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Transcript: The 5 Key Elements of a Strong Culture (EP70)


Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

Voiceover: To all of our loyal listeners, The Culture of Things podcast will now also have specific episodes produced for YouTube. To ensure you don’t miss out on this exclusive YouTube content, head on over to YouTube, click the subscribe button and hit the notification bell. Now, let’s get into the episode...

Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I’m your host, Brendan Rogers, and today we have made it to episode 70 on The Culture of Things podcast. 

Today, I’m talking with Cassandra Gordon. Cassandra is the founder of GrowthCulture, a new company that works with startups, to design and build their culture. She’s also founded Organisational Intelligence Group, which is a niche culture turnaround consultancy.

Cassandra has spent 20 years driving change and leading teams in corporate and government roles in Sydney, Perth, and Canberra. She’s also briefed former prime ministers and advised senior leaders on leading change in the insurance, oil and gas, and utility sectors. 

She left the corporate world to fulfill her mission, to create a new way of working that enables people to grow and thrive, not just survive. Today, we focus on the five key elements of a strong culture. Cassandra, welcome to The Culture of Things podcast.

Cassandra: Thanks, Brendan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brendan: It’s a pleasure having you now. Over the years as I got older, I’ve got a little bit more of an interest in politics nowadays, so that experience in premiers and cabinet office in 2006–2008, can you just tell us a bit about that, just whet my appetite a bit?

Cassandra: Certainly. PM&C was an incredible environment that really shaped me and built me professionally in terms of my strategy, my briefing, my risk assessment skills. I got so used to working under extreme pressure every day and working to tight deadlines to brief the PM of the day on really critical issues. 

That would mean consulting with various agencies, including treasury, finance for example, and coming out with a briefing position that had to be absolutely rock solid. It was tough, it was incredibly interesting, and those three years really enabled me to fly professionally after that.

Brendan: I can imagine. Fantastic. I got to push on this. If you could pick one thing that you really loved about that experience and one thing that you would prefer not to have experienced?

Cassandra: Great question, Brendan. The thing I love most about it was being able to see direct results for federal government policy that impacts the lives of people based on my recommendations. I spend a lot of my time working in the health and aged care part of PM&C, which included some really complex tricky issues around illicit drugs, for example, funding for particular cancer treatments off the top of my head. 

The other to brief of that, weigh up the different risk factors and, look at the federal budget, and come up with a figure in a proposal for making something work or available to the public was incredibly satisfying when that actually occurred. 

Something that wasn’t so good was the culture that was extremely competitive. To get into PM&C itself is no easy feat. When I applied for my role, I was one of 400 people that actually applied for that job, and I was one of two people selected. 

People often work there watching the sun doing out at the end of the day, particularly in summer, and it’s a commitment. But it provides great exposure and you might be surrounded by more hardworking, intellectually reverse people in my view. It really did give me such great background in terms of huge range of topics.

It was normal for graduates from (for example) top universities around the world who have heard one young Queenslander for a year, or scholars, or people doing a PhD to awry and provide their own intellectual, so it created such a stimulating environment as well.

Brendan: Fantastic. Thanks for sharing. Was it that experience or some other experiences that sort of whet your appetite around this culture thing?

Cassandra: That probably certainly was one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, in that I deliberately throughout my career expose myself to a range of different sectors, industries, and cultures. 

When I work, I love complex information and I love diving into an understanding of how things work, what it means, and how to use information to solve really difficult problems. Once I’ve mastered my craft or my trade or my role, I tend to then look for the next thing, so I need to be intellectually satisfied. 

PM&C did that. However, I also springboarded into a lot of industries. You mentioned oil and gas, utilities. I went for IBM in IT for a while, in consulting environments. I’ve also done lots of other assignments in my own company—Organisation Intelligence Group—insurance and financial services.

Always, organizations have different cultures, different ways of doing things, different operating systems, different power structures, and they’ve undoubtedly all formed parts of the jigsaw that have led me to where I am today, in terms of my purpose, which is to create cultures where people not just survive—which we all do in those environments and I certainly did—to one where people actually can thrive and reach their full potential.

Towards the end of that period, that sort of working for other companies and working for corporates, I realized that my own values we’re not in keeping with nice environments I was working in. I stand for integrity, respect, and equality. Those three things which are rock solid to me and who I am (and are not negotiable) do not fit with corporate environments as I am now. That is why I left. But those experiences gave me that drive to create something that was different so people could really reach their full potential.

Brendan: I got respect and integrity. What was the third one, Cassandra?

Cassandra: Justice, integrity, respect.

Brendan: Thank you. I have to apologize to you now we’re recording and also to listeners, that got a bit of a cough off the back of COVID. You had COVID, I had COVID, I think every man and his dog is going to have COVID if you haven’t already. So my apologies. I’m doing my best to control that. 

I love this respect, integrity, and justice. When have one or all of those things been compromised for you?

Cassandra: A good example is when I was working in WA. I was heading up the indigenous health function for a large federal government agency. I was in a director role there and dealing extensively with the state government. My role was to manage a large team of experts and deliver health services on the ground for inigenous people. I found that the culture of that state environment was quite different from the national federal environment.

One day I realized that in order to try and get some traction that is highly criticized, highly competitive, to be honest a game playing environment with the state government, that I was starting to bend the truth in emails, which is something I had never done before. 

I hold my integrity dear to me and it’s part of who I am. And professionally, to actually start not telling the truth in an email made me stop at my desk, sit back, and think what is happening? What is going on here? Is this who I’ve become? To try any kind of traction, just trying any kind of result, and starting to effectively not be honest? That’s when I started to take stock and think, is this the right role for me? That was the first time I was really tested.

In terms of respect, most recently working financial services, to be honest, I found that behavior was constantly tested. My idea of respect is to treat people the way I want to be treated. To be professional, to turn up on time, to do what I say I’m going to do, to do the best job that I can in my role. Someone’s paying me, I will do the best of my ability. It’s that simple. 

To play the game was becoming tiring. Really tiring to survive in a high-paying change roles. Very complex programs across the whole organization obviously requires some pretty key stakeholder engagement skills. I realized that I was not prepared to be dishonest, and I was not prepared to play a game to try and survive in that environment. 

So I didn’t play the game anymore. I spoke my truth and at one point defended myself and I left. That’s when I took a step back and questioned my life, my career. At the same time, it was a pack of personal triggers as well. So I closed that one contract. Again, these are kind of long hours which was fine, but [...] intense role and my father died unexpectedly, so I closed it out, went to the funeral in Melbourne, kind of picked up a day later and kept working to finish up this assignment.

In the meantime, when one of my family member decided to [...] divorce, so I flew to her to help her with that. Then when I came to Sydney, I just, oh God. I just got to stop. I have got to just take stock of where I throw myself for the next contract. Things just didn’t feel right anymore. It felt like I was becoming a smaller version of myself that was designed to make a proper objective. 

I didn’t have the energy to have hobbies. I had some friends. Again, didn’t really have much time to build a friendship circle. That’s when push came to shove. Values were tested, a couple of personal triggers, and I decided to change things.

Brendan: The great thing around this is that you actually knew what you stood for, so you could start to make some decisions around that. I guess I just want to ask that point about when, how long, what did you do to actually reach that point where you could really articulate that respect, integrity, justice, and those core values non-negotiables for you?

Cassandra: It was a process, to be honest. Integrity has always been probably the one that’s been mostly dear to me, where I’ve realized, I recognized early on that don’t necessarily fit with most cultures, and respect and justice grew. The more I’m mature, the more exposure that I had.

For example, I tended to find that junior members of staff would sometimes come to me with their issues. If they’re being bullied, for example. If they don’t know how to solve a problem and they felt unsupported. I saw this pattern where that lack of respect was starting to cost my energy, and to play the politics to actually work the system well means that really, generally, not being respectful of other people. It’s that simple.

I have compassion for people as well. I have compassion for people who are unwell, who need help, who simply need support. I find that a lot of Australian corporate culture is generally unsupported. That’s my view from talking to a lot of expats—people who have worked here and in other countries—that the Australian culture generally does not offer a lot of support, particularly for women, and that it’s highly competitive.

All the things, these things combined really made me stop and think, do I want to look back in 20 years time when I’m looking down the barrel instead of what I want to do in the next 10–20 years of my life and think, yeah, gee, I wish I had avoided that insurance company for another 6 or 12 months, or do I actually want to do.

Something that’s close to my heart, which is to enable other people to not to survive but to thrive. To enable other people to grow and reach their full capability. That is something that I would have loved doing my work and what I do now. That’s been the primary driver.

Brendan: I want you to also articulate something for me because there might be some listeners listening to this now and saying, Brendan, why don’t you talk about the five key elements of culture and that sort of stuff? We are going to getthere. 

In your own words, why is it so important that we just unpack that a little bit? A leader effectively know what they stand for when they need to lead and drive culture and cultural change.

Cassandra: Thanks, Brendan. The five key elements I developed based on my experience, about two years of solid research looking at what does and doesn’t work, rating high probability which is [...] from around the world, looking at what different companies are doing that are groundbreaking, what does and doesn’t work. In collating all of that, I came up with a cultural blueprint.

It’s important for leaders to know this because it’s a leader’s role to enable other people to lead. It’s not a leader’s role to control.

Brendan: Cassandra, can you say that again? That sounds pretty important.

Cassandra: Sure. It’s a leader’s role to help other people lead, not control. A leader’s role is not to control. That’s not leadership. That’s a title. There’s a big difference between a title and a leader. They don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. In fact, it’s rare to find a very good leader, in my experience. 

I think that a lot of leaders who I have worked with, perhaps are focused on meeting KPIs that could have been decided by ultimately just the shareholders that aren’t necessarily going to enable people to thrive.

Which is ironic because when people thrive and they reach the capability, guess what? They achieve more. There’s greater success in an organization. Ironically, that means profits and competitive margins are greater. It just makes sense to me.

But society has decided that our revered large corporations and traditional banks are the benchmarks for culture. Unfortunately, they’re not. I think that the cracks are starting to show. 

For example, I think the AMP situation news when that broke on the cover of the [...] review, really I remember thinking this is a defining moment for a strong culture. Gretchen Carlson is tweeting about this at 5:00 AM New York time about AMP’s decision to promote Boe Pahari. He was the head of Capital at the time. Even though he had been punished for sexually harrasing (I think) a subordinate, still decided to promote him. The backlash the caused internally has never been seen or known to that degree in Australia. That was the first marker. 

The [...] commission watching that started to test and replace pressure on big banks in terms of bad behavior, their actions and their practices, which clearly weren’t legal or acceptable according to ASIC. Nobody expected that the wrong that was lifted up will exposed so much underneath.

I think that in fact, Andrew Thorburn, former CEO of NAB, when he was on the stand at that [...] commission to banking and financial services actually said NAB never had a purpose. I think that’s incredibly telling. The CEO of one of the biggest banks basically stated the bank didn’t have a purpose. So why on earth were those employees being motivated to come to work and create something of value to society and be the best they can be? The CEO doesn’t know what the bank stands for.

Brendan: You keep taking me into some areas that I just love. It’s very difficult to hold back from asking certain things, Cassandra, but used this word ‘defining.’ I do want to ask about this. In your opinion and experience (which is extensive), do you really think industries across Australia—not just banking—that there’s been enough change? Has it really reached a defining moment like that level of really changing people’s mindset, leaders’ mindset, and understanding the value of culture? Do you really think it’s been that defining across the board?

Cassandra: Great question, Brendan. I think certainly the dial has turned substantially in the last two years. I know in the show that you talk with some of your guests about the great resignation. There’s a lot of contention about that, but the data is certainly saying that there is a great resignation in the US, in the UK, and now in Australia we’ve seen it. People had a taste of some flexibility and freedom in their lives, and their lives aren’t entirely structured and entrenched around work.

Brendan: Do you really think it’s been as defining as what it needs to be?

Cassandra: I think it’s a sliding scale that basically is starting to shift towards a different way of work, a different world of work. The hierarchies are starting to crack—what we’ve talked to a little bit about—and people are looking to something different.

Generation Y, when I talk to them, they want to work for a company that has a clear stance on gender, on the environment, their social responsibility. Basic key things that I’m looking for when I actually apply for a role or consider working for a company in any form. 

Companies are now being expected or are actually scrambling at board level to actually demonstrate that and not just talk about it by putting hashtags on wall. Hashtag sustainability, courage, integrity, creativity. Whatever it is, it doesn’t actually owning the stick. They might stick on the wall but they don’t actually stick in terms of people’s behavior.

I believe that the world of work is changing. I believe that the corporates are going to start to break. They’re cracking now and I think they’re going to break. I don’t think they’re going to be able to be globally competitive anymore. I think people had enough, and we’ve talked a little bit about this before recording in terms of different stages of our career and life.

I think people are starting to see that working for a brand or a corporation is not who they are and they want to leave a bit of legacy or have a credit to this in the world. Rather than going to work to just simply earn money, to keep a roof over their head, there has to be a greater purpose to why we are here.

Brendan: Absolutely. I agree. I do sort of feel that there needs to be some more, for want of a better phrase, [...] hitting the fan in organizations like in AMP or some of these banking stuff. It almost feels like some of the stuff was a bit further down in the past, now where some people still losing sight of what it is.

Not that I’m sitting here hoping that organizations like that crumble and hoping some of this stuff happens, but it feels to me in some of these organizations where it’s almost like there needs to be that continual reminder of change needed through some circumstances that are coming out, like what happened with (as you say) banking role commissions, AMP scenario and stuff like that.

But anyway, you used the word ‘thrive’ a number times. Again, it’s part of your mission. Love that would, by the way. What does this thriving culture mean? What success you working with the organizations in achieving this thriving culture? What does that look like?

Cassandra: That means that people can come to work, not have to put on a game face when they walk in the door, not have to put on a work demeanor. They can actually drop their guard (which takes energy), be themselves, know that they’re working in an environment that is psychologically safe, where it’s safe to speak [...], safe to table new ideas, it’s safe to have a voice without a fear of reprisal, and think energized because you’re feeling like you’re part of a high function in a team where you’re respected and valued.

You know what your financial [...] look like. You’ve decided. You [...] deciding in terms of how hard you want to work or not and [...] remuneration is. It may not just be direct salary. 

Being able to interface and influence directly with your customers. Not having to seek authority of omission to spend $100 on a new device or for an engineer to go and get a new part from a supervisor. It’s about capable adults having the freedom and the autonomy to go to work and work together, know that clear [...]. They decided a purpose and have the freedom to carry it out where they see fit. That, I believe, is the future of work.

I think that the command and control structure hierarchy is no longer relevant in the society that we’re evolving into. Thinking it just for purpose as well, having an innate belief in what that stands for, and seeing your role and your part in that gives people energy. It gives people drive, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, contribute to an organization, revive the best of yourself, and working with team members who are also capable and respected.

All these things are a part of a thriving formula. That’s what I wanted when I was at work. I wanted to just go to work, knowing that I can just do the job to the best of my abilities, be rewarded for it, be able to be at ease, and not be in fight-or-flight mode.

Most of the time, most people are in corporate settings. That amygdala gets triggered as soon as we fear, like we are in any perceived threat. Our subconscious brain triggers our amygdala. Scientifically, the evidence is there. It’s so clear and it’s been around for so long that it shuts down our frontal cortex which is ironically our reasoning and decision-making problem-solving part of our brain, and we start to go into survival mode.

Now, what a waste of energy. Just doesn’t make sense from the bottom line even, that most people are working around building all day, playing politics, worrying about how to protect their back, how to survive, how to get ahead, and how to actually just hold their positions. That’s thinking [...] to me and that can’t be the best we can do for work. I think there’s a much better solution.

Brendan: Cassandra, let’s say I’m leading an organization with hundreds of people. You just sold it to me. I mean, that sounds pretty good. Sounds like some pretty good outcomes, pretty good benefits of a thriving culture. So why wouldn’t I do it? Because not every leader is doing it.

Cassandra: Yeah. Well, firstly, Brendan, it takes a lot of courage to be a good leader. Of course, which is again at odds with our current system. Meeting KPIs that have been set by a board obviously drives most of our seniors and their behaviors. It’s acceptable for our senior leaders to (for example) demonstrate—in some cases that I’ve encountered—sort of sociopathic behaviors. That’s considered to be acceptable because they’re getting results. It’s not acceptable. It’s no longer acceptable.

The reason leaders also sometimes often are unable to implement these things as much as they may want to, is because they’re working in a system that doesn’t enable them to. The system is highly competitive. It’s command and control. It takes a lot of time, energy, and work to get to the top of that apex if you want to. 

Once you’re there, it’s very difficult to maintain that position as well and stay there, which obviously requires a certain skill set and personality type, which is a very small fraction of the population to actually be in that position. Yet that small percentage of the population is basically making decisions that affect thousands of people every day. That is why the current hierarchy doesn’t allow it. Basically, there’s room for a much better way of doing business. 

Brendan: Let’s move into that now, these formulas, these five elements that you’ve developed and devised. Let’s just start with the first one. We’ll just unpack each one as we go along rather than say the whole five. What’s this first one? So Cassandra, I’m leading this business. You sold it to me. Great. Let’s go. What do I need to learn to start with?

Cassandra: The first one is purpose. This is about the business having a clear reason to be. We’ve all heard about the purpose or vision and how important it is, but a real purpose drives people to do their best. It’s basically how well people connect to that statement or that vision. It evolves with the company. 

It has to be clear, repeatable, and it has to be developed by the people who are actually doing the work, that generates the revenue toward the company. Not from the top. It needs to be generated from below and crafted in a way that makes sense to them.

A really good example of a purpose is one that LinkedIn uses, actually, the very platform that we met on, Brandon. It’s to create economic opportunities for everybody in the global workforce. That’s a pretty powerful example of purpose that works. It makes sense. People understand it, buy into it, and want to be a part of it.

Brendan: I didn’t know that was LinkedIn’s purpose. But what you are telling me all these people that send me emails or messages on LinkedIn consistently about how they can get me more leads and all that stuff, and I said look, I’m okay, thanks very much, they’re actually just leading LinkedIn’s purpose. They’re helping me be more financial? I’m going to look at them completely different now, Cassandra. 

Cassandra: Brendan, it’s a very open community, so there are different ways of connecting on LinkedIn.

Brendan: Thank you for helping me. I need to look at those situations a little bit differently than what I’ve looked at them in the past. Please continue, Cassandra. Thanks for clarifying that.

Cassandra: That’s okay. The second one is freedom. This is about a much flatter structure of doing work.

Brendan: Cassandra, I’m being very rude. I would like to interrupt one more time with a most serious thing. I know you do a hell of other work with startups. You made a point around the purpose. 

For more established organizations, once it is larger employee numbers and getting involvement at the bottom, how does your work with founders differ, given that you’ve actually got the founders in the business, working with them and whoever around this purpose? Because they’re there. They founded the business as opposed to (say) you come in and working with an organization, the founder may be long gone and no family history.

Cassandra: Founders are under a different type of pressure than traditional corporate business leaders. Founders are often leading their first startup. They are under extraordinary pressure to achieve annualized average investment returns for their investors.

What that means is that (say) there are one or two co-founders who have a new assess or a new technology product, and they’ve received (say) preseed or Series A funding, which is usually around AU$2 million upwards. With that comes a very hard set of expectations as you can imagine, particularly from venture capitalists who have quite a defined scaling system (usually). 

Once their product/market fit is validated, founders need to be able to handle often scaling very fast. What that means is that they can be hiring (say) up to 100 or 200 people en masse, off-market, as fast as possible to stay competitive.

Not only that. They may have varying levels of leadership or management experience. They may be excellent software engineers or know their product they developed. They’re also needing to handle marketing visibility accelerators, and all of a sudden the whole interface or the bandwidth just stretches exponentially.

The last thing that they want to have the capacity or even be the information to consider sometimes is culture. It makes sense. They need to achieve those ARRs or else they’re not going to get through the funding and investors might pull out.

This is where founders have an exceptional opportunity to create and design a culture that’s going to support them during that usually highly chaotic scaling process. Of course, culture is the last thing to be considered in business playing. It always has been. It’s something that we’ll get to later or once things start to go wrong, that’s when culture becomes a priority of course.

That’s where founders need support. They need expertise and support to help them define what their culture is going to look like. Not just a vision statement that’s being developed in an afternoon. That’s not going to create a culture. Or some values put up on a wall. This is a serious deep dive, what do we stand for, what will we and won’t tolerate, how are we going to evolve, who do we want to work with. Clients and people look at what our culture is.

That’s the key difference. Is it different that are [...]? Starting from a baseline is the opportunity to build from scratch, which can support that chaotic scaling process and ensure longevity.

I’m shocked to discover that 75% considerably of VC-backed startups fail. That number is extraordinary, considering the sheer effort and analysis that goes into looking at the metrics around product/market fit and other criteria before a VC will even consider investment. 

Family offers are a little bit more flexible in their approach, but given the fact that going through the hoops and they’ve met certain criteria, why are so many startups still failing? The generalized reason is people problems. There may be a competitor product that arrives unexpectedly. There’s always those environmental factors, but the main reason is people problems.

Scaling is hard. It’s chaotic. It’s up and down. It’s uncertain. There is no playbook. That’s why culture, even this solid culture, a startup can sustain. When there’s not one that’s clearly defined, it can just shift and flow and ebb, and the tensions that conform this role can make or break it.

Brendan: It must be really difficult, I guess. I’ve had some experiences with some fans and also other more mature businesses where their purpose is kind of very financially-driven. Well, sometimes their purpose is not, but it’s clear through their behaviors that it’s financially-driven. That makes different decisions, and in my experience, isn’t that healthy for thriving cultures? 

How do you balance that and what have you seen in your own experience around founders, these pressures with VC situations, meeting financial targets, to say they got to make some really specific decisions, but I can really make decisions that damage the culture when you’re so focused on the financial numbers?

Cassandra: I think that the sentiment is changing. That focus on getting really high quarter-on-quarter returns has its place, and most VCs do operate from that viewpoint. However, I’m finding that other private investors, family offices are much more open to the idea of investing culture early. Having said that, VCs are also recognizing quite openly now that getting culture right at the beginning is important. They’re seeing it. They’re understanding it.

For example, Rick Baker from Blackbird Ventures mentioned last year that he now looks at a fourth top-level criteria when investing, which is evidence of a strong culture. Tim Fung, the CEO of Airtasker made a statement that he wished that they had considered culture early. It would have helped them enormously. TDM Growth Partners’ Ed Cowan also made a statement in his podcast, saying that culture is the hardest thing to scale if it’s not done right. I think we acknowledge the way this is growing and the data is also starting to bubble up to support that.

Having said that, though, I think consumers/customers are starting to look for evidence of companies that have a social position, that are going to provide a service back to humanity or the environment for the greater good. I think there’s going to be some pressure from the consumer/customer side as well, and they start to investigate which companies they want to do business with. 

Would you choose a courier who has a zero carbon impact compared to one that doesn’t, and offer the same delivery time for roughly the same price for example? So things are changing and they’re changing fast in my view.

Brendan: Thank you, Cassandra. Let’s move from purpose and let’s go to you mention freedom before I rudely interrupted. Tell us a bit about freedom.

Cassandra: You see the concept of why are we having a hierarchy which stifles growth, highly competitive, has silos, creates internal competition, to more like the analogy of a small rainforest which is a self-sustaining ecosystem. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s incredibly strong.

When adults are able to operate as organized teams, we accentualize ecosystem coordinator approach or a traditional ND who makes sure that teams have all the [...], all the support, and materials to do their jobs well, keeps them held to vision, keeps the [...] the right direction, but ultimately, their job is to make them.

When teams are able to interface directly with their client or their customer, and develop those strong relationships, they can also look for ways to add value to their customers because they know them so well, and experiment with new, better, improved versions of products. 

When experts are left alone without having to rely on constant instructions, not having to seek approval, and just to eliminate a lot of bureaucracy, that just [...] the CEO of JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon calls it bureaucracy disease because it’s just so stifling, we all know it’s heading is usually a waste of time, to be honest.

Freedom is about giving the adults capability, space, and reign to solve decisions by themselves. Trusting that they can solve decisions. Trusting that they know about doing a job without being micromanaged, without being told what to do, without having to check-in every second or third day, for example. That seems appropriate to me, particularly to move into humanity, which leads me to creativity.

Part of that freedom is the autonomy to be creative. This is so important because as humans, we are inherently creative beings. We wouldn’t have bridges and new tech if we weren’t creative. Creativity creates innovation, and constant creativity is absolutely essential for companies to stay competitive in a now global market. It is so important for us as people but also for a business to continue to evolve and thrive.

Google’s well-known for allowing their software engineers one day a week to focus purely on creating something or doing something experimental—whatever they like—and have that creativity time. That time, whether it’s in that format or another, is crucial. Or a business, such as a startup, for example, to continue to evolve and create new product versions or new products and experiment with those.

Brendan: How do you set up that freedom, cassandra? Is it simply a case of saying, hey guys, I trust you. Go and do your stuff. Make the right decisions.

Cassandra: There are quite a few factors. A great question, Brendan. Yes, that’s part of the trust is inherently [...]. Hiring people that are going to be able to operate well with freedom. People who have simply values around integrity, a work ethic, can solve problems quickly, intellectually capable for example, emotionally intelligent, maybe some factors that business owners might want to consider.

But also when is a culture all trust? When there’s an inherent understanding that mistakes aren’t to be punished, but mistakes are new experiences. It really does create the right environment to cultivate open conversations about new ideas, new thinking. Let’s try this out. Let’s see if what the customer is asking can actually be turned into something that we can use for them, for example. It becomes embedded in the culture, in the DNA.

Stand-up creativity or ideas sessions, for example. It’s all part of allowing people to be who they are and not having to conform to very restrictive job descriptions, which were developed during the industrial revolution, when people worked on machinery, and barely changed since, Brendan. 

That was appropriate at that time, almost 300 years ago. Unfortunately, organization design has really not progressed much since then at all surprisingly. So I’m kind of tearing up the rulebook a little bit. I don’t think there’s a need for an HR department, a [...] department, finance, area, internal affairs. Why should we need an internal affairs if we trust our staff, really? All these silos of functions that are considered to be normal in business really are so expensive to maintain. 

Compliance is another one. Why do we need compliance if we put adults who work well together, have a common purpose, and are seeing results? It instantly says we don’t trust you or we need to check up on you. That model also means that businesses don’t see opportunities that come over the hill because corporate are so focused and invested on maintaining their hierarchy that it’s quite [...] takes a lot of energy and time.

I think the big banks are great examples of these. They simply did not see the neo banks arriving in the market. They completely [...] almost. The market share of neo banks is a lot larger in Australia. 

Somewhere in Australia, you hook four or five neo banks, they’re really competitors since the big four banks. They’re obviously cost-effective, they’re cheap, they’re fast, they’re work well for the consumer, and I think that’s a much better way to do business than maintaining a large hierarchy. 

Brendan: Cassandra, I think you’ve touched a nerve with me. I agree with so much what you say to clear about the damage these compliance and HR and all that stuff does. I think at some point, I’m not sure if you’re going to be exactly the right person, but I need to get you a somebody and to talk about the damage that the HR function has done to culture over the time rather than help it. 

Anyway, that is definitely a different conversation. I’m very much on your wavelength, I have to say. My experience with those areas has been not very good in the past.

You’ve explained freedom and creativity piece. Really important there; I get what you’re saying. What takeaway from what you’ve said, too, it sounds really important to make sure that when we’re bringing people into our organization, that we have some clarity around the sorts of people and the behaviors that we want these people to have, that are in their own DNA because when that happens, then creating this freedom, having this creativity, people acting in a way that the organization values, will happen (I’m saying) naturally. 

Nothing ever happens naturally, but it’s more inclined to go the way you want as opposed to the way you don’t want by bringing in people who aren’t aligned with those behavioral values. Is that fair to say?

Cassandra: It is, and absolutely this is quite a complex topic as well, of course. At the top level, yes. There are some behaviors and values that are evident or intrinsic in terms of the way people speak and conduct themselves or why they’re attracted to a certain organization.

Having said that, though, it’s important to not hire people because they will be traditionally a cultural fit. Now, I know that sounds like a juxtaposition because you want people to obviously fit within support the culture. But on the other hand, hiring people that are too much like us means that we’re not going to be diverse.

Diversity is absolutely crucial. The reason for that is because there is not only data to demonstrate why clearly that. The greater level of diversity in the organization in terms of speculative demographics is a direct correlation with the number of different ideas that are generated from it.

This is critical. This is a crucial point in terms of maintaining an innovative, competitive company. We got people from a range of different backgrounds, obviously gender, experiences, ages, religions. Everybody’s going to offer a different viewpoint and create a thriving organization.

Having said that, there are some core values that you mentioned that should be deal breakers and that can be measured now through emerging technology, such as natural voice recognition, which is becoming quite sophisticated [...] basically, for being able to look past [...] actually select person who people have the right [...] or the right values for that role.

So yes, hiring should be done without the pressure of having to get a lot of people in the door fast as well because it’s bound to mean that a portion of those people won’t be a good fit and just maybe a little high, which is what startups grapple with all the time.

Insisting that urge to get people on the seats to be competitive and taking one’s time is a fine line, but not having a traditional HR recruitment function to do that and having an embedded recruitment or talent acquisition advisor who knows the business but also knows the industry and the landscape, and actually have advised managers or people on the team if they want to decide who should work with them, what candidates might be a sensible match for their purpose, and for how they work.

I think that area is evolving too. I think the days of traditional recruitment are going to need to keep pace with creating more diverse work.

Brendan: I think the reality is the traditional recruitment process is broken, and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result they call it insanity, isn’t it?

Again, I really appreciate you just unpacking that and touching on that point. Thankfully a couple of episodes ago—this is episode 68—we spoke to a lady very much around inclusion the DUI space, and she spoke very, very well around that. So 100% on board on what you’re saying. 

The generation or having that diversity in the different lenses that we all look at in the world through our experiences is super powerful, in progress in building that creativity piece that you mentioned around freedom. Super, super valuable.

Let’s go into three, Cassandra. What’s the third part of this creation, this motto you’ve work through, you’ve created?

Cassandra: It’s safety. This is the absolutely most critical part of a healthy culture. We’ve all heard the term psychological safety. It’s talked about and, to be honest, I have had one or two experiences in my career where I’ve actually experienced [...] with psychological safety.

Psychological safety is again about how our brains respond to our environment. Google’s project Aristotle in 2017 measured what were the most effective elements that created a high-performing workforce. They looked across their entire [...], and arranged the different factors. Psychological safety stood out by a mile in terms of what’s most important to have a highly-functioning workforce.

It’s no longer okay to not have a psych workforce where people experience any disrespectful behavior. Can’t table ideas without fear of reprisal or threatening somebody else. Bullying, of course, is an obvious one. Exclusion. Basically dehumanizing behaviors for work safety. Trust is core, like we’ve mentioned before, to creating safety. Trust is essential and there are certain key ways to do that, but psychological safety is the primary priority.

If we think about that rainforest concept that I’ve mentioned before, I have it mapped out on the work culture website. Safety is best in the floor of the roots of any system, It keeps it [...] for times of change, through different environmental factors. People feel safe. They know that they have a voice, they’re not under threat, and they can function at their best. I think it’s time for people to start feeling safer at work and not spending up to 60% of their time playing politics.

I’ve covered freedom, creativity, purpose, diversity, and safety. The way that I’ve made those different elements together is like a simple mathematical equation. If we look at freedom, creativity, and purpose along the top, and if it’s divided by safety on the bottom, even safety is diluted, any of those top three factors will also be diluted. So that has to be solid.

Then those four if they’re multiplied by diversity, that’s when you can expend any greater number of ideas can generate it. These all create an equals to a thriving workforce, thriving people. And thriving is the genesis of innovation. That’s why I call it the thriving formula. 

There are different ways to embed in our path all of those, but at the top level that is the formula that I battle-tested with a few groups, that I believe creates a thriving human ecosystem of work.

Brendan: Just run through that formula again, Cassandra.

Cassandra: It’s freedom plus creativity plus purpose divided by safety, and then right at the end multiplied by diversity. That equals thriving, which creates innovation.

I found that that’s a great way to translate my cultural blueprint in a way that makes sense to people. Everybody can relate to those elements and has some experience in what they mean to them.

Brendan: Safety as the division part of the equation, let’s say, so freedom plus creativity plus purpose over safety. All of that formula, by the way, is fantastic from understanding safety and how divisions make things smaller in mathematics, I suppose. 

What is it that makes things bigger as far as safety goes in [...]? I know and am aware that safety is a massive bucket of stuff, and it’s lots of little things repeatable. But again, have you seen something that a leader has done or an organization has really focused on, that has doubled down on safety, has really stood out as, well that’s something that I need to harness and use for more organizations because it makes a significant difference?

Cassandra: Yeah. I had the opportunity to experiment a little bit with this when I was heading up a team sometime ago in the federal government. Basically, what I did was I took with me the key things that I admired from the leaders that I have worked with.

I sat down with my team and said, look. I want us to develop a vision and purpose, but it actually belongs to you. This is your vision. You’re creating this with me. We did that, and then I said, I want to basically lay down the ground rules in terms of how we’re going to work and what you think is appropriate in terms of values.

Once I had a chance to do that, then I explained that I want you to know that I’m here to support you. My gender is simply to help you to do your jobs, to be leaders, so that I can lead in the way that I need to achieve my outcomes.

There are no such things as silly questions. If you have a question, ask it. Ask it to me, ask it of your team mates, ask it of somebody else in the organization. If something’s not right, speak up and I will back you. Come and chat to me if you feel comfortable doing so and I will support you. That is my job, even if it means putting my neck out or taking risks.

If you’re not well, if you feel like you need a day off work, you genuinely do, take a day off work. Let me know in advance if you can. If not, that’s okay. Just let me or someone else in the team know.

All these factors, that is simply my starting experience. Immediately, I could see people’s anxiety levels starting to drop, thinking I could just not worry about having to pick up the kids some of these particular days, or this concern I’ve had for a while but I haven’t been able to speak about because I know somebody else is not going to agree with me. If you could just see the worries that have diminished in the room, and that created an instant sense of trust that obviously we have to continue to build.

The other thing that I’ve done is I’ve rewarded staff where it’s been really appropriate. People come up with new ideas or they work the extra mile, I openly acknowledge them or nominate them for an award. That creates incredible traction and a ripple effect. When these people start to become role models themselves too, that affects other teams and it affects other parts of the organization.

That’s been my approach to creating trust and safety; to let people know that it’s okay to make mistakes, that I have their back. They are supported. If they do a good job, they’re going to get rewarded for it.

Brendan: I know we’ve gone down in a sequential order, and maybe that is the way to go; I’m not sure. Where is the best place to start for an organization in this model?

Cassandra: From scratch, really. If we’re talking large corporates, a large corporate needs to be honest. It needs to be broken down before it can be rebuilt. I worked on a lot of transformation programs as you know. A lot of change of roles and the sheer millions of dollars that are spent on yet another transformation, another restructure. Not to mention the human [...] it has, that the latest leadership training off-the-shelf products, there are so many of them and so many are often rehashed and reused in a different form because people don’t know what the solution is. Organizations are looking for the solution to fix their culture.

To be blunt, it’s too late. Unless organizations are really willing to have the courage to sit down and be open-minded to doing things differently in creating a new structure and a new way of being, a new way of doing things, it’s a hard ask in a regular corporate.

On the other hand, smaller, newer businesses, before they scale, when the culture starts to take care of itself basically, it becomes its own entity. I used the words ‘takes care of itself.’ It doesn’t take care of itself, ironically. It needs to be set deliberately and decided how it’s going to look, feel, and be. That translates to the customer, of course.

What leaders of large corporations can do is be open-minded about how they’re going to reassess their hierarchy because I don’t think that hierarchy has anything to do the work, that role much longer. And for small organizations, to lead the charge and lead the way, because they have an incredible opportunity to create brilliant cultures from scratch. It’s such a golden opportunity that large organizations just do not have. That’s what I think needs to happen for a thriving workplace to be built.

Brendan: It’s again a great point, but established organizations can’t go back and like, we’re just going to close this down and we’re going to start up as a startup again or anything like that. So again, in your experience, what attributes do you think a leader needs to have in order to have the courage to turn around culture in an organization? Is he ultimately that CEO person?

Cassandra: A leader needs to be honest. Pop their ego out the door that’s driving a lot of behavior. Be humble, be willing to listen to staff. There’s a real opportunity for boards to also change the way that they do business as part of this.

I think the days of boards deciding the strategy and what an organization should and shouldn’t be doing based on quarterly meetings where people fly and bring their papers the last minute, it not really [...] retuns. It’s not really the best way to do business.

If I had a multi-million dollar company, I would want to know what somebody in operations thinks about the business. I would want to know what someone in marketing is doing in terms of their strategic outlook. What a salesperson on the ground is experiencing, what their feedback is. 

All the different parts of the business should be at the boardroom table. It shouldn’t be a set of external people that have often got in that role because of their connections. How is that going to create a highly-functioning company? I don’t see the logic. I understand the history, I understand the concept, but I don’t see the logic in that. I never have. 

There are some stellar people on board that are [...] highly capable, and often juggling those roles in tandem with a range of other board roles. An executive role and other responsibilities are not best placed to make those decisions. They’re often get told what executives tell them and what executives want them to hear, which is not the reality of what’s actually going on on the ground floor, in terms of the revenue generating the business.

Going back to your question about what leaders can do, leaders can actually still create a vision and lead the company, but they can do it in a way that evolves everybody in an organization. They have a much more integrated role.

Good sponsorship as well is about understanding different parts of the business, going out on the ground and saying, utility for example. Having a GM or a CEO actually go out and speak to some of the men and women who are delivering the service on a hot day, or when they experienced a safety incident or there’s been a death. These are much, much more effective ways for a CEO to understand what’s going on, and actually make the changes or lead in a way that is [...] for the business, not in a way that they know and understand.

Brendan: Cassandra, I love the way you think. I think the exciting thing for me I’d love to see to be sitting in the boardroom or a fly on a wall because I reckon you rocked a few boardrooms from time to time. And to be honest, that’s exactly what’s needed in some of the stuff we’re talking about. Maybe when you’re doing that you can invite me sometime. Just to sort of be a fly on the wall. Just to watch how much you make people squirm.

Look, I always liked to ask our guest here. Again, I love your thinking as I said. What has the greatest impact on this journey of yours of being a leader in your field and being a leader in organizations that you’ve led in the past?

Cassandra: Deciding to stand true to myself, which takes enormous courage and strength. As a leader in my different roles, standing by my staff, being true to my word, and displaying integrity, compassion, and respect has been challenging to maintain and uphold that. And now that I’m leading my own businesses, to uphold those in a different way.

I get sometimes quite a bit of pushback from people who don’t agree with what I’m doing, which is fine and that’s their opinion. But knowing what my true values are, those are non-negotiable. Nobody else can define who I am and no corporation, no brand, or no client is able to dilute my values. Those are the things that I keep coming back to. They formed when I was a girl, and as an adult that just really crystalized. I’m very clear about those. I think that’s essential to lead in any aspect of life, to be honest.

Brendan: Absolutely. I love how you go back and [...] as a girl. It’s this whole journey of life where the discovering and learning of ourselves, but then the important thing is you obviously done and articulated very well is take time to think about what these things are and how you articulate them. That really helps you make decisions through life; what’s a good decision for you, what’s a not good decision for you, or what’s a good client looking for you to one that’s not.

When you don’t have that clarity, it doesn’t feel right. You’re not really sure why it doesn’t feel right. You end up making a few mistakes along the lines that you probably wouldn’t have made if you’ve got some clarity around that. Well done for you being a leader that has actually done that, walking the talk and living it each and every day.

Cassandra, this has been a fascinating conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. There is one more question I have to ask because, again, what we said at the top of the show, you spent time in the prime minister and cabinet, and there’s going to be a federal election sometime in May where we understand a date yet to be decided, but who’s going to win this thing?

Cassandra: This is the hardest question of the show.

Brendan: I think you’re right there.

Cassandra: Actually, the current director of the liberal party is a very capable young man who I actually used to play soccer with in Canberra. I know him [...]. I’m not showing my colors, but I know he’s going to be a very tough campaign manager and difficult for a labor to beat. Who knows? It’s like everything in the world, Brendan. Nobody knows. It would be fascinating to really say this time.

Brendan: Absolutely. If we only had a crystal ball, right? It certainly will be fascinating, but thankfully we live in what we think is a fantastic democracy. It’s all about choice and people make that choice whenever that date arrives.

Cassandra, thank you very much I said a number of times. I love the way you think. I love the formula. I know that those sort of formulas, those sort of models just come up in five minutes. There is that journey, process, and experience that underpins that. Well done on putting that together and utilizing stuff that actually builds and helps leaders and organizations have sustainable change and growth with their culture. 

Keep up the great work. I look forward to maintaining the relationship that we started now. I think we got a few things that we can chinwag over and some similar concepts that we believe in. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you on The Culture of Things podcast.

Cassandra: Thanks, Brendan. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you for having me.

Brendan: Integrity, respect and justice. These are the values Cassandra stands for. It’s not surprising she found her values challenged, in the high level political environments she's been involved in. Because she knows what she stands for, she could reflect on the challenges to her value system and make deliberate choices on what she would do. 

This is the sign of a true leader. Someone who knows who they are, how they want to show up, and can make the tough decisions to make changes if the place of work and her values aren’t aligned.

Are you in a workplace where your values are being challenged? What are you doing about it? These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Cassandra.

My first key takeaway: Leaders are proactive. They aren’t stuck in the day to day. They aren’t getting caught up with emergency after emergency. When it comes to creating a great culture, they are particularly proactive. It’s not about waiting for a crisis to happen to instigate a focus on culture. They are proactive, and always working on culture from day one

 My second key takeaway: Leaders don’t play politics. Politics in the workplace is rife. Real leaders don’t get involved in politics, they deal with it as they know how destructive it is in teams and for culture. Playing politics isn’t respectful of people. Leaders respect people, which is why they never play politics.

My third key takeaway: Leaders build reliable, repeatable systems. Through their own experience, they build systems that work for them. Not technical systems, but systems in how they want to lead. Cassandra has built a system off the back of her own years of leadership experience. Freedom plus creativity plus purpose divided by safety, then multiplied by diversity equals thriving people. This is the reliable and repeatable system Cassandra has developed for herself and her clients.

So in summary, my three key takeaways were: Leaders are proactive; leaders don’t play politics; and leaders build reliable, repeatable systems.

If you want to talk about culture, leadership, or teamwork, or have any questions or feedback about the episode, leave me a comment on the socials or contact me at thecultureofthings.com. Thanks for joining me, and remember, the best outcome is on the other side of a genuine conversation.


Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.