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[Interview] Colin D Ellis, International Speaker, Bestselling Author And Organizational Culture Change Consultant

Colin D Ellis is a renowned culture change and project management expert who works with organizations around the world to help them transform how they get things done.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, he’s the author of four books, including his most recent, “Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work“.

We chat with Colin on workplace culture and organizational change.

Describe your professional background and how it led you to your current position.

For 30 years I was part of other people’s cultures in the UK (where I was born), New Zealand and Australia. From my early days working at the frontline at a bank and selling advertising space for a newspaper, I always loved being part of a team. So when I got the opportunity in the late 1990s to become a project manager, I jumped at the chance to build my own.

Over the 20 years that followed and through my rise up the corporate ladder in three countries, I never stopped looking for ways to build great culture. In 2015 I attended a conference and felt like the speakers weren’t speaking about the issues that people faced in the workplace — or else injected enough practical advice or entertainment to keep people listening — so I decided then that that’s what I wanted to do.

The first year wasn’t so great(!), but in 2016 I self-published a book and delivered a couple of speeches that changed everything for me. Now I help organizations transform their workplace cultures and I do this through the books that I write, public speaking at conferences around the world and by running facilitated programs for organizations that need a bit of help. A

s a former permanent employee of 30 years, it used to frustrate me that authors, speakers at conferences and consultants wouldn’t give away how to change culture, so I’ve tried to build my practice to be the antithesis of that. My new book, “Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work“, has been 20 years in the making. I believe in providing practical advice, delivered with lots of humour. There just isn’t enough common sense or laughter in workplaces these days, so I see it as my role to inject it.

What drives you to do this work?

I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of boring team-building programs, delivered without enthusiasm or laughter, that did nothing to help people to change, define culture or create a mindset of excitement where everything is possible. Nothing that I do is “standard,” as there’s no such thing as a standard organization, so I put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that the programs and speeches that I run are not only practical, but relevant at that moment in time, too.

Why do some many organizations struggle to create an engaging cultural environment for their employees?

Because they forget that culture belongs to everyone and don’t provide the opportunity for everyone to define it. A mistake senior managers often make is that they think they own the culture and that they can impose it onto the staff. They can’t. Culture isn’t something that’s “owned” by anyone because everyone gets a say.

Regardless of where people sit on a structure chart, their length of service, their performance or their mindset, they all influence the culture. Culture is the totality of everyone’s behaviors, stories, beliefs, traditions, skills and habits.

A People and Culture Department may be the custodian of culture, but it doesn’t get to pin a tail on it and say that it’s theirs.

It’s a double-edged sword for senior managers, as they don’t own it and yet, through their actions (or inactions), they have the power to destroy it. This feels counter-intuitive for most senior managers who have imposed command and control structures on staff for years with little recourse. However, times have changed and most senior managers have yet to catch up.

If organizations want to create an engaging culture, then they have to put the definition of the culture (and the accountability for evolving it) into the hands of its staff.

What factors make it more imminent that organizations need to focus on culture change?

We describe broken cultures often as toxic, and when an organization has one of these, it’s vital that they take action. Toxic cultures are created as a result of low emotionally intelligent employees who feel little to no connection with their teammates, what the team or organization is trying to achieve or how they’re going about it. It presents itself in many forms — poor behavior towards colleagues or customers, silent objection, missed targets and deadlines, gossip, anger, harassment, discrimination and fear.

There’s often no clear strategy, communication is recalcitrant and senior managers tolerate brilliant jerks. These cultures are psychologically unsafe for everyone that works in them.

In this kind of culture, organizations will not only miss their targets and lose their good people, but they also run the risk of becoming irrelevant. In the private sector this leads to a loss of market share and shareholder confidence, while in the public sector, directors move on or else departments are merged or “retired” in complicated and seemingly never-ending restructures.

All cultures evolve regardless of whether they work to evolve or not, however, the only chance an organization has of changing its culture is when it spends time and money doing just that.

What new ways of working need to be put into practice to bring about culture change?

Organizations should avoid cultural shortcuts — such as changing the layout of the desks, having a restructure, renaming teams or the current favorite, “going agile.” All of these should be part of a larger cultural evolution program, however an organization can only change its culture when it addresses the root cause of the issues.

The following are all important to stimulate new ways of working: An aspirational vision statement, a set of values, an awareness of everyone’s personality and communicate style, a set of behaviors to hold each other to, some principles around how collaboration happens and making time for innovation.

Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight, but by taking a couple of days to define what vibrant looks like, organizations have the chance to actually get there.

Can you describe how an organization performs when it lives its values?

A company’s values are the fundamental beliefs upon which the business and its behavior are based, and they’re specific to what an organization does. They not only guide the way that people behave, but also how they will keep their promises to staff, shareholders or the general public.

Values set the tone for everything within the culture, and employees’ performance should be measured by their contribution to the values. Without a set of values, there’s no emotional compass to guide people’s behaviors towards each other and from which to build respect.

What benefits result from a vibrant organizational culture?

There are a great many tangible and intangible benefits from investing time, money and effort into defining a workplace culture. These include:

  • Improved communication
  • Greater productivity
  • Increased sales
  • Higher customer satisfaction
  • Increased likelihood of competitive achievement
  • Reduction in absenteeism
  • Retention of key staff/performers
  • More ideas and innovation
  • Continual learning

Ultimately, however, it’s about happier staff and, when you get that, anything is possible.

To learn more, visit www.culturefix.xyz.

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Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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