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Why good leadership must be about more than just ‘caring’

Leadership 101 says that workplace culture is only as good as the tone set at – and by – the top.

Too often this is (mis)interpreted and simplified to mean that a good workplace culture is one in which your boss is unreservedly nice and caring and supports everything you do.

So it was refreshing to hear Shell Australia chair Zoe Yujnovich add some reality to this notion during an insightful address at The West Australian’s Leadership Matters breakfast in Perth on Wednesday.

“Caring is not only about displaying empathy, coaching and support but can also be about holding people to account,” Yujnovich, a Perth-raised engineer who has been in charge of Shell’s Australian operations since April 2017, said.

“An important alternative dimension to caring which sometimes gets avoided can also be the act of intervening – to call something out, to identify what needs to change, not because it is easy but because not doing so would create an acceptance of the behaviours which could place people in danger.

“The consequences of not intervening can be interpreted as silent endorsement, which ultimately contaminates the culture like a disease.”

The between-the-lines message is that enforcement and accountability does not have to produce a culture of blame. Instead, she calls it a “culture that is sustainable” because it balances care with compliance and trust with verification.

There was another gem in her speech, which addressed a regular corporate shortcoming and not just during tough economic times.

“As business people we are used to developing strategy (and) driving goals (and) good at delivering results,” Yujnovich said.

“We are often so good at articulating the what that our lack of focus on the how gets misinterpreted as being less important, leading some to the conclusion that cutting corners to deliver performance may be ok.”

Even worse, she added, sometimes the ambitions and stretch goals set at – and understood by – the top to drive healthy performance lose their clarity as they filter down through the organisation. By the time they get to the “frontline employee”, they are regarded as onerous – fatal for a positive workplace culture.

Referencing banking Royal Commission supremo Kenneth Hayne, Yujnovich said an organisation’s culture must be set at the top, echoed from the bottom and reinforced at every level.

This is where the communications piece kicks in to ensure the right tone percolates successfully through the organisation.

It was perhaps Yujnovich’s most important message in an era where corporate leaders are so heavily focused on portraying the right image to external stakeholders that they sometimes forget about what happens inside their organisation.

“I see one of my critical functions in leading Shell Australia is to share our strategic ambition in a way that resonates with the hearts and minds, both inside and outside our organisation,” she said.

How many corporate leaders do you know who are brilliant at sharing their strategic ambition externally, but far from successful in communicating their story on the inside?

“Whatever the initial motivation that draws people to an organisation, leaders must be able to align those around them so everyone is pulling in the same direction around a common purpose,” Yujnovich said.

If your own team doesn’t understand the what and how goals you have set for them, you have failed the communications challenge and can hold little hope of fostering a positive workplace culture that will deliver operational and financial success.

Peter Klinger has more than 20 years’ experience in daily journalism and as Cannings Purple’s Director of Media Strategy has devised communication strategies for $1 billion worth of corporate transactions involving ASX-listed companies. Contact Peter.

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