It was wonderful news to hear that the team at Act for Kids have been recognised as an Employer of Choice in the 2019 HRD (Human Resources Director) awards. Act for Kids is an organisation dedicated to supporting abused and neglected children. As a long-time supporter and current Ambassador of Act for Kids, I am very proud and humbled to be involved with such a great organisation.

Neil Carrington is the CEO of Act for Kids and has been a leader of the business for over eight years through tremendous growth, performance and change. Neil also holds a PhD in Education Psychology and has extensive experience associated with education, adult learning and leadership development.

This is Part Two of a three-part interview with Neil. If you missed part one of the interview, click here

Andrew:  What has been the biggest benefit of a high-performance culture for your people and your clients?

Neil:  If you go back to that sense of purpose. It enables you to deliver more on your purpose. Because if you get that right, you are able to help more people.

I do a lot of work in schools and I find them very fascinating places. They take a good teacher, make them Head of Department, then Deputy Principal, and next minute they are Principal. Someone has given them some keys and then tells them the bins go out on Wednesday. At times I am then engaged to coach these Principals and I like to ask, “Why are you here, what is your purpose”? Typically, they will say something like “Well, I am here for the kids”. Then I will say, “No, you are not” and that gets them quite excited.  “Yes, I am. I don’t want to lose touch with the kids.” I say, “be clear, you don’t work with the kids anymore. You work with the adults. The staff are your class.” It doesn’t matter if you work in an airline or a hospital, you have to work out if you are working “in the business” or “on the business”. For the School Principals, the staff are their class. That is where the focus needs to be. Get it right with them and they can get it right for your customers, in this case the school students.

Andrew, as the CEO of Actrua, can you go out and run leadership programs for X client? Of course, you can! But there is more mileage for you to make sure that when your team goes out to deliver a program, they do it well. Then your work is done. That is where your energy needs to be directed.  If you get your performance culture right, you build your capacity, you build your collective leadership capability. It is almost like a bank. Your trust component. Trust is such a precious component of culture. You build up your trust bank. You build up your cultural bank.

Trust is such a precious component of culture. You build up your trust bank. You build up your cultural bank.

In your organisation’s culture, it is really important build in resilience. We are all fine on a Monday when we are happy and fresh. But (Andrew) think about your team members for instance. They have been out on the road at a remote mine-site working big hours. Then they have some knuckle-head in one of their audiences giving them a hard time. Are they resilient? Can they still be professional and deliver the goods in that challenging environment at the end of a hard week.

That is what I think performance culture gives you. It is that bank you are building up and high performing leaders can do that.


Andrew: Culture eats Strategy for breakfast is a famous quote. Do you agree with it?

Neil: You are on to my favourite question here. This is something they put to me at my first day on the Harvard program. The correct answer was culture and I actually do agree it is the correct response. But I have a caveat on it. I actually think that strategy must come first. Despite what they tell you at Harvard, I found that they don’t really want you to argue with them. But I did challenge them and share my view, that although culture is most important, that the order is also important. Because you need to strategise about culture.

A glaring hole in 95% of strategic plans that I look at is what I would call a cultural pillar. A cultural theme or KPI. I’m not talking about birthday parties or Christmas drinks. I’m talking about how we do things around here… when no-one is looking. That is the core of culture. I used to describe it as “how we do things around here” but I added “when no-one is looking”, because the story of the Australian cricket team and the sandpaper incident is the best example I have seen of a culture gone rotten. Think about a healthy sporting culture. Would that have ever happened in Alan Border’s day? No way in the world. It wouldn’t have happened behind the scenes or in front of the scenes. It just wouldn’t have happened. I was alarmed by some of the media outlets when they said what were they thinking about when they got caught. Well they just shouldn’t have been thinking about it. It is immoral. It is illegal. It is just not on. It is not in the spirit of the game.

That is a really important lesson when you consider a cultural strategy. This is why you need to strategise. You have to talk about it. How are we going to do things around here? How do we want to be? What sort of organisation do we want to be?  That is why I believe people need to talk about this stuff explicitly.

I do a lot of work with teams. People say, “we need to work better as a team”. I ask, what does that look like? What does it smell like?  I love the phrase about the difference between agreement and alignment.  There is so much in it. If you can disagree, without being disagreeable, you can build a strong sense of alignment.   For example, we might have made a big strategic call at our company and you actually don’t agree with it. But you can still align behind that decision because you know that is how we do things around here. You made your case clear. I said thank-you Andrew, it is noted what you said. But this is the call. Can you align with it? Yes, I can. OK.

If you can disagree, without being disagreeable, you can build a strong sense of alignment.

I had one of my senior staff in here the other day and they didn’t like a decision I made. I said, OK talk to me about it. I have listened, and I still have not changed my decision. But thank-you for challenging the decision. I hope you come back and challenge other decisions in the future. It just means as a CEO I have to make calls. It is not a popularity contest.


Andrew: What are the greatest barriers to building a high-performance culture?

Neil: It all sounds like apple pie. Why wouldn’t everyone do this? They talk about the soft skills and it seriously annoys me. Because they are not soft, they are bloody hard. If they were soft, everyone would do them. Human beings do not behave in predictable ways. They can be extremely challenging. Learning to work with people, grow them and getting them to their highest level of performance is the toughest thing you can do as a leader.

A key leadership responsibility is to remove fear. I would describe many organisations as being full of fear. You still hear people say, “oh, I don’t want to get the sack.” As you know being a leader of people, you have to work very hard to get the sack. Short of red-line behaviour, immoral or illegal, it is almost impossible to get the sack. You want to grow a culture where you can remove that fear. You want people to “have a go”. It is a great Australian phrase, and you do want people to have a go. Not in a foolhardy way. The way I describe it is to “run an experiment in the margin”. Take appropriate risk. If you keep people in a volunteer state they will do wonders for you. I’m not talking about being manipulative or mercenary. It just makes good business sense, it makes good moral sense.

If one of my senior staff tells me their child is in a swimming carnival and they want to take a half-day off work, I will say go and watch your kids swimming carnival. Firstly, because it is the right thing to do. They already work too hard. Secondly, they will come back and work ten times harder. It is a moral win and it is a mercenary win.

If I say hey guys, I need you to work late tonight because we have a major grant submission that needs to be in tomorrow. I don’t need to worry if the team will be there. I think fear is a major thing to talk about and I don’t think people talk about it enough. Hand in hand with that is the notion of trust. Building the trust.

I would say that culture is slow to arrive. Trust is slow to arrive. But very quick to leave. With one action you can lose trust, lose culture, in a minute.

Another barrier is silly rules. There are just some dumb rules. I think if it is a dumb rule we should just get rid of it. Not in an under-handed way. Just say, stop that. There is no value in that. It comes back to the work of a leader. Sometimes the challenge of leadership is not about working out what to do, but rather what not to do.

There are at least 43 things you could do before breakfast. But coming back to this culture of fear, having the confidence to say, “I am not going to do that.” Of course, I’m not saying going against managerial or board directives or anything like that. In my Executive Coaching roles, that is some of the most common positive feedback that I hear. That I have coached people to stop doing things.

I believe the other barrier, at both a leadership and organisational level, is failure to cope with ambiguity. We have just had a senior staff member resign. He was very popular. He did a lot of good things. So, his team are very unsettled. I phoned each of his team to talk to them personally and acknowledge that it is very unsettling. Be clear, we will honour his legacy because he has done a great job. But you know what, we are in a great position. We are going to go on and do even more. Guess what, it is going to be really unsettling for the next month. Things may fall over. Stuff-ups will be made. It is therefore important that you cope with that ambiguity.

And the more senior a person, the more they need to cope with ambiguity. As a CEO, you have more ambiguity to deal with than others who have clear roles and tasks. It is an important mental model. A value belief. That your people just need to learn to go with the flow a bit more. I’m not talking about being disorganised or unprepared. However, being prepared to be able to cope with some ambiguity is important.


Part 3 coming soon…