The Business of Culture and Engagement (Part 1): The Smell of the Place

Joe Fournier

Advisory Board Chairman and Consultant

Several years ago, I watched a grainy yet insightful video clip of the late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal speaking at the World Economic Forum. He spoke about corporate environments and culture – an issue that I continually study. Professor Ghoshal compared the feeling of his home in downtown Calcutta in the summertime, where he felt tired often because of the heat and humidity, to the feeling of the Fontainebleau Forest in the springtime where he felt alive and energetic. He described the "smell of the place" in both environments and compared them to the context created by leaders where engagement or disengagement thrives in their organizations. Professor Ghoshal was speaking about the business of culture and engagement, a critical component of people strategy. As I have refined my beliefs about culture and engagement, Professor Ghoshal's analogy sticks with me.

If you believe that people are the lifeblood of your organization, your culture and employee engagement are critical to your people strategy. For years, I have thought about both professionally as a CHRO and personally through my own experience as an employee. The concepts are simple, discussed so frequently at meetings and retreats that they are now ubiquitous. Shaping a vibrant culture where people thrive is not easy because it hinges on people's core beliefs, behaviors and feelings. This means that organizations must become comfortable operating and communicating in this delicate space. Culture and engagement are not about changing people; they are about meeting people where they are and enabling them to be their very best as professionals and people.

Culture as a Competitive Advantage

In healthcare, an organization's competitors can replicate many of its strategies and processes, but they can never replicate what defines it most—its people, patients and culture. Think about what has made your organization successful over the years—and I'll bet it's the thousands of dedicated people - from your leaders to front-line workers – who worked hard to make it successful. The work you do to shape culture and create an environment where people thrive is perhaps the most important work you will do to serve your organization and its people.

It's widely recognized that leaders, through their words and actions, create environments that determine whether employees are engaged or disengaged. There are numerous surveys like those offered by Press Ganey, the Great Place to Work assessment or Modern Healthcare's Best Places to Work ranking to gauge culture and employee satisfaction. As a CHRO, I can't tell you the number of times the board or executive colleagues have told me that I needed to build a culture of safety, excellence, diversity, collaboration, patient-centeredness, compliance, teamwork, innovation, continuous improvement, and the list goes on. The bottom-line is that all leaders, not just the CHRO, shape culture. Individually and collectively, we are responsible for creating positive, safe and inclusive environments where people can thrive to fulfill our company's mission.

The Business of Engagement

In health care, engaged employees provide superior care and service to patients and customers, which translates to engaged and loyal patients and customers. Having rounded through hundreds of departments in health systems over the years as CHRO, I became able to gauge "the smell of the place" almost immediately. I observed big and little things such as how caregivers interacted and spoke with each other, with patients, and to families, whether the unit was clean and organized, the content of bulletin board postings, the sound of hallway greetings (and when people passed by with their heads down). I listened to how people described their role and work in the organization – joys, stress, ambitions, and frustrations. As you can imagine, the departments with the most engaged people felt alive and energetic like the Fontainebleau Forest in the springtime.

What's the "smell" of your department? What's the "smell" of your company? What specific words come to mind when you describe a healthy workplace? When you go to work tomorrow, run a simple diagnostic by asking yourself these questions. Write them down and save them until next week when we can compare notes as my next blog will speak to how culture and engagement fit into a talent blueprint. I'll share four simple components of culture and engagement and what you can do create an environment where your people thrive. Until then, feel free to email me with questions or ideas at