Sometimes it’s the little things in early life that go on to inform who we become as adults. When Lorie Corcuera was a young girl, her family moved from Edmonton to East Vancouver. She remembers standing in the playground at lunchtime on one of her first days at Mount Pleasant Elementary School and approaching a group of new classmates.
“‘Hey, my name is Lorie, remember me? I just met you a few minutes ago,’” Corcuera recalls saying to the group. “They basically looked at me and turned their backs. I’ve always been a kid who would gravitate to people, go to the playground and gather everyone together, let’s play. I was always the extrovert.”
The not-so-subtle rebuke stung. She felt like an outsider. Getting out of bed for school the next day wasn’t easy. Unbeknownst to Corcuera, decades later, this experience of cold playground indifference would at least partly inform her life’s work at SPARK Creations and Co. Inc., an organization she co-founded in 2011. Its mission is to help companies create people-first cultures grounded in love, empathy, and openness.
This fall, Corcuera and the SPARK team will release the BC Culture Scan, a first of its kind survey of more than 30 British Columbia companies that put workplace culture under the microscope.
“It will include culture stories from different companies that maybe we haven’t heard before, but maybe we can learn from,” Corcuera says. “It will be free, so we can get it out to as many people as possible.”
It starts with personal transformation
Corcuera’s personal journey, which brought her to this role as a culture change agent, has been an ongoing process of learning and evolution. After earning a UBC commerce degree with a specialization in industrial relations management, she embarked on a human resources career. It started pretty conventionally.
“I recognized the importance of creating a people-first company, that it was important to take care of people, but I did it in a very transactional way. I did what the role expected me to do,” Corcuera explains.
As VP of Human Resources at airG Inc, she started to think outside of the box. She and her team began taking a proactive approach that involved directly engaging with staff, instead of simply waiting for people to reach out to them.
“We were always out there with our staff, connecting,” Corcuera says.
Consequently, in 2011, they were named one of airG Inc.’s top 3 teams—not bad for a team that some might view as the department of hiring and firing.
“People don’t usually go, ‘Yay we love HR!” she says with a laugh.
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Knowing the leader you want to be
Though Corcuera was hitting high notes at the office, things were different on the home front. An ugly divorce compelled her to do some deep introspection and personal work. With the help of a life coach, she emerged at the other end with a much clearer vision of her values and purpose.
“Up until that time I was always defined by my role at work, what my role was supposed to entail, instead of as a human being,” Corcuera says.
More grounded in her core values, she became a much more courageous leader, one who could challenge decisions being made that were disrespectful to team members or destructive to organizational culture.
SPARK started as a side hustle in 2011, but in 2013 she went all-in after leaving airG the previous year. In some ways, Corcuera’s personal journey mirrors the culture-defining work SPARK helps its clients undertake.
“We’d love if business owners at the very start said ‘We’ve got to create this amazing culture story.’ But most companies don’t do that. They write a few words down, put it on the web as a marketing thing, then go about getting financing to grow the business.”
Corcuera describes a four-stage process of cultural change. It starts with awareness: when a company recognizes the value of defining a culture story but needs help knowing what questions to ask. The next step is a declaration, in which leadership articulates an idea of culture, then boldly states it and begins aligning the entire organization around the story. The third step is when the proverbial rubber hits the road, and the company integrates a system to unify everyone and bring their culture to life. And the final stage is evolution when a company leverages a strong culture story to grow and create a lasting legacy. If it doesn’t sound easy, you’re right. It’s not.
“We’d love if business owners at the very start said ‘We’ve got to create this amazing culture story,’” Corcuera says. “But most companies don’t do that. They write a few words down, put it on the web as a marketing thing, then go about getting financing to grow the business.”
Walking the talk
Creating a powerful and authentic culture story takes real work. It means including everyone in the conversation to define values, purpose, and vision, says Corcuera. And it requires an ongoing conversation that’s driven by leadership, especially as a company grows. Sustaining a unifying culture story becomes a huge challenge when sales are increasing rapidly, and a firm is in constant hiring and funding mode. Before an organization can truly transform its culture, leaders need to be accountable, says Corcuera. They first need to know themselves—their values, purpose and vision — before they can captain a successful culture story shift.
Companies with leaders that embody clear values and cultural vision tend to fare much better over the long run. Corcuera points to Jeff Duncan, founder of Meetingmax, as an example to follow. She calls Duncan a “values and purpose-driven leader” who talks about core values and naturally uses the right words in conversation. In other words, he embodies the culture story every single day.
“Jeff is consistent in his leadership, consistent in integrating their story, their values, principles, and purpose throughout all of their programming, even in the way they connect with customers,” Corcuera says. “When you have a leader who is not aligned, you can feel it in the way they talk, make decisions, and show up energetically.”
People-first cultures create company success
The verdict is in: growing a people-first culture is foundational for organizational success in the 21st century. The obvious KPIs come in the form of metrics like employee retention and referrals.
As Gartner points out in its recent Top Strategic Predictions for 2019 and Beyond report, “inclusive and diverse culture affects the way people perform. So it’s just a no brainer to say let’s be inclusive, let’s be diverse.” Companies that do the heavy lifting to build strong company cultures where employees are heard and take ownership over success, tend to outperform competitors. Toxic cultures do the opposite, says Corcuera
“The thing about human resources being too fluffy is an unconscious bias that has been learned from a long time ago when it was designed for factories, and HR was about managing managers to manage people. It’s different now,” Corcuera says. “I try not to use the term HR because it triggers people: it’s loaded. It’s like the word love. Some people don’t want to talk about it because they think it’s about romance, versus empathy and compassion.”
It’s a lesson in inclusivity that Corcuera started learning the hard way decades ago on an elementary school playground.
“Creating a people-first culture should be top of mind for everyone,” she says.
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