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Creating a more open organisation

Sue Weekes

A megaphone communicating

Recent ILM research revealed that employees value openness above all over things as a driver of trust. Sue Weekes asks how employers can be authentically open and honest

When chief executive Helen Fraser joined the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) in 2010, there was little sharing of information about how its leading group of independent schools were performing. “Establishing a culture of openness was fairly controversial at the time,” she says. “I was even warned that it would ‘destroy the organisation’.”

The reality was that the various measures put in place to achieve such a culture had an extremely positive impact across the organisation, which employs 3,700 people. “Colleagues across the network appreciate the ability to see how their own school is doing and use that information to encourage their staff,” she says. “Where there are areas for improvement, this has also provided a very effective platform to introduce change.”

Being open with employees matters

In a recent research report by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), openness was ranked by seven in 10 managers in their top three drivers of trust within organisations. Developing a culture that encourages transparency remains challenging for many leaders and managers though. Linda Holbeche, co-director of research-based development consultancy, the Holbeche Partnership, and visiting professor at Cass Business School, says business drivers such as increasing shareholder value and ripping out costs frequently fly in the face of cultural factors like openness. She contends that any leader serious about building a culture transparency must be braver at leading from the front on this issue. “I accept that you can’t be open about everything but where you can, you should be, and provide more information about where the business is going, its challenges and facts and figures than you might have done in the past.”

Too often, leaders’ attempts at openness can be tokenistic, says Holbeche, citing the way some use social media for company messaging as an example. “It can be a powerful way of conveying openness but is it genuine or is something else going on beneath the surface?” she says. “Openness is not just about communicating but communicating to engage and stimulate people and genuinely listening and responding to what they say. You also need to look at where the blockages to information are and where the silos exist and break these down.”

Sharing feedback helps employees be open

According to Fraser, GDST, which also participates in the Best Companies survey, has an extremely open approach when it comes to sharing positive and negative feedback and this candid demonstration of leadership in turn encourages colleagues to be honest in their own responses. Additionally, it has put practical measures in place to ensure consistency and timeliness of information and messages across all of its 26 sites. One of its six directors visits every school each year to provide an update on the GDST strategy and demonstrate its four core values: girls’ first, networked, principled and bold. “This helps us to reinforce to all our staff what the organisation stands for and is a reminder of the behaviours we expect from everyone within it,” explains Fraser, adding it also has a clearly defined whistleblowing policy in place and an environment where colleagues are encouraged to flag up any areas of concern. “We actively welcome feedback on any aspect of the organisation and I regularly receive emails with suggestions and constructive criticism.”

How to deal with whistleblowing

Holbeche underlines the importance of having a policy in place for dealing with whistle-blowers, who in some organisations have been forced to fall on their swords after highlighting a serious issue. “If you want to move towards a culture of openness, you must make it clear the whistle-blower won’t be sacrificed in favour of the people they are blowing the whistle on” she says. “Some organisations have a company ombudsman in place whose job it is to investigate and report and ensure matters are addressed and we may see more doing this.” Holbeche adds that leaders must confront any kind of bad behaviour and be mindful of the politics that might be at play within the top team that could be a barrier to transparency. “As a leader you must build a strong and unified team, united around a shared purpose,” she says. “You should also base reward and recognition around how you want people to behave and act.”

Having created a culture of openness, leaders must ensure it is preserved. Role modelling the behaviour expected from colleagues is crucial to maintaining the culture of openness at GDST says Fraser. “We encourage all our heads, directors and senior managers to share information with their teams and use our values to help determine their own behaviour, particularly the value which embodies transparency, honesty and “doing the right thing,” she says. “A sign of a healthy organisation is the ability to admit mistakes and this is positively encouraged among our leaders. A mistake which is admitted can be sorted out whereas any attempt to cover something up invariably causes far more problems.”

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