Building Culture

Organizations are faced with increasing pressures of employee satisfaction, productivity, retention and attraction. These often manifest themselves in poor results, low engagement scores or a lousy reputation in the marketplace– among customers and prospective talent alike.

Sometimes, they don’t manifest themselves at all. At least, until the competition shows-up to set new expectations with customers, greater performance benchmarks and an alternative place for your best people.

Such pressures weigh heavily on established norms. They challenge the status quo– exposing the strengths and weaknesses of your business. They reveal your true culture.

In an interview with Norm Sabapathy, Executive Vice President of People for The Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited we discuss culture as a management discipline and how it can be architected to affect organizational behaviour.

I previously wrote In Praise of HR for the very reason people like Norm Sabapathy do what they do. The burning platform is for HR to deliver value, solutions, results or some variation on these themes to ‘earn a seat’ at the table. Regrettably, and somewhat contradictory to these latest demands, HR professionals are expected to provide transformational results while maintaining a traditional relationship to the business.

Simply stated, everyone inside and outside of HR is beginning to recognize that people are the strategy. Competitive advantage is gained by the engagement of knowledge workers. In such a dynamic economic and information environment, management initiatives that do not proactively enable human performance actually serve to limit them. Not to mention the wealth of potential contribution from people that goes unrealized.

Our job as managers is to create the space where people can be successful, competent and accomplished. An environment that elicits desired behaviours.


“Culture has become more relevant recently because old measures of financial performance have fallen apart.”


For HR leaders, a culture mandate gets you a seat at the table because you are driving performance across all functions. The debate is on whether or not we can actually engineer a desired culture, or why we would even want to. There is usually more than one inside an organization and each is highly subjective in how it is interpreted or defined.

Culture is a reflection of applied principles, practices, beliefs and values that shape our behaviour. An expression of our achievements and human experiences. We often equate it to what gets produced by an individual or group of people. The ends versus the means of production.

Norm takes a constructive approach, where leaders model the values… which cause behaviours… that demonstrate a culture of performance. What matters are the means and results of production. This places the emphasis squarely on how we shape or reinforce individual and organizational behaviour.


“What behaviour are we causing? Nothing ever happens in an organization without behaviour.”


For Norm and the leadership at Cadillac Fairview, culture is important– something associated with better business results. One of their first strategic priorities is making people and culture a competitive advantage.

How we draw the association between culture and performance is crucial. Norm seeks to first establish an awareness and sensitivity to what it is compared to the results they want to achieve. Then, with the outcomes in mind, identify the behaviours, attitudes and beliefs they need. Are these going to get us the results? Does our culture demonstrate our ability to achieve the outcomes? Investing in it means you perform better.

It is about affecting behaviour.

If we think like architects and apply a few similar design principles to our organizations, we can build ideal work ‘spaces’ where a requisite culture takes shape:

Sense of place

    • Identity and belonging
    • Purpose and objective

Accommodate a specific intent

    • Actual situations
    • Conditions that elicit a response

Accommodate functional needs

    • How people interact
    • Roles and relationships
    • Nature of work and its meaning

What happens inside these spaces are expressions of human capability. Artifacts of achievement. These artifacts are the demonstration of your culture. Your building blocks are values, principles, structures and practices that shape desired behaviour and the means of production.

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