Culture you can feel: Advice for making it an accelerator, not a constraint

Hosted by Neil Amato

A well-defined, vibrant work culture certainly can help employees perform at or above expectations. And a poor culture can absolutely be a performance constraint. But how do leaders change culture, or grow it in the age of remote and dispersed workforces?

Kerry Brown has a few thoughts. Brown specializes in workforce transformation, and she spoke recently to finance executives about such issues at the Future of Finance Summit in Austin, Texas.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Brown's comparison of work culture to Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Why building a company culture can be difficult in a remote work environment.
  • Brown's explanation for why many organizations don't need full workforces in the office.
  • An explanation of the phrase, "Our bucket of resilience is not full."
  • Why Brown says employees' approach to work/life balance has changed in the past three years.
  • The reasons CFOs should focus on being chief people officers.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato, your host. I am recording in Austin, Texas. I'm at the Future of Finance Summit, where one of the keynote speakers is workforce transformation expert Kerry Brown. Kerry advises C-suite executives, and she's obviously been talking to CFOs at this event. Kerry, thank you for being on the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

Kerry Brown: My pleasure, Neil. It's really great to be here.

Amato: One thing I want you to address is something that another speaker mentioned, which is this phrase: "Culture is the hardest performance constraint to address." What do you think about that?

Brown: I think it's a really valid point, and when I think of the challenge on cultures, how do you define it? It feels a little bit nebulous. When you're in a good culture, you can feel it and you know it, and when you're in a bad culture, you know it and you feel it. But if you're trying to change it, the specific action to what to take feel very uncertain. I liken culture to thinking about culture at work like culture and family. The Thanksgivings that you'd like to be at where it's a lot of fun and everybody's open and laughing and sharing and teasing, and you know that Thanksgiving where everyone's staring at each other blankly and wishing that would be over quickly.

When you think about a culture at work, it's the same. The other places, which are fun to be where it's playful and open and thriving and challenging, are far more rewarding. The places where it's dull and boring and you want it to end quickly, same challenge. When I look at how do you address that, part of it is just like in a family leadership. Where the parents shape the family, the leaders shape the organization. And so, really looking as a leader at your own family, whether it's the microcosm of your team or if you were the CEO, if you have the opportunity at the CEO, CXO level, you have a lot of opportunity to shape the family, you have a lot of opportunity to hold the other senior leaders in your organization that they're senior members of the family to task if you don't have a culture that you want to be in.

To me, one is looking at what I can do in my own space, but also then, if I'm looking across the business at large, if we want to be different, what are the actions? What are the values? How do we represent them? How do we espouse them? How do we share them publicly, regularly, and then act upon that and over time, trust that that is true and authenticity that action is happening is what builds confidence and allows employees to be vulnerable and take risks and act accordingly and in tandem with that.

Amato: So, to continue on that Thanksgiving example, whether those people are having fun or not, they are together in one place. How do leaders build culture in a world where their workforce may be in many places, many time zones, many countries?

Brown: Great question. The virtual Thanksgiving we all had for a couple of years. When you think about building culture, team building is a big piece of what can be done to help that. Understanding your teammates, what makes them tick? How do they function? Who are they outside of the tasks that they're responsible in the scope of their job? Team building can be done virtually. We're actually just talking in another one of the breakouts to the session on ideas for how to address diversity and inclusion and so forth and an understanding people better on your team. Team building, doing structured sessions on team behaviors, strength finders, other things like that.

The cultural norms of behavior of each of us to understand, are you quiet? How do you make decisions? How do you listen? How do you communicate? That kind of information is things that you can absolutely do virtually. There's tools that can also foster the way that functions. I used to advise a company called Cloverleaf. They are something that nudges you every day and says, "Hey if you're going to work with Neil, this is what Neil's like. Because Neil's filled that out and I filled that out." If your organization owns that, you get little things that nudge people along to be doing the right things at the right time. You can also do more informal fun stuff.

Doing an escape room, or doing a cooking class, or wearing the silliest hat that you have to your next conference call. Things that start to bring the intimacy and the fun forward. I will also acknowledge that one of the things that's happened as the hybrid workplace has become real is that we came into everyone's home, which is actually quite personal, and quite intimate to see your kids, your dog, your background. Now. Blurry backgrounds may never and can hide a little bit. Not being on camera means people can hide a little bit. But I would say that building norms of expectation around whether you are seeing, whether you're not, how you function. I'd also say, by the way, that the fuzzy backgrounds, they're better than the fake ones.

The fake backgrounds actually cause Zoom fatigue more because your brain is busy trying to figure out why stuff is moving and ears are disappearing and things like that. But back to your question around culture, how do you build it if you're remote, is taking the time to do things if you have to be remote, that do foster the team camaraderie and the team familiarity that you would get if you are going to lunch together, if you going to a meeting together. Then also ideally looking at where do you bring people together. If you have the financial means to bring some or all of the team together at regular frequency whether that is certain days a week, certain days a month, certain off-site type events that we would have held in the past. How do you bring people together to foster the experience that they used to have when they were together? Maybe not as much and not as often, but still meaningful.

Amato: Now, if I got your words wrong on this, please correct me. But one thing you said in your presentation was, "Think of team time like an off-site." Tell me more about that.

Brown: What I mean about that is we used to many of us go to work, and we would just do normal day-to-day work at work, and when we wanted to do something other than normal day-to-day work, we would get together and to go somewhere else and do an off-site. We would do team building, or we would do strategic planning, or we could do some form of problem-solving or activity where we all got together and we solved against or action against, or participated in a common thing versus our day-to-day work. When I look at coming to work now to the workplace, thinking about coming to work for purpose is what starts to make that make more sense. You would go off-site for a purpose that was unique to what your team needed or your organization needed.

Now if you're going to bring people to the workplace together, use your workplace as that off-site. You don't need to invest in another place. Or if you don't have another place anymore and you got rid of your offices and you're all virtual then yes, you do need to invest in going somewhere. But treating the time that people come together as purposeful time. Whether you're doing strategic planning or monthly reporting or quarterly reporting or team building or whatever the things are that you use to bring people together for that aren't day-to-day work. Use that time so that people are in the workplace together in a way that makes sense. You don't need everyone to come to work, to sit in a cube, to talk on the phone to somebody who's not in that building. They can do that at home if they want to.

It's interesting. Some people I know really missed going to work because they liked the separation of home and work either based on familial situations or where's the kids, where's the dogs, do they have space, all those kinds of things. Some people missed going there or the ritual of decompressing when they drove home or getting into the mode of thinking about work, different people have patterns and rituals, but en masse, the best way when I look at how to make hybrid make sense, is that what I'm doing when I go to work makes sense to me as an employee, makes sense versus just being there, because just being there doesn't mean I'm being the best, most productive person I can be.

Amato: Now we're going to move to the topic of employee training and development. No matter where a worker is, I'd like to ask what should be an organization's role in that employee's training and development. But also what about the role of the employees themselves to be continuous learners?

Brown: Lifelong learning is something that I believe we all do, and it's a matter of how much we do it. We all learn all the time about things we find interesting. Everyone has some form of internal curiosity about the things that make us tick. We are all lifelong learners. I think what's interesting is how learning's been deconstructed and reconstructed to be useful to all of us. If I look at the trends around learning the last 10 years, really it's become a continuum. It used to be much more event-based. We would go to things like those off-site events, which were learning activities or opportunities. If you look at it now, it's not as event-based, it's like drip marketing. You get a little bit all the time.

The continuum from communication to learning is much more of a fluid movement where I get a little bit of information. I learn something every day when I get an email or a blast, or I read an article; that is learning. So is when I go somewhere for two or three hours and I reflect with another team, but I'm learning all the time. To me, when I look at the reliability on the person, it's understanding that I have that opportunity and where can and should I take advantage of that. What I would say is on the organization is understanding where it can and should the employee have the opportunity to gain learning and where do they need learning and how do we provide that.

Being able to provide learning in the flow of work, in the flow of life. When I have half an hour on a bus, when I have half an hour because I had lunch and I want to step away from my computer because I'm sick of sitting in the same place. What are the situations and the opportunities that we provide learning either synchronously or asynchronously, together or individually?

I think for corporations it's understanding, one, training should be role-based. Understanding what each person in each role, in each career path needs. Understand the different types of learners. Is experiential learning, is it referential learning? I would also add in this space, there's enormous exponential growth in terms of how technology can make this easier and curating the right kind of learning for people. What we've all learned how to do now is what's called referential earning, which is why you and I know how to use Google Maps to look up how to find somewhere. But if you tried to go today where you went yesterday, you probably don't know how to get there because you did what Google told you.

Whereas 20 years ago, you drove somewhere and you paid attention to the sign on the corner that's green, and the bus stops there, and you learned how to do things, and you memorized it. It's why you can probably recite to me something you learned when you were 10. But we've all learned how to learn. We've learned how to find information. Understanding as an organization how we all learn and providing that content and curating information that's relevant to me when I need it, that's easy to capture. A lot of organizations, for example, like we've all been Googled, we figured out how to do that.

Having the ability to search through information in your own company with that capacity makes learning easier because we've all become ADD, it's just not little kids. We don't have the tolerance for two weeks of training. We maybe have the tolerance for two days of training. But really it's more like two hours, 20 minutes, two sentences. Like we want what we need when we want it, and so I would say for an organization, it's investing in and understanding when and how to help people. One of the things that I would add to that is we talked a bit about the demographics changes and the volume of churn of people, the number of people changing in role because of the move through of humans in the workplace.

The time to productivity for somebody to be able to be effective in their job. We, as organizations do need to invest more in learning than we did historically because we have more people doing new things all the time. Being able to identify a nudge with tools, and whether it's WalkMe or Enable Now or whatever else. There's tools that can help me learn and simulate. There's other tools that can nudge and trigger action flows that when I'm doing something and I fail, it's like a wizard that says, "Hey, here's what you need to be doing instead." All of those tool sets that organizations can put in place can help a person at the point of need versus they just fumble on through and they make a mistake.

I shared yesterday, I believe everyone comes to work every day trying to do a good job. I don't think they come in and say I'll be a crappy employee. And if we can help them learn, then we've created an environment that can support them and ideally they personally will also take the initiative and take the opportunity. If they're interested, they're going to. Their curiosity is going to lead them where they want to go.

Amato: This was something that Jeannine K. Brown, another of the Atlanta-based keynote speakers with the last name Brown, said [and] I'd like you to respond to it: "The workforce of early 2023 is so much different than the workforce of early 2020." What do you see in that? What are the ways that it's so different?

Brown: Before I answer that, my father used to say that the last name Brown was popular, not common. His name was John. John Brown, pretty simple. When I look at her comment around the workforce of 2023 versus 2020, I think it's different in that everyone in the world had a common experience in the last few years. It's not like other situations where a particular industry or a particular geography experienced hardship or a challenge. No one got a hall pass. We all went through it. It didn't matter how rich or poor, what part of the world you're in, what kind of job you're in, what kind of industry you are in, your life changed. You had to learn something new.

Everyone had to learn something new, a lot new. I would also say that we were tested by resilience. Our pilot light of stress in life is always there. Everyone's pilot light of stress went up, and we all had more latent or visible stress on an ongoing basis for the last few years. I would say if we've all got a little bit of PTSD, we're all – our pilot lights and resilience are better, but our bucket of resilience is not full, or it's not as full as it was perhaps in 2020 when the world felt fantastic and easy and breezy. Now there's still like an instant. Is it coming back? Is it changing? What's Christmas going to look like? What does Thanksgiving look like? Will I go on that vacation? Can we have that big event? I can't go to that concert because somebody – all that stuff.

That means we as individuals are all different. What I would say the gift in all this is, is the empathy and the awareness, because we all went through, it is different. We're talking to a pool of CFOs who have financial responsibility for their organizations. There were enormous considerations around risk and cost and safety that they had to navigate through because they too went through it as well as all of their workers. Their appreciation for the impact and the emotional and professional impacts of the last couple of years have changed our expectations for what work/life balance looks like. What our boundaries are around what we are willing and not willing to do.

Our appreciation that things can be done differently. People can get work done in different places, in different ways than we ever thought were possible because we did it ourselves. What I think we have now compared to 2020 is different options. I'm going to go back full circle to the start of this discussion to culture. What is the culture we want to have? I met a gentleman who, this was probably five years ago now because it's pre-COVID. Everything becomes much – it's that time warp, He was a Harvard professor and he had a business, it did data analytics for the government of Canada and the government of U.S., and his entire company was run on Slack.

At the time was first time I'd ever come across anybody who they had never as an organization ever met. I thought that was radical and impossible. I can now see how that was completely possible. We now have different tools in our tool bag. I think when I go back to culture, your question and we started with is, what kind of culture do I want? What kind of level of trust do I want? What kind of level of trust do I have in my employees? Therefore, what I think about myself as an employee or the employees in an organization, where do I want to work? That testing of our resilience and our choices and our preferences, I think has shaped and formed what we are and aren't willing to do as employers and employees.

I would also say back to the demographics discussion I had. You have a lot more people than a lot more choice and realizing that they can exercise their agency and opportunity. The relationship between employer and employee, the social contract has changed. We're much more like a consumer. It's not that the balance as the economy shifted a little bit now here the balanced power goes back and forth, but I think it's really a bit more symbiotic. It's not 30 years ago where you only worked one place, nor is it somewhere that people want to be moving all the time. I think people are looking for that right place and they've got expectations around what they are willing and not willing to do as do their employers.

Amato: You've been around this CFO audience for about a day, but anything from this or just in general, you'd like to add in closing?

Brown: I think that there was a conversation yesterday. There was a fantastic speaker from Coca-Cola, and I used to work at Coca-Cola, so I have some familiarity. Their finance organization. She was sharing the leadership traits around the organization and what they've been doing for growth. Finance is a place where it informs and shapes the direction of so many decisions in organizations. I read an article that a week ago that said every CEO needs to be a chief people officer. I think every CFO also needs to be a chief people officer. I think what we went through for the last couple of years made everyone a chief people officer because things that we took for granted in our workforce have changed.

When I look at this audience, the measurement of the dollars and cents, what makes sense for people now is much more top of mind for this population. I would say that continuing to partner with the chief people officer or whatever the role is in your organization is what makes sense most for organizations now, because eight years ago, nine years ago, Accenture did a study that said, who is it that a CEO looks to in a strategic decision-making time? CFO is number 1, it's money; can we do it? Operating officer number 2, can we make it, can we have it happen? If you look at CIOs and CMOs, they started to move up because the CIO went from being the keeping the lights on to being a strategic technology innovator and the chief marketing officer, can we keep our customers?

At the bottom of the list was the CHRO, and it was only 24% of the time. You look at a lot of big strategic business discussions that we're having often. In my experience for 20 years at SAP, I'd meet with CXO teams 95% of the time, the chief people officer wasn't in the room, HR wasn't there. I was talking about the topics we're talking about. I was talking about people. I would say that in closing, I love that we're talking about these topics with this audience. They care, I've seen them care and be fully engaged and interested. Keep caring and hold your chief people officer to task to be a business owner and have a voice at the table on how you can have your people be a strategic differentiator to your culture and to your customers.

Amato: Kerry, thank you very much.

Brown: My pleasure. Thank you, Neil.