Celebrating differences and recognizing team members’ leadership potential to help drive a culture of trust and empowerment

By Marty Parker

While it’s true that leaders set the tone for culture, it’s also true that as leaders, we can’t be in all places at all times. Ensuring that your corporate culture is understood, lived and celebrated by team members across departments, divisions and even locations, becomes the job of a variety of leaders across an organization.

I recently sat down with Debra Hewson, the President & CEO of Odlum Brown Limited, to talk about how she  about how she and her team build culture and  identify leaders and culture champions – all while celebrating the differences and shared sensibilities that contribute to their award-winning culture.

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

Marty Parker:
As the President and CEO, how do you see your role in building, maybe the better word is sustaining, the culture at Odlum?

Debra Hewson:
Well, I think in any culture, whether it’s a family, a business, it doesn’t matter, tone comes from the top. And so, I very much see my role here as establishing that tone and setting what we expect to be how people are treated, whether they’re clients, whether they’re partners, doesn’t matter who they are. So for us, it’s a simple message, but I’m a big believer in the golden rule and treat those the way you would expect to be treated. That means respectfully being a good listener, trying to find a common path.

The easiest way I think to do that is to say: “This is how we expect business and relationships to be conducted.” Everyone can have a different way of doing that, but at the end of the day, it has to be done in a respectful, conciliatory can-do kind of way. If you want to work that way, then there’s definitely a place for you here. If that’s not the way you want to work, that’s fine, but you probably aren’t going to find a successful place at Odlum.

Marty Parker:
You have a variety of leaders and they have different styles. I mean, you have some who are formal, some who are informal. So how do you rally them? How do you, I guess keep them together and aligned as champions of your culture?

Debra Hewson:
Well, I think it’s about celebrating what makes them different, but also celebrating what connects us. So I don’t want to surround myself with people who just are like me… They may have different mannerisms, different styles, but at the end of the day, if we all don’t fundamentally believe that we’re here to achieve a common goal and that is to serve our clients and to actually have fun while we’re doing it and do a really great job, then we really don’t have much.

So it’s about kind of saying these are the non-negotiables and the non-negotiables are respectful behavior, listening to what other people have to say, trying to find a consensus and understanding that we’re better as a group than we are as individuals. If we can get that right, then we’ll be very successful. I think the firm has always had that belief.

Marty Parker:
It’s rare that you hear celebrate differences and those things that are most common or the connection points. I know you’ve been very deliberate in developing a community of leaders in the last number of years there, but why is there an intentional focus on leadership development, and maybe talk to us a little bit about how you do that?

Debra Hewson:
Well, as I said, earlier, tone comes from the top and I set that, but I can’t be everywhere all the time and it can’t be entirely on me. So I think about it that I need cultural ambassadors throughout the firm, and those are our leaders, but I also fundamentally believe … I’ve always felt that leadership is all about a mindset, it’s not a role. So anybody has the capacity to be a leader.

Some of the best leadership lessons I’ve learned have been from people that were not in leadership positions at all, but had the ability to kind of think outside of themselves and think about what’s really important here. And so for us, it’s about trying to develop that mentality among our entire team, certainly, we do it within our leadership, our senior leadership teams and our operational teams. But really it’s about trying to instill in all of our people, that they are a leader in what they do every day and that how they approach that leadership matters, and that the skills that they learn, not just at Odlum, but in other things that they do, whether it’s coaching soccer or sitting on their school’s parent advisory, like all of those, or whether it’s running the dinner table, all your kids are talking at once and you manage that. That’s leadership. Trying to tell people, let them see that those things are in front of them all the time and it’s not just about getting an office or a title. It’s about how you show up and how you think about things. Once people realize that they have that ability within them because they just never sort of thought of it as being a leader before, then all of a sudden that skillset starts to transfer into everything that they do.

Marty Parker:
What do you see as critical to the future of aligning your people, the team at Odlum to your culture, but also attracting new talent to your high-performance culture?

Debra Hewson:
I think the biggest issue of all, and it’s always been there, but I think it’s really come to the fore in the last eight, nine weeks, for sure, it’s trust. It’s all about trust. Who do you trust? Who do you listen to? I mean, we’re seeing great examples of who to trust and who not to trust in the current environment that we’re in. Trust, I think is all about saying, “We’re going to do our absolute best to try and find a path through this. We’re going to make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have and be as transparent as we can be about those decisions. We’re going to know that we’re going to make some good decisions and we’re probably going to make a couple of bad ones too.” When we make the bad ones, if we have the right people at the table that have a diverse way of thinking about things, they’re going to call out those bad ones and we’re going to course correct.

That if we can acknowledge that we’ve done that and that we’re constantly thinking like, “Okay, I tried this, I had the best of intentions. It worked great. What can I build on?” Or, “I tried this, it didn’t work so well, what do we need to do to refine and move in a different direction?” I think the more that you can include your team in that decision making and have their input onto how that they feel about that trust that you’re trying to build, because they’ll be pretty quick to point it out if they don’t have it, that’s what people are going to expect more and more.

We were talking about the coming back to work in this current environment and that’s all about trust. It’s got everything to do with us saying, “We’re going to do our best to provide a safe environment and we’re going to look to the people that we trust to provide us with the principles around that. We trust you to tell us when we’ve got it right and when we don’t.” I think that that will be the paradigm shift for all of it. I always think it’s been there, but I think in the past, maybe it was more of a trust me, and now it’ll be more of a let’s trust together.

Marty Parker:
Boy, what’s you’re saying is absolutely spot on. This is central to almost every discussion we’re having on what we’re finding to be a cultural paradigm shift. I’m going to generalize, but if you look at the models of the past, they were built on, we got to keep people together, keep them close by, monitoring them closely. Obviously, I’m exaggerating to make the point, but it was really not built on trust.

The future business model and future culture will be based on, we’re going to give you trust. We’re going to give you the tools. We’re going to support you in that. We’re going to enable your judgment. You’ll make some bad decisions. We’ll make some bad decisions. We’ll make hopefully more right decisions, but it’s based on trust, really it’s central. At that shift is what is going to be somewhat challenging for us, and it’s going to take iteration and experience.

Debra, what else, trust being central, but what trends do you see coming in terms of what’s going to impact us when we’re building high-performance cultures?

Debra Hewson:
I think the soft skills are definitely the piece that’s going to differentiate firms going forward because it’s about understanding how to motivate different people in different ways. It’s all about learning those soft skills. That when I ask Marty to do it, I need to ask this way, and when I asked Debra to do it, I need to ask this way because they both respond differently.

I think that’s really going to be critical, particularly when you have people potentially working remotely for longer periods of time. Mediums like Zoom and Teams that are out there, they’re helpful, but they’re still not the same as sitting in a room and reading the visual cues. And so, we have to learn to develop those skills in a different way now. I think that’ll be very interesting and something that we really need to be investing in for people, because it requires a different skillset.

Marty Parker:
Debra, last question. That is, you’re sitting across from a young, dynamic, entrepreneur, professional manager who is engaging upon their own high-performance culture journey. What is the one piece of advice that you would give them?

Debra Hewson:
Culture is… you have to be consistent. You have to be committed a hundred percent of the time. Every decision, every initiative you have to think about through the lens of culture, and you have to play the long game, and it is a long game. It’s not just Tuesday afternoon is, “I’m going to think about culture.” It’s in everything that you do. If you’re not thinking about that as you’re trying to move your business, wherever you’re trying to move it to, you will not get there. It is a long game and consistency matters. Consistency, it matters.