Purpose, Authenticity and Gratitude Are Key Ingredients in Strong Corporate Cultures

By Marty Parker

The “what” and “how” of building a strong corporate culture varies by organization, but there are some core elements that can be found across almost every high-performance culture: strong values/a strong purpose; a strong foundation of trust and authenticity; and an understanding of the power of recognition (or gratitude).

I recently had the chance to speak with Margaret McNeil of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice about the role that purpose, authenticity and gratitude play at that organization. Her advice: they are central to building and sustaining a strong culture, and a strong team.

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

Marty Parker:
Margaret, I’m curious to know, as the CEO, what’s been your role in sustaining culture?

Margaret McNeil:
Well, I’m going to start actually before me. Canuck Place started with the vision of a pediatric oncology nurse, and she really believed in the fact that the way children were dying in hospital was not the way that they should be. And so it was really her vision that supporters signed on to, in the belief of a vision of a holistic, family-centered model of care, and that really sustains us today.

So when I came to the organization, I inherited this incredible culture of exceptional clinical care. And that has always been the foundation of Canuck Place. But there were some holes in the organization when I joined it, because to me in building a sustaining culture, you need to do two things. One is you have to be absolutely intentional about it. If you’re not intentional, it’s not going to happen. And the other thing you have to be is incredibly curious, because that curiosity allows leaders to engage with their staff and with their donors and with their families to find out what’s important to them…And also the other part of that is really helping people see what their role is in building and sustaining that culture. Every person at Canuck Place is here because they believe in the mission and the values of what Canuck Place does for kids and families – and also for each other. We very much have a strong family culture, but I think being open to the feedback, their ideas about culture, looking for the opportunities and acting on them, because staff and volunteers need to see leadership in action around culture. And if you’re not intentional about it, it’s not going to happen.

You also have to say, thank you. The tone is set from the top, and if staff and volunteers see leaders acting in an inauthentic way, there’s absolutely no way that you can build and sustain culture. It needs to be believed and lived and demonstrated in everything from job descriptions to competencies, to celebrating with staff, to finding ways to really acknowledge the positive culture that we have. Success builds success, and so you really do have to be intentional about it.

I also think as leaders, what we do is we check in with our key decisions and make sure that they align with our values and they align with their culture. And it’s humbling to do that kind of check in and be deliberate about it, because then when we’re taking that decision to staff, then we can be clear that it was the culture and our values that really helped us come to that decision.

Marty Parker:
I know that Canuck Place is truly a values-based organization. What does that mean at Canuck Place and to you Margaret, and how is it an important differentiator when you’re attracting and retaining key talent?

Margaret McNeil:
So much of what Canuck Place does is not about what we do, but how we do it. And what our staff all know is that every interaction with a family matters.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a cook who is serving a family at a dinner time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a housekeeper, who’s there looking after the family room. It doesn’t matter if it’s a nurse or one of our fundraisers who is engaging with a donor. It’s how that work is done, which is absolutely critical. And that’s our big differentiator, I think, is the how. Because at the centre of everything that we do is care for the child and their family, and it’s the little moments that truly make a difference.

I was talking to one of our new cooks the other day, and he was so excited. He said, “The family really likes my food.” And I said, “Well, you make really great food. It’s fantastic.” And he said, “Yeah, my mom taught me to cook.” And he said, “But they liked my food so much, I thought I would ask them what kind of snacks that they liked. So I made their favorite snacks.” And the fact that a family who was staying at one of our hospices, they’re exhausted, they probably haven’t slept very well, their kids need 24/7 care (whether they’re in for medical respite, pain and symptom management, or end of life care) – these families live with incredible circumstances that none of us can really imagine. And to have somebody take the time to say, I care by making your favorite snacks, I care because you’re having a really tough day. What can I do to help you and support you? All of that is absolutely critical.

And so that culture of engagement with values is so critical. We built the values with our staff. So we went through a process a few years ago to refresh them, and we engaged all staff in that exercise so that all staff have the ability to see themselves not only in the mission of the organization, but in how their role contributes to making us successful. And also from an HR perspective and trying to describe the behaviours that support those values – because if we can describe the behaviours that support those values, then staff can understand them. Because it’s easy to look at words on a page, but to really live them and create the opportunities for people to live them, and also to create the supports within the organization to allow them to live is equally important. And those values apply as much to the care that we deliver as to how we look after and steward our donors to how staff and volunteers look after each other – it’s just embedded and infused in every part of what we do.

Marty Parker:
What do you see as critical to the future of aligning your people to your culture, as well as attracting new talent to your own high-performance culture at Canuck Place?

Margaret McNeil:
I think the qualities of successful leadership are really timeless. I think people look for clarity of a vision. They look for authenticity, and if leadership is not seen as being authentic and aligned it is able to be picked up very quickly.

So we have to make sure also that there’s really good staff engagement. I don’t make the organization successful, the 200 people who work here and the 400 volunteers make the organization successful. So staff engagement to me is absolutely critical because I think that leads to connectivity, so both individuals and teams can form a more direct connection and break down barriers and also be able to see themselves in their part of the success of the organization. And I think that resonates with everyone.

And it also spills over then to our relationship with our donors and with our key partners, because if we’re acting with openness, transparency about the things that go well and the things that don’t go well – to pretend that staff don’t know when something hasn’t gone right, we’re all fooling ourselves a little bit. So I think you just speak to it openly, honestly –  it’s not about what happened, it’s what you do about what happened, and do that with transparency, whether it’s a town hall meeting, whether it’s written communication, whether it’s within teams, whether it’s an informal conversation that you’re having, it all needs to resonate and it all needs to be aligned.

Marty Parker:
If you’re giving one piece of advice to someone looking to start their high performance leadership team culture journey at an organization, be it in the broader public sector, the not-for-profit sector, the private sector, what would you share with them?

Margaret McNeil:
I think where I would start is expressing gratitude. Now people come to work, they spend a lot of time here. They all have families. A lot of people are working from home now, that’s creating a lot of challenges for people. We’re finding that our staff are needing a lot more support from their managers, just because of the challenges of working from home. But regardless of that, it’s expressing gratitude and saying, thank you for what they do. And I think that also gives the opportunity for them to talk about what they’re proud about. And it also gives us as leaders, the opportunity to talk about how that aligns with what the mission is and for the organization, so that again, they can see their part in how what they are doing is contributing to the success of the organization.

And I think that gratitude piece can’t be underestimated – when someone says, thank you, and not just says thank you, but thank you because you did a really great job…So if they can see what sort of behaviours they are, and be thanked for what they do, that goes a heck of a long way to building an incredible culture. Of course, there needs to be a little bit of course correction from time to time, but the big thing is just to be grateful and to be thankful that we have incredible people working in our organization who really want to make a difference in the lives of kids and families.