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3 Culture Building Tips for Disability Leaders this Christmas.

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Before February 2020 I used to say that the role of CEO in the Australian disability sector would challenge the leadership skills of any CEO, regardless of their prior experience.

However, with the massive external shock presented by Covid-19 early this year a difficult role became infinitely more complex across three connected domains:

  • The urgent operational imperatives around health and safety: PPE shortage, inadequate procedures and training.

  • Customer stress: increased anxiety, confusion around service delivery, increased isolation and reduced supports.

  • Workforce stress: cancelled shifts, isolation, financial hardship, the inability to social distance, difficulty filling shifts due to the Jobkeeper effect and the rapid deployment to remote working.

Under Covid-19, any previously existing communication or culture issues were amplified. As a senior manager at one of Australia’s largest national charities commented to me in April: “Fran if you ever need a case study in slow communication, mixed leadership messages and confusion – let me know!”

And this comment from a support worker just a few weeks ago: "It doesn't feel like we're valued. Through Covid I did 3-4 months on call. That's 4 days one week, 5 days the next where I was on call for 24 hours. One week I worked 72 hours straight. We were getting flogged."

What does this do to quality? What does this say about culture? These are questions that go to the heart of why culture deserves more practical attention and less rhetoric.

Organisational culture is not just the remit of the HR department. It has to be 'owned' by the CEO and requires a whole-of-organisation Action Plan with task owners, due dates and measurement parameters.

Nine months on from the initial lockdown, culture is still more important than ever. So I’ve pulled together a shortlist of my top 3 culture building tips for the disability CEO this Christmas.

1. Now is the time to pause, reflect and celebrate with your staff team. Your staff may be feeling like they’ve been put through the wringer this year. Now is the time to acknowledge their efforts and be the leader that your employees can trust. Own up to what you personally found challenging; where you may have stuffed up this year. Honesty and vulnerability take courage and build courage in others. Never forget that the quality and capacity of your workforce is now your #1 competitive differentiator so I urge you to take the time to pause, reflect and celebrate with your team.

2. Now is the time to reach out to your clients, families and community. Share how far you’ve come over the last year, how you have responded to Covid-19 and how you are committed to ensuring the participant remains at the heart of every decision you make. The communication channels you use also send a message about who you are. Make it personal. Pick up the phone and speak to people or send a handwritten thank you card. This is about recognising the whole person, not just the person they are to your business.

3. Now is the time to share stories of outstanding service and random acts of ‘going way beyond’ customer expectations. Stories that demonstrate your values in action. Stories drive change better than any other form of communication. So your primary role as leader is to share your vision and back it up with stories that demonstrate the continued relevance of your mission.

The NDIS has imposed a transactional business model on a service that is driven by the quality of its people – their expertise and their relationships. Your customer is not looking for a transaction; they are looking for someone they can trust. So are your employees.

This Christmas I urge you to take the time to prioritise workplace culture. Convince your team that you believe in them, that you know they are capable of extraordinary things and that, with their support, your organisation will emerge from 2020 stronger than ever before.


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