Don't Jump at Shadows - Back your Culture

01 December 2016

Author: Dr Alec O’Connell, Headmaster of Scotch College, Western Australia.

I recently presented to a group of CEOs of Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) regarding the challenges facing schools in the current economic environment.

While one may be tempted to articulate some highbrow intellectual discourse on economics and cost controls, I simply spoke about reinforcing the culture that made you strong in the first place. Why? The answer is simple.

In times of challenge some organisations and schools start jumping at shadows in reaction to a change in the external conditions of which they have no control. Instead they should remain focused on what made them strong in the first place - their culture. It is highly likely that a school's cultural advantage has been a key driver of their success through good and bad times and it is highly likely that a strong culture will drive future success and growth.

There is a common saying in business circles that ‘culture eats strategy tor breakfast.’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Psychology Professor Edgar Schein, in his book 'Organizational Culture Leadership ' chose another way to phrase this hypothesis - 'culture determines and limits strategy '. I would argue that if your culture is weak, so will be your capacity to deliver on strategy.

Why focus on Culture?

Culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why. It is a way of saying 'this is how things are done around here'. Focusing on your culture provides purpose, provides accountability for exceeding performance and models the organisation's core values.

Some leaders and academics believe that if something cannot be measured then it can't be improved. In many cases I share a similar view. However, there is a counter argument and one we should not ignore; that is, not all things that matter can be measured. Trying to assess and measure ones' organisational culture is one such example. Having said this, I believe as a College it is our responsibility to find ways to measure, articulate and build upon our cultural strength and our cultural mores (our way of doing things, customs and practices).

Tools such as our annual surveys, parent support and focus groups, and other feedback mechanisms can be used to measure our culture and hold ourselves accountable to the intended deliverables.

There are some who refer to culture as being the soft part of the organisation. This couldn't be further from the truth. In the 26 September, 2016 edition of The Australian Financial Review (AFR), the concept of culture being a soft outcome for businesses was again reinforced. In an article entitled ' Investor Backlash over CEO 'diversity' bonuses', Patrick Durkin was critical of what he termed flaky bonuses being paid to CEOs for achieving diversity and cultural targets. While I agree that the achievement of these targets should simply be part of a CEO's base salary, I do not support the premise that they are flaky constructs. In my view if you don't know how to measure your culture, then go and find out how you can.

Cultural reform and/or reinforcement may well be the most difficult task facing a leader and their community. In challenging times, it is a non-negotiable imperative that we must be able to clearly articulate our culture.

Cultural differentiation is critical to growth and improvement. Culture must be intentionally created in order to provide differentiation between like organisations. If we can't do this as a school, then the only difference between Scotch and the others will be the colour of our uniforms and our postcode. If we continue to get it right then we will not only continue to deliver on our promises, but hopefully exceed what our stakeholders expect us to deliver.

Now more than ever we must exhibit cultural clarity. We all have to embrace and actively engage with our culture, we must be held accountable for demonstrating the values that embody who we are and we need to use examples and stories to reinforce the culture we expect and demand.

In essence, the benefits of creating and promoting a strong culture are numerous. If we stay focused on culture it will lead to buy-in and organisational commitment, thus engendering a sense of pride and loyalty for past, current and future members of the Scotch community. Furthermore, cultural clarity provides a lens through which change agendas can be driven, and creates a shared vision and purpose that can help drive employment practices and ultimately provide a strong intrinsic framework for reward and progress.

During times of challenge, organisations require a clear strategy that is grounded in their organisation’s culture, not based on some trendy business maxim. Schools are no different and the bedrock of Scotch is our culture, no matter if the external environment is economically buoyant or challenged.


About the Author

Dr Alec O'Connell commenced as the 7th Headmaster of Scotch College in June 2011. Before taking on the role of Headmaster at Scotch College, Dr O’Connell was the Assistant Director at the Catholic Education Office of WA where he held the portfolio of People and Organisational Services. He graduated as a teacher in 1982 and since graduating has worked across K-Tertiary, including holding a variety of both teaching and administrative positions.

He was the foundation Head and CEO of Trinity at the University of WA and held the positions of the Executive Director, Vice Chancellery and Executive of Academic and Student Services at The University of Notre Dame Australia. He was the WA Chairperson and a member of the National Board of the Australian College of Educators.

He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators, the Australian Institute of Management and the National Association of University Colleges and Halls and a Life Member of Trinity Residential College at the University of Western Australia.

Alec has a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Western Australia where he investigated the concept of Values Congruence and its effect on Organisational Commitment.  He also holds a Diploma of Teaching, Bachelor and Master of Education, Graduate Diploma of Language Studies and Diploma Royal Society of Arts London. He has provided a number of guest lectures on the topic of Leadership and Values.

He currently is a Director of the Association of Independent Schools in WA (AISWA), a member of the the UWA Business School Ambassadorial Committee and has is an inaugural committee member of the Forrest Foundation Committee of the University of Western Australia. He also chairs the Health Sciences External Advisory Board at the University of Notre Dame.

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