The Human Resources (HR) role has evolved significantly over the years – from being purely administrative, to including training and development for succession planning, to pioneering employee relations initiatives.

Historically, HR has been seen as a timid role with team members seldom challenging nor having a real voice when it came to how executives lead.

While championing and socialising the company’s purpose, vision, mission, values and brand promise (the identity) forms part of this, inspiring a purposeful corporate culture cannot rest on the shoulders of the HR department alone.

HR does not own the culture – leadership does and always will. It is however up to the HR team to act as a mirror and remind leaders that the HR function supports leadership through providing various tools (i.e. assessments, learning tools and change interventions) to help leadership own, inspire and improve the culture.

Fostering a purposeful culture is not done via paper and policy; it must burn in the heart of every team member. It is not driven by a single department. It is sustained by authentic action from everyone on a daily basis.

But it is up to leadership to spark the fire.

Example versus incentive

We have all heard of the proverbial carrot and stick, both being necessary sometimes, but the carrot being preferred by team members. Everyone recognises that reward and disciplinary policies need to be in place but I would, however, like to suggest a third “have-to have”: leading by way of setting a purpose-driven example.

Consider former Starbucks International President Howard Behar who strongly believes in a servant-leadership approach to building a purposeful culture at Starbucks where openness, inclusion and collaboration are the name of the game. Even though he is no longer president, he is still hands-on involved in the stores and motivates team members wherever he goes – whether helping cleaning coffee stations or picking up paper on the floor i.e. setting the example of what is expected from all Starbucks team members.

When a leader leads in this manner (i.e. in support of the company purpose), team members will aspire to follow suit. While leaders must put in the time and effort to communicate the company purpose in words, it is more important and impactful to do so in the way that they show up. People are inspired by authenticity.

Collaboration versus ego

On the other side of the spectrum is a culture driven from the top in an authoritative manner with little view of the means but rather the results.

Consider how the culture at Volkswagen – led with an iron fist by the executive team –  became its downfall. VW prided itself on its now-infamous diesel engine which was to be the answer that environmentalists had been searching for – extremely low gas emissions (beating emission test requirements). This piqued many consumers’ interests with 11 million such vehicles being sold worldwide. It only came to light later on that they had installed devices which generated the “results” using fake data.

How could this have happened?

Ex-CEO Martin Winterkom had great goals for the business – wanting it to be the world’s biggest car manufacturer – and doing so at any cost. The repercussions have been monumental leading to lawsuits from various fronts.

He instilled a culture of fear where failure was unacceptable and landed them in a turbulent situation. 

Opportunity versus responsibility

Leadership has a great responsibility but also a great opportunity. In order to foster an inclusive and participative culture, it is important that all team members are aligned to the purpose of the organisation and better yet, if their personal purpose is aligned to the organisation’s purpose.

Besides socialising and role-modelling the organisation’s values, it is important to ensure that all operational aspects are also aligned with the identity. For example, does the strategy take into account what the vision is? Is the strategy aligned to the organisation’s values?

Team members watch leaders’ every moves, giving the leaders opportunity to role-model all the time. The challenge is to role-model it in a manner that inspires positive behaviours from others.

Asking versus telling

Although job descriptions and Key Responsibility Areas/Performance Indicators guide employee growth, as mentioned above, we should really aim to connect a team member’s personal purpose to the company purpose. This means giving them the opportunity to set personal goals and providing open communication channels that make it easy for them to contribute. Ask them what is personally important to them in terms of their role and their greater contribution to the organisation so that you can support them. Are team members’ Key Responsibility Areas linked to the identity – i.e. do they know how they are working towards achieving the success that the organisation is seeking?

Collaborating versus telling

It is important for leaders to communicate openly (tell) when the opportunity is there, but it is equally – or even more – important to invite input from others to work better together (collaborate).

While the HR department traditionally and often is the go-to place for team members’ queries and complaints, there should be two-way communication between team members and their leaders directly. They should feel free to approach their line manager with input, suggestions or concerns. Reaching solutions together should be encouraged.

Doing versus watching

Provide the platform for all to illustrate the organisation’s culture at work and in the public eye.

While the HR team is often responsible for initiating and running corporate social investment opportunities, leaders should be part of the decision regarding which initiatives to support – ensuring that it is also aligned to the organisation’s purpose. And, leaders should be seen participating in a hands-on manner.

For example, giving back to the community is of huge importance to Ackermans – so much so that every employee receives a day of leave per year to volunteer their time in a meaningful manner. McDonalds is well on its way to achieving its 2020 aspirational goal of increasing the amount of in-restaurant recycling to 50% in support of its value of “Good Planet”. They further encourage their “Planet Champions” to use energy and water efficiently, and even recycle their cooking oil into bio-diesel in the UK. What great initiatives from their leaders!

From the above, we can see that while some of the traditional HR roles might still need to stay within the HR department, leaders must be part of the decisions that get made there, and ensure that they set the example of being true brand ambassadors in all that they do.

Building a purposeful corporate culture is not the HR department’s responsibility – it is everyone’s responsibility and requires leadership to set the example. The time has come for HR folk to find their voice and encourage leadership to show up as custodians of the organisational culture.

By Brian Eagar

This article was first published by Leadership magazine