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Transforming the workplace: Nick van Dam on changing corporate culture to attract and retain talent

Transforming the workplace: Nick van Dam on changing corporate culture

Nick van Dam is an internationally recognized thought leader, advisor, researcher and facilitator on corporate learning, human resources and leadership development. Dr. van Dam has accumulated a wealth of business experience over the course of 30 years in the industry. He previously worked as a Partner, Global Chief Learning Officer, HR executive, and Client Advisor at McKinsey & Company and Deloitte.

He currently holds a number of roles at IE Business School. Nick is the Director of the Center for Corporate Learning and Human Resources. He is also the Academic Director of the Masterclass Learning and Development Leadership, and the New HR Leadership Paradigms program. Furthermore, he is a professor at IE Business School and serves on the University Advisory Board.

He’s a full professor at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, as well as an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He is affiliated with McKinsey & Company as an external senior advisor and faculty member. He has co-authored more than 27 books on innovations in learning and leadership development. He has also written numerous articles for various publications and has been quoted in Bloomberg Businessweek, Financial Times, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

Changing dynamics in the workplace

The only way to attract and retain the best people in the current labor market is by improving the employee experience. According to Nick, we are currently experiencing a major reset in the workplace, driven by people’s shifting attitudes towards work itself. Themes such as leadership, inclusivity, flexibility, learning climate, mental health, vitality, data and analytics have become major points of concern.

One reason for this shift was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has substantially accelerated these changes. Likewise, there is a shortage of qualified people who are able to fill specific jobs in many geographies, a deficit that’s only getting worse. The so-called “Great Resignation” may be an indicator of the shape of things to come, and human resource professionals must be prepared.

Professor van Dam suggests that many organizations require a cultural shift. In order to attract and retain talented people, workplaces must provide psychological safety, and support personal learning and growth. They also have to create cultures that are human, engaging and clear about their meaning and purpose. But how exactly is that done? What concrete actions can HR take to accomplish this?

There are four concrete steps the professor says HR departments can take if they’re to create a more engaging workplace:

Start with the leaders

HR professionals need to recognize that they are uniquely positioned between organizational leaders and the employees. As such, both need their attention. Nick emphasizes, however, that workplace culture is first and foremost about leadership. Better leaders simply make for a better company culture.

That said, leaders are people too, and prone to missteps that can affect the dynamics in any organization. Nick points out that there is often a significant difference between what leaders say and do, and how it’s experienced by others. Unfortunately, leaders are frequently unaware of this fact.

So it’s up to HR to provide organizational leaders with self-insights from a 360-degree feedback instrument and make their performance apparent. Do they pay attention to their people? Do they show exemplary behavior and inspire others? Are they providing constructive feedback or simply micromanaging?

Nick argues that, if HR teams don’t examine how their leaders are shaping the culture and adjust this to their desired goals and outcomes, they can forget about pursuing improvements. A change in company culture requires a safe environment; employees must be able to speak up, and the leaders must embrace that process and, ideally, even take the lead in it. He emphasizes that this is why everything starts and ends with the leaders: it should be apparent to everyone in the organization that their leadership is listening, and open to feedback from their employees.

Know your organization

For Nick, a better corporate culture doesn’t begin with a directive from the board. If the goal is to be a magnet for talent, generic HR policies won’t make a difference. Instead, the focus should be on listening, giving real-time feedback, recognizing achievements, and providing opportunities for growth and development.

Doing this successfully requires a foundation of focused, daily attention. It’s imperative that HR have a good sense of the people they’re working with. Who are they? What motivates them to high performance? What do they need from you, as an HR professional, to shine in their roles?

Nick notes that diverse types of groups—such as those who work in a plant, or those who do administrative work, or highly educated knowledge workers—have very different perspectives. Older employees, parents of young children and young people who have just finished their studies will have their own unique needs. So it’s critical to map the needs of every segment of an organization’s workforce.

For this process to work, HR needs to be inclusive. Nick explains that this means looking at everyone who supports the organization, including full-timers, part-timers, freelancers and suppliers. After all, organizational culture is determined by everyone connected to it. The challenge is to ensure that they all feel valued and that who they are, and what they do, matters.

Talk to everyone

After mapping out their employees, HR can then start to identify what they need. The only way to do so is by reaching out, using various tools like surveys or one-on-one conversations. The process can also include broader research, such as analyzing the labor market. Do people want to work with your organization? What do young employees want, and are you taking this into account? Nick’s advice is to ask the hard questions and accept that one-size-fits-all solutions do not exist. Otherwise, the organization will lose many talented people.

Find solutions together

HR professionals can take action in several ways. For more widespread problems, they could set up a task force of employees who come together to find solutions. This kind of approach can only work if management is open to new ideas and disparate personal perspectives. That said, it’s the best way to develop inclusive HR initiatives.

On the other hand, each employee faces different personal and professional challenges that they handle in their own way. Nick points out that the solution may lie in personalized talent management. It’s the perfect way for HR to create flexible, adaptive solutions for their organizations.

A process of continuous evolution

The process of finding and establishing solutions creates a culture of attention for each employee. However, as Nick notes, it should also be a continuous process as people and organizations rarely stay the same. Changing attitudes means that forcing people to adapt to a specific career or culture just won’t work any more. He adds that the current tight labor market isn’t going to get better any time soon. So, companies and HR professionals have only two choices: adjust the culture or accept a significant employee turnover.