Rebuilding culture and regaining trust

Published on Tue, 31/10/2023 - 15:04

The CBI’s chief people officer and Principia Advisory’s CEO are to address the Airmic Risk Forum on 23 November.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is embarked on a challenging effort to rebuild, of its internal culture and external reputation, following allegations of misconduct in April

Six months later, and two women are primarily responsible for leading this ethical drive: Elizabeth Wallace is the CBI’s chief people officer, with overall responsibility for setting the People and Culture agenda for the CBI; and Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory, who has been enlisted to provide external support to the efforts to rebuild confidence, trust and culture at the CBI.

Airmic News caught up with Miller (see article below) to discuss the challenges in supporting the CBI’s recovery.

Both women will address the Risk Forum and Exhibition being hosted by Airmic on 23 November, for which registrations are opening soon. The event is taking place at etcVenues, 133 Houndsditch in London.

Ethics focus: Q&A with Sarah Miller, CEO of Principia Advisory

Principia’s chief executive will address the Airmic Risk Forum on 23 November, alongside Elizabeth Wallace, chief people officer of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

How are you working together to regain trust after the events of earlier this year – are there some things you have to focus on first?

Regaining trust in a situation like this takes time. There are a lot of changes that can be made quite quickly and lead to immediate improvements, but getting back to a place of trust is about people, about relationships.  And just like in our personal lives, mending relationships after a period of pain and distrust is hard.  I think it comes down to the role of leaders in showing, both as individuals and as a team, that they have genuinely listened and understand this, and that they have a vision and a plan for what will change that people get behind.  But perhaps most critically, supporting them to put it in to practice, to live the changes day in and day out, is what leads to rebuilt trust.

How have you and the organisation learned from the experience?

I learn from every client I work with, but perhaps most from working alongside those who are in a place of crisis.  True character comes out at that stage – of individuals, and of the organization as a whole. Organizations can emerge as much stronger after experiences like these if they are in a posture of humility and willingness to learn, which was true of everyone I interacted with at the CBI, and most critically the Board and the leadership team.  The takeaway for me about CBI was working with people to try to ‘square the circle’ of the high engagement scores, pride in the purpose of the organisation alongside the clearly negative experience of some colleagues.  While this variability of experience is very common in the organizations we work with, the strength of the connection to the organization’s identity and the positive experience of the majority in the case of the CBI could have made it very challenging to be open to learning.  But it was really the opposite.

I remember one early focus group conversation where a senior manager said, “I genuinely do not understand how we’re in this place, I’ve had such a great experience during my eight years here.  I can’t reconcile what I’m hearing with my own experience, or what I’ve heard from other friends and colleagues here. But I refuse to be in denial – I want to be open and learn, and help the colleagues and organization that I care so much about start to heal, and make sure we can have even more of an impact because of this experience moving forward.” 

Our team found that was consistent in almost every interaction we had, which is certainly not our experience everywhere! I think the posture of learning was something that Brian and Jill from the Board and Rain really aligned on, and was a core part of why they brought my team at Principia in – not just to do a standard culture assessment, but to really ask the hard questions about the ethical fabric of the organization, and to make sure the CBI rebuilds in a way that strengthens the foundations of its identity and ways of working. 

How important is culture, and how do you work on changing, improving or rebuilding it?

Most leaders at this stage are very well versed in the importance of culture, have regular mechanisms to measure it, and have ongoing initiatives to develop and engage their people.  The challenge is that culture is always evolving, and there are moments when a combination of external and internal factors or changes demand something more.  Sometimes it’s a moment of crisis, like with the CBI.  But more often it’s just the daily work of maintaining, which can be hard enough! 

To develop culture, we have to develop the ‘software’ of values, expectations, and employee capabilities, and the ‘hardware’ of risk and compliance systems – and perhaps most critically, how they interact. Looking at what motivates responsible behaviour and making sure it is continually alive in the organization is the most critical foundation. It’s a clear warning signal when people can’t name a single value or principle, or point out some of the tensions or grey areas that they’ve had to wrestle with in line with values. Engagement scores can mask a lot, and they also serve a different purpose.  Focusing on the drivers of what shapes behaviours in an organization is a better signal of ethical health and predictor of risk. Developing ethical leadership at different levels is a proactive step organizations can take, equipping leaders to understand their role in shaping culture and have the practical techniques to integrate into daily work.  When the inevitable challenging moments in the culture arise, leaders can be in a much better place to effectively engage with them and prevent them from snowballing into a significant ethical crisis.  Ongoing listening and improving is, of course, much easier than the hard work of rebuilding.