We all want to be part of a great workplace culture, but achieving it isn’t always easy. We’ve spoken to a number of business leaders who excel at team building and creating staff buy-in on how to create a working environment that helps everyone achieve their potential.

by Stephanie Wanless

Once upon a time, in a generation not too long ago, our grandparents were presented with a gold watch to signify their 25 years of service at the same company. It was a huge achievement, and rightly so. After all, they had successfully navigated the workforce in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Back then, job security was by far the number one priority when considering a career.

Times have changed. Gen Y and millennials, having grown up in an era of financial prosperity and rapid technological advancements, are now looking at a company’s values, meaning, community and culture when seeking employment.

Where a positive company culture was once considered a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s now increasingly thought of as a ‘must-have’ in creating an engaged and harmonious workforce.


A positive company culture starts from the top. That’s something NTI CEO Tony Clark knows all too well. Since taking on the role back in 2007, Clark has steered the company towards back-to-back wins at the Australian Insurance Industry Awards and defines a good company culture as one where individual voices are heard.

“People need to feel they have a say in the health of the organisation and know that they are involved with the decisions we make – they need to see they can really make a difference,” says Clark.

To achieve this, NTI regularly participates in the Aon Hewitt survey (which has awarded NTI Best Employer and Best of the Best), and uses that information to engage with their employees.

It’s since become a core part of the way NTI does business and has led to the HR department providing leadership training for senior staff on how best to deal with the questions that are raised off the back of the results.

“It can be very confronting, but we wanted our leaders to see how they could use that survey to engage with our staff and improve ourselves in the business,” says Clark.

“Sometimes the answer is no – there are some things that you just can’t do. But at least you can explain why. It gives us an opportunity to understand their needs, and then from that we develop action plans on the things that we could do in the future.”

Paul Hines, CEO and Owner of Brooklyn Underwriting and GSA Insurance Brokers, also believes in ensuring every team member has their time to shine. He defines a good company culture as “the happiness of our team” and works to provide an environment where people feel both challenged and supported.

“Our business is about managing people, not numbers. We want to value the individual and enable them to meet their potential – when each of us does well, the business will do well.”

People need to feel they have a say in the health of the organisation and need to see they can really make a difference.

Hines’ approach is working. Brooklyn Underwriting has won Underwriting Agency of the Year for the past four years at the Australian Insurance Industry Awards, while GSA picked up the Medium Broker of the Year Award.

Hines attributes such successes to running both companies in a very transparent manner, paying particular attention to involving each and every team member in all facets of the business.

“This naturally allows everything we work on to be the product of an entire team’s efforts,” he says.

“We share our successes and our trials at all levels – this builds a strong, more driven team.”

Running the company with an open book has also served Clark well, who says having transparent conversations about potentially tricky subjects, such as salary and bonuses, helps to keep everyone on the same page.

“People might ask a technical question about salary, so we make sure we give our leaders the skills to explain how our salaries relate to the market and how they can be reviewed at certain times – the whole process can be very empowering.

“It’s about people taking responsibility for their workplaces and giving them the tools to be able to do that,” he says.

Clark goes on to say that sharing the company’s service results online daily illustrates what type of business NTI wants to be – a service differentiator.

“We want everyone to see how we’re performing so they understand that that’s the way we do business. The service results come first, then the financial results follow.”


There’s a management cliché that says ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, but Paul Hines believes the two are in fact one and the same, explaining that “a positive culture can drive a motivated strategy, and equally a motivating strategy can set up a positive culture”.

Tony Clark agrees that the two need to be aligned and says that including the formal development of people as part of their strategy has undoubtedly contributed to a positive company culture. The NTI Leadership Development Program offers employees a pathway through to a graduate MBA, with a focus on business-oriented leadership within the organisation.

“That’s really focused on building a pool of leaders within the company. The program gives them the skills to be engaged with the business, to have a say and create a future here. It’s specifically tailored to our organisation and it’s really exciting to see the results,” says Clark.

Having the opportunity to grow with the business, to share your thoughts on the direction you’re moving in and feel included in that process is a winning formula at NTI.

If there’s a culture where there are no good or bad consequences, where there’s no positive feedback for good performers, then there’s no positive reinforcement to do the right thing.

Of course, ensuring diversity is a part of that mix is also on Clark’s mind, who adds that “with the help of our HR department, we’re taking steps towards becoming a more inclusive and diverse culture as an organisation – it’s a very important journey for us and we’re committed to that”.

GSA Insurance Brokers also enjoys seeing junior staff rise to the challenge of greater responsibility through their Aspiring Leaders Program, which seeks to involve high-performing members of the team to help shape the future of the organisation.

“The culture of motivating and rewarding exceptional performance has been key to our growth,” adds Hines.


1. TO ACHIEVE A WINNING COMPANY CULTURE EVERYTHING HAS A CONSEQUENCEMake sure you reinforce and reward positive cultural behaviours, but be prompt and responsive when you see
negative and toxic behaviours in your workplace, too.


As is the way in life, with good times come bad. So what’s a company to do when things turn toxic, and how can they avoid it all together?

Annabel Rees, Managing Director at Businessary, knows a thing or two about successfully transforming the performance and culture of a business thanks to 17 years in the trade. In her book, having a consequence culture is the best way to rule out toxic or bad behaviour.

“By that I mean, if there’s a culture where there are no good or bad consequences, where there’s no positive feedback for good performers, then there’s no positive reinforcement to do the right thing,” Rees explains.

“Equally, if they’re sitting by and watching those who are at the more toxic end of the spectrum not facing consequences for bad behaviours, then
that in itself can be very disengaging.”

Just like good company culture, enforcing repercussions for introducing toxic behaviours to the workplace needs to come from those at the top. While the CEO or managing director is ultimately responsible for not only ruling out toxic behaviours, but also consistently role modelling the right behaviours, other senior managers have a part to play too.

“You can have the best cultural blueprint, but if one senior manager is actively seen to display toxic behaviours that are accepted, then all the good
work you’re doing is completely undone,” Rees adds.

The good news is that a toxic environment can be turned around and, once again, the key message needs to come from the top. A company’s
leadership team is responsible for clearly communicating the values and behaviours that are accepted, as well as making it known that there will be
consequences for those who don’t follow suit.


Of course, there are ways to avoid a toxic environment in the workplace all together, beginning with a clear induction process as part of your company’s HR life cycle.

“Does your induction process say what’s okay and what’s not okay within your workforce? If you don’t get those pieces correct, then new starters can
often start off on the wrong foot, bring bad behaviours into the workplace because they haven’t been told otherwise, or even be influenced by their peers who also aren’t clear on the company’s values,” explains Rees.

From there, focusing on performance management and keeping good workers engaged will stand companies in good stead for a positive future – including offering opportunities for further training, development and succession.

Additionally, if you make it known that you’re working hard to turn a culture around and you’re communicating that clearly, Rees says the good will follow.

“If you are that individual, it’s a matter of making sure you’re responsible for yourself, that you’re equally living and leading the way things should be done. You don’t always need to be in a leadership role to influence those around you,” says Rees.

It’s these individuals who are the leaders of tomorrow and NTI’s Tony Clark, for one, is excited by what the future holds.

“NTI’s positive culture has unleashed a whole range of talent in the organisation who are pushing very hard to be the next leaders. We’re really proud of the people who have managed to turn around, we believe in them and that’s what leaders need to do, they need to step up in challenging times.”