A Focus on Caring Can Help Drive Performance

By Marty Parker

Thanks to the increased focus that many organizations are placing on soft skills (like empathy, compassion and authenticity) the link between purpose, caring and performance has never been stronger. A culture focused on caring – for the people you work with, about the work you’re doing, and about the purpose of the organization – can make all the difference when it comes to driving high performance.

I recently sat down with Chantal Guay, CEO of the Standards Council of Canada (SCC), to talk about how that organization’s focus on caring has become a core part of their culture, and how it’s helping to drive performance.

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

Marty Parker:
Now, SCC is one of the growing number of organizations that’s really putting a premium on soft skills, or in other words, emotional intelligence in a variety of things, but perhaps even in its recruitment programs. So talk a little bit about why you’ve made that shift and what the impact has been on your hiring practices.

Chantal Guay:
Yeah. I think there’s been tons of research, Marty, done about why people leave organizations or why new hires fail. And for us, you can teach skills like technical skills, you can teach them, but attitude and emotional intelligence, that’s tougher. So, especially in the collaboration context, you need that interpersonal skills. You need to be able to sit down and have a point of view, but be able to listen and to reach a middle ground, a place where we both agree. I mean, standards are consensus documents, or consensus concepts at the core. So for us, it was something that was very important and we’ve included that in our performance management. So now we have objectives, but have also done  very deep work on defining competencies and behaviour that we’re expecting.

And they’re linked to the technical skills, but also to the soft skills. And I think it has helped us elevate this notion that you might be… I mean, I might be a great engineer, but if I cannot work with people around me, what am I good for in the sense of… Again, in a context of standards, the work we do is in collaboration with tens of thousands of people every year. So we have to be able to do this. And we found that by putting in place those competencies, and integrating them into the performance management was a key for us. It has helped us a lot.

Marty Parker:
Wonderful. Now, engagement is a theme that came up repeatedly in your 2020 Most Admired Corporate Cultures submission. Talk to us about why engaged team is so vital in a high performance culture.

Chantal Guay:
I don’t see life happening or results happening without that. I mean, for me, again, it’s at the core. Staff is our resources, right? So empowering, engaging to make sure that we’re aligned, we understand the vision, we’re committed, it speaks to our core purpose… If you’re not interested or it doesn’t speak to you or call you, change jobs, right? And we firmly believe that healthy and engaged employees along with obviously a very strong workplace culture, we have to cultivate the culture, right? That’s like a relationship. You have to work at it. And we believe that’s the secret recipe for organizational success. And we feel we’ve been very successful. We recognize that strong connection between engagement, wellness, right? And performance. And we acknowledge the importance of that connection.

It’s a strategic priority for SCC. Organizational excellence, wellness, engagement. We measure it. My board wants me to measure it. I mean, they don’t have to ask me, I’ll do it. But that’s very important. That culture aspect is pervasive in the organization and top priority for the board as it should be. We feel that employees that succeed, that have a purpose, feeling good about their contributions is the perfect formula to be successful.

Marty Parker:
Now, we all know that the past 12 months, working on 13, have been very challenging. But they’ve also put a spotlight on a number of issues that are very important, including mental health, diversity and inclusiveness. Now, as a leader, Chantal, what’s your role when it comes to championing these discussions or these issues with your team and in the workplace?

Chantal Guay:
Top of mind. I mean, when the pandemic struck us, very, very quickly we gathered as a leadership team and talked about what will be the principles or the values that will guide all our next decisions, right? And the first one was compassion. We wanted to be compassionate of the situation that was happening, and we wanted to be flexible. And that’s the workforce of the future, is flexibility, and then being very agile. And my role was to be championing those discussions, right? I think that it was very important and it’s still very important to be transparent, to acknowledge what’s going on, to be vulnerable as a leader saying, “I’m not turning my camera on today because I’m Zoomed out,” right? So, I think that it’s very important being inclusive, being compassionate, and showing that we care, and continuing to use those values.

And we have spent a lot of time ,and we’ve done a few pulse surveys to also understand what was the level of anxiety that existed within staff? And our way to address this was to be extremely transparent and communicating a lot so that there was going to be some predictability, at least from the work perspective, because we could not control the rest, right? We could not control the schools. We could not control the lockdowns. But everything that had to do with work, we wanted to make sure that people knew what was expected of them, but also people knew what was coming. So, we do now a weekly newsletter to the staff. We have a town hall every month. We used to do it at a different frequency, if you will. And the other thing is, we also agreed that, okay, with pulsing, we’re doing a survey on staff, what we’re hearing, we need to act now on it.

So for example, the last pulse survey we did, a lot of the anxiety was linked to the workload, right? So within a few days of when we received the results of that survey, we took action. We started discussing how do we review priorities and how do we ensure that what we’re going to focus on between now and the end of fiscal is what is essential? So, I think that has made us be able to pivot very quickly at SCC, but also maintain a very healthy workforce.

And we talk about mental health all the time. I think every message I have every week has a part of mental health. We’ve taken all kinds of steps to make sure that whatever we can do to help the colleagues… we were doing that.

Marty Parker:
Chantal, what did the past 12 months taught you about your culture at SCC?

Chantal Guay:
I think that it has just highlighted that the foundation or the path we’ve decided to take was the right one: a culture focused on caring for those that you work with, caring for those that do the work, caring for those that believe in the purpose of the organization. So for me, it’s just confirmed we have the right foundation and also that our approach to this crisis – compassion, caring, flexibility. We’re due to review our values, and I think we’ll embed a lot of this going forward.

Marty Parker:
So what trends do you foresee coming in building high-performance cultures

Chantal Guay:
Well, I think that we talked about an important one, which is flexibility, right? And for me, why? So that we remain resilient, right? So, we’re going to have to continue to be very flexible, very agile in order to be able to survive and show preparedness, right? In the new reality. So for me, resilience is going to be a very important theme. And I think it’s coming at us. I mean, it’s there, right? We just have to hop on that train. It’s going to be for the better anyway.

I think that the second part, and we’re very much involving the 50–30 Challenge, and we speak a lot about diversity and inclusiveness, but we think that there’s going to be a need to move beyond the basic concept of diversity. I think that workplace inclusiveness is really the next aspirational level. And that’s something that we’re thinking deeply about and that we want to continue to improve. We want to make sure that all employees continue to feel valued, respected and supported, and that we have the best workplace to do that. So, I look at important decisions that the federal government has made, like the 50-30 is a good example, but the other one is creating actually a group that will develop standards just based on accessibility, right? That’s unheard of, right? … And for us, the important connection to actually standards is this concept of design for all, right? I can design something wonderful for everybody that can see and can hear, but it’s not going to work for those that cannot see and cannot hear. And there is 25 per cent of the Canadian population that are disabled, right? … And it’s something that in our work environment, but also in the work we’re going to do in the standards where we need to focus on.

I don’t think it’s a trend, I think is essential, but ensuring that we connect our staff… connect their sense of purpose to what we do as an organization’s purpose. And I think it’s fundamental. I have a lot of, I’m a baby boomer, so younger employees in the organization, and if you talk about, not their calling, I’m looking for the word in English, but what ignites them, what makes them passionate, it’s very much touching on their purpose. When you talk about the work that you can do at SCC, that touches on the purpose. They’re incredible people. Incredible. So, that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on. And as we are transforming and evolving our vision, we want to make sure we bring the whole group together and that we build on those great ideas and those great individuals that have an incredible purpose in contributing to Canada and Canadians in one way or another

Marty Parker:
If there was one  piece of advice that you’d give to a young person or newer leader who’s just starting their leadership or high performance culture journey, what would that be?

Chantal Guay:
My first advice is to believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re passionate about. Believe in the purpose that you found inside of yourself. Believe in your abilities and your skills. Lead with your head and your heart.

And the second piece of advice is humble self confidence is the cornerstone of exceptional leadership. It allows you to manage and inspire others with assurance and direction, and still be welcoming and listening actively to what they’re saying. So, I think that obviously authenticity is key, but humility is so important. I’ve met incredible people all along my career. And I mean, recently, I’m on a board where most people are Order of Canada people, right? And they are the most humble people I’ve ever met and they’ve done incredible things for Canada. So please, self-confidence, but humility with it.