Celebrating corporate culture

By Marty Parker

Each year, close to 700 business executives, representing every imaginable industry and from every corner of the country, gather together to celebrate corporate culture at the Canada’s Most Admired Gala. It’s great night that not only shines a spotlight on the amazing cultures that exist at some of Canada’s top organizations, but also salutes everyone – from executives to new hires – who contributes to the success of the winning organizations.

If you haven’t been part of the event, you can find photos here, and I highly recommend you consider nominating your own company for an award!

For the past four years, the man at the front of the room keeping everyone entertained and making sure the vibe in the room is one of celebration, not dinner with the boss, is comedian Steve Patterson. Steve is an award-winning comic, author, and host of CBC’s The Debaters. And after four years of watching and talking with some of Canada’s top executives, he’s gained a unique perspective on corporate culture, but also on the role that humor and celebration play in culture.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk with Steve about the Canada’s Most Admired program, the business of comedy, and what he’s learned about celebrating corporate culture.

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

Marty Parker:

So you’ve had some experience now, certainly with Canada’s Most Admired, and seeing these incredible organizations that use their cultures, how they do things to drive performance. So what really stands out to you about that?

Steve Patterson:

First of all, I love that, well, we’ve built up the trust now over a few years, but really coming into that, in a room like that where there’s so many different people from so many different backgrounds, and cultures, and organizations. But it’s not just a corporate event for giant companies and bank organizations and financial institutions. It is across the board. It is non-profit, it is public groups, private groups. So it’s a lot of people in the room that normally wouldn’t be in the same room. And that’s why I got into comedy, frankly, is to entertain groups that normally wouldn’t sit down together.

And I’m blown away every year by the speeches of the people that win, the organizations that win, and the leaders that win. You can see the common thread is that every leader has so many people to thank and really doesn’t take a lot of credit ever. The ones that I’ve seen win are very much, “I’m winning because of the people that surround me.” And it’s a great lesson. It really made me realize the common thread that I find among everyone and, and there’s so many different stories, but the best leaders give all the credit to the people that surround them, taking none of the credit for being the people that brought those people together and forming that team. That’s a refreshing change. That’s leadership to me, giving credit to others.

Marty Parker:

Humility is a huge part of it, I think. And certainly we see it. Jim Collins wrote about it in “Good to Great”, and based on a lot of research, we see this evolving now in leadership towards that style of being humble and giving credit, moving on to create an environment where people can feel safe. Not just the safety that we may be dealing with with the pandemic we’re dealing with today. That’s one thing. But psychologically safe, that they can say and do, and take risks and fail. Because without failure, we have no experience. Without experience, we can’t have success.

Maybe you can tell us a little bit about motivation and positive outlook, and a little bit about humor in tough times. How do you find it? I mean, it’s not as simple as, “Well, I’m a comedian, I’m a funny guy.” How do you find that, and what would your guidance be to leaders out there during these times, in terms of what’s appropriate? How do you find it? How do we use it?

Steve Patterson:

I can tell you this from writing ads, there’s advertising funny and there’s funny-funny.

If you see a funny ad, it’s great and they’ve done a great job of selling it because it’s got to go through levels of approval. When you see terrible ads, you just wonder, “How did that get through even one person, let alone many?” And that’s frustrating.

There’s a reason that people bring in professionals to do comedy. And if you truly want to have your business connect with people, have a professional comedian come in and work with you. If you want to do comedy, they might push too far and you can say, “No, we’re not comfortable with that.” But you won’t even know what too far is if you don’t bring a comedian in who has spent their life trying to be funny, and being funny, frankly. Proven funny.

I think that just like anything else, is you need a professional. You bring consultants in because that’s what they do. You bring a plumber in to fix your sink because you’re probably not a plumber. Don’t think that you can suddenly find a sense of humor at a professional level if you don’t have it. There’s lots of funny people in the world, but it’s the difference between doing a video that’s internal for your team that they laugh at because they have to, or a video that’s actually funny because someone that spends their life writing comedy has worked on it.

So I hope that businesses will see that opportunity. And again, I like to combine comedy with business more than a lot of comedians, but everyone’s funny in their own way and there’s lots of different kinds of businesses. It’s not just all buttoned down, white collar, big Fortune 500 businesses anymore. So find the comedy personality that matches you and work with them. See what you can do.

Marty Parker:

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in working with the business community over the last number of years?  What’s the biggest thing that you’ve learned from all of this interface with the business community that’s possibly helped you?

Steve Patterson:

Honestly, optimism is always better than pessimism and pessimism disguised as realism is still pessimism.

I did a show, I’m going to say two years ago,  it was a group of bankers and it was a group of people from politics and I did whatever I did for my opening message. And then, a banker came up and basically said, “Well, everything Steve said doesn’t really apply.”  Because he’s a numbers person. And I came up after, and again, it’s not my job to make fun of people, but he really went against what they had brought him there for. And I said, “You’ve got your numbers and I get it. And it’s good to be realistic, but if there’s nowhere to go but up, why wouldn’t you be up? Why wouldn’t you be optimistic? Because not being optimistic is not going to get you out of it. It’s just going to be more of a negative spiral. Maybe there is more of a bottom and you’re not at it.”

So the optimism is important. And that’s true of all the organizations that you see. They wouldn’t even apply for an award if they didn’t think that they deserved it and they weren’t proud of what they’re doing and they wanted to get their message out. So optimism, always optimism because the alternative is terrible.