how to make sure that you do have that conversation in your company, your department – so that you’re not pretending.’ – Mark Chandler, Cisco
Bring your whole self to work – or be the version of yourself YOU want to be
‘Only connect’, wrote author EM Forster as the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howards End. The challenge of overcoming prejudice to connect across barriers is still fundamental, both in life and in the modern organisation.
There’s a professor at NYU law school called Kenji Yoshino, who’s written a book called Covering. One of the points that Yoshino makes is that covering isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself – it’s part of how human society operates, based on us finding this balance between authenticity and commonality. We need to find a space where we can bring our authentic self to work. A woman should not feel constrained about talking about her children at work because she’ll be put in the “mother” box. Someone who is openly gay should not feel constrained bringing his or her partner to work because they don’t want to be seen as “too gay”; or a handicapped person shouldn’t feel they need to cover their handicap.
But the flip side of that is: if my authentic self is being a bullying jerk, I do need to cover a bit. That’s not conducive to psychological safety. I’m not interpreting my behaviour as that of a bullying jerk; I’m interpreting it as encouraging honest dialogue or calling out the hidden tensions. But to someone else, that may feel bullying and intimidating, and they are shut down.
There’s this aspect of finding that right balance where you bring your authentic self to work and we celebrate diversity, but you also don’t build relationships based entirely on everything that’s different between you and me. We may celebrate all the differences that you and I have, but we’re going to build relationships on also finding commonalities we have. And that may be assurances of values, or a sports team we both like, or a musician we both like, or a book we enjoy. But it’s finding that space.’ – Craig Silliman, Verizon
‘As a general counsel, especially in a large organisation, what you want to figure out is, “How do I reach out in a natural way to a large team? How is it that people are comfortable having conversations?” Because I depend on getting information from people – I need to be reaching out all the time.’ – Mark Chandler, Cisco
The role of the lawyer
General counsel and legal departments have come to inhabit a very important nexus in the drive for change in the legal profession. In the US especially, a combination of making expectations clear, purchasing power, and demonstrating best practice is forcing culture change in the wider profession.
‘One of the things I focus on is making sure my team feels empowered. As you work more and more with law firms and they see what you stand for as a department, they will do what is needed to meet your expectations. We are seeing that at PayPal and it’s been great. A really important factor is that we are ensuring supervising and managing partners get feedback on the diverse participants of external teams who are performing well – I personally have seen the difference that positive feedback can have on someone’s career.
‘The challenge we currently have as a profession is that diverse candidates are not breaking through into firm management. All in-house lawyers have responsibility for making sure we have a good sense of who gets credit for our work in the firms – we have a variety of different lawyers working at different levels, from “bet-the-farm” issues to smaller contractual matters.
‘All of the lawyers in my team at PayPal now feel that’s something we do: being proactive about diversity, clearly articulating our expectations to external groups, recognising great work across the board and celebrating wins along the way.’ – Wanji Walcott, PayPal
‘We have an ability as clients to influence change, not just in our own company, but in the industry. We have made some very hard commitments on diversity and inclusion. We have a scorecard for work awarded to our external counsel, and 10% of that score concerns the diversity of the team working on our matters – the more truly diverse the team at all levels, the higher the score. I haven’t heard of another direct reward of work promoting diversity in the way we have.
‘There have been at least four or five instances in the past year where firms have had equal scores on everything else, but the diversity score was the decision-maker in our awarding of work, which is vital in my view. That’s what will push firms to improve numbers.
‘I heard a senior vice president of Pepsi’s legal department speak about their diversity index, which was the score they gave their law firms depending on their answers to the ABA Model Diversity Survey. I thought that was a brilliant idea. We took that survey and added a GSK addendum – we give our law firms a score based on the formula in the ABA Model Survey and a score that measures diversity of their teams in the matters they handle for us. The scores vary from 1,200-2,000. We will sit down with our law firms and talk about the results in their diversity and inclusion score. Good ideas to improve diversity in the legal department should be shared frequently and often.’ – Brennan Torregrossa, GlaxoSmithKline