When your corporate culture is strong, your recruitment and retention efforts benefit

By Marty Parker

When a company has a corporate culture that works – one that people connect to, that drives performance, and that encourages diversity and collaboration – it can be magnetic. Not only will that type of culture play a role in keeping top performers at the organization, it can be a key factor in attracting new talent to the team.

A few weeks ago I sat down with Michael McCain, President and CEO at Maple Leaf Foods, to talk about what he’s learned about the value of having a strong corporate culture at the centre of an organization, and why he believes it’s important for leaders to own their culture.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
When we started talking about culture in the early 2000s you were one of the louder voices. But where did your views on corporate culture come from? And why have you always seen it as important for leaders to be on the front line of culture and for organizational culture to really be the center driver behind performance?

Michael McCain:
That’s a very important question. And I have to maybe answer that with some historical context. I came out of a private enterprise that my father and his brother built over a very long period of time and I would tell you that in the 40-plus years that they operated that business together as partners they never once used the C word of culture, they never once talked about company values, never crossed the radar. There’s no posters on the wall, there was nothing, yet they had a profoundly well understood culture in their organization. All of which is leads you to the conclusion that the behaviors of the leaders is the single most important attribute to culture development in an organization. And they were very clear over that 40 year history of their own behaviour and the behaviours they expected of their teams in defining that culture.

When we acquired Maple Leaf as an organization in 1995, one of the first observations I made with the board at the time was I believed as a long term owner/operator that our success was going to be ultimately defined by the people in our organization and the environment that they worked in and how they behave together. But the observation at the time was that there really was no strong culture at the Maple Leaf organization. It was a disparate federation of businesses if you will. And I remember identifying, actually at least half a dozen, unique cultures throughout the organization all defined by the divisional heads, not one common bond.

And I believed at the time, back in the late 90s, that that was going to define our success was having the bond, the glue of a really powerful culture that was magnetic to the people inside the organization or people coming to the organization and defined how we would work together. So because it was a re-engineering, if you will, of a common bond of an organization that we’d come into as opposed to my father and his brother who built that organization brick by brick from the very first day they opened up the door, it was a different approach to building culture. And certainly recognized that we needed to manage it overtly, proactively manage it to achieve the outcomes that we wanted. So we started in that journey in kind of the late 1990s and we’ve been at it ever since.

Marty Parker:
It’s amazing that the number of Maple Leaf alumni that have gone on to help other organizations build high performance cultures, a number of a subset of those have gone on to win our Canada’s Most Admired Award. So with that as kind of a backdrop, Michael, how do you explain the way that kind of culture resonates at Maple Leaf? And what lessons do you think that people have taken away from that?

Michael McCain:
I’ve heard that a lot. It’s important to me but it’s important to everybody at Maple Leaf. I mean, we’ve made it the centerpiece of the time we spend together, right. I mean, at the end of the day people are drawn to an organization where they can work professionally beside people in whom they’re like-minded. That doesn’t mean a lack of diversity in their thinking, but they’re like-minded about how they work together.

Very early on, we were clear on what culture meant to us, right. Everybody’s got their own definition of what it meant to us. I think probably the simplest and best definition that we attach ourselves to is that culture is basically how people are going to behave when nobody’s looking. And as the leader of the organization, that was really important to me because I’m not looking at everything all the time and I really, really wanted to pay attention. We all wanted to pay attention, all the people on our team wanted to pay attention to the behavioral attributes of the organization, right. And if we were aspiring to a high performance culture, which we have for all of these decades, how we behave together was fundamental to achieving the performance that we aspired to.

And so like-minded people, right, gravitate to environments where they align with the behavioral norms of the organization, right. They find that, intoxicating might be one word, but certainly they embrace it and they find it as a very powerful inspiration in what they bring to their work each and every day, knowing that the environment that they work in, and recognizing if you have a high performance culture, we have high performance people on our team and they have choice, right. Every one of these individuals, they get to choose where they commit their time each and every day of their professional lives. And they make that choice based on where they get the most satisfaction of working with like-minded people.

And so with that framework in mind we’ve really concentrated on making it the glue of the organization. So we’ve managed it proactively through our HR systems, we talk about it all the time. I mean, it’s not something that’s a poster on the wall that’s part of our discourse every day that we come to the office, about attaching the behaviors of the organization to what we believe are the true north of our behavior is defined by our leadership values and the culture of the organization. So I think people who have been part of Maple Leaf over the years have aligned on the reality that this is a powerful, organizational medium of management and carried that forward.

Marty Parker:
Talk a little bit if you would about your absolutely huge, deep, and unfettered commitment to leadership and management development, which I know continues today and where that came from and how that has been center to those behavioral kind of connections that drive performance.

Michael McCain:
As far as our commitment to the people in the organization, the adjunct to strong culture is our willingness to invest in our people…And we’ve made over the last 25 years, we’ve made investing in talent part of the value proposition to attracting that talent. So the investment that we make through our leadership development processes, and they’ve morphed, we’re on multiple generations of that leadership investment framework, the value proposition to the individuals is a company that invests in their growth, the opportunities for them to grow in the organization and the environment that they are attached to and are attracted to. The value proposition for us as an organization is that, obviously it’s a great retention tool as an organization to say we’ve got a talented individual that’s part of the value proposition for them to both come to Maple Leaf and stay at Maple Leaf is because if we can address the question we will invest in you and your personal growth is certainly attractive to talent.

But also kind of the second agenda which has been really powerful for us is all of those leadership investment opportunities and touch points have been yet another opportunity for us to teach, promote, find the cult and culture if you will around our Leadership Edge and culture, our values, right. So we’ve made that a cornerstone for all of those reasons. Part of the human capital of our talent strategy but also the ability to use that as a framework for teaching our culture.

Marty Parker:
You’ve been a great mentor to many, many, many people, but if you were going to give one piece of advice to someone looking to start their leadership journey in a high performance culture, build a business as an entrepreneur or lead in a professional environment, what would you share with them today in terms of what you’ve learned over the years of culture and its impact on performance?

Michael McCain:
I think the one, if you wanted to distill it down to one piece of advice, I think it would be own it, right. This is not a delegate-able kind of a thing, right. It’s as a leader, you need to own it. And that ownership comes in lots of different forms. It comes in your participation in defining the culture, your ownership of defining the culture that you aspire to. It comes in your participation and engagement in teaching that culture as you kind of see it unfold in your organization. And it comes with owning it in terms of your own personal behavior, to make sure that even though you define it and you teach it that your actions will ultimately be the story behind the story of culture development in the organization, so owning your own behaviors that are aligned with that culture is absolutely essential.

So I would say very simply that if you believe as I do that the culture, how people behave when you’re not looking is the single most important job of a leader, owning that behavior broadly throughout your organization is really, really important than you got to own it.