The Vanilla Slice as a Metaphor for Organisational Culture

Big Thinking, Culture, The Workplace

The Vanilla Slice as a Metaphor for Organisational Culture

Nothing like the holidays to get you out of the rut and thinking a little differently.

For those of us in the southern hemisphere, it’s summer. The end of one calendar year and beginning of the next, is our time to pause and reflect. We down tools, head outdoors, spend time with friends and family, read a few good books, and think about what has been and what will come.

I also found time, as I always do, to track down a Vanilla Slice, or two. Vanilla Slices are a favourite from childhood for most Australians, especially those of us who grew up away from the cities. They are a country bakery speciality. To find the perfect example, has become something of a lifelong obsession.

A friend, familiar with my quest, sent me a newspaper article by an author claiming to have found THE best example.

That got me thinking – Vanilla Slices, and our quest to find, describe, and prescribe the perfect one, is not dissimilar to our passion for good organisational culture.

You may think that’s a stretch, but let me explain.

Vanilla Slices are so simple and clear.

A layer of foundational pastry, a much bigger layer of delicious custard, another layer of pastry to hold shape, and then a slither of icing.

And what is culture?

Foundational standards – emotion and relationships – a top layer of boundaries to hold it all in shape, and a slither of PR.

What goes wrong with Vanilla Slice?

  • It tries to be something it’s not. A Mille-Feuille, perhaps. You asked for a good robust Aussie Vanilla Slice, and got this French delicacy instead.
  • It tries to be everything at once. More cream pumped into the custard. An extra layer of a different cream. More flakey pastry. Chocolate swirled into the icing. You’re not sure what you’re getting and all the flavours are competing.
  • It adds something overwhelming, like a snowstorm of icing sugar far too liberally. It covers you from head to tail, even before you take a bite.
  • It has weak pastry. Looks fabulous in the bakery showcase, but you cannot pick it up. It crumbles and breaks.
  • The custard is too soft. Again, looks fabulous, but when you bite it the much thicker and tougher pastry crushes the custard to nothing.

And so much of that is a metaphor for what goes wrong with company culture.

You need a strong foundation –  a frame for the whole thing. This is best made by the purpose of your company. “This is why we exist, for our customers, and therefore it is our unchangeable context”.

You need emotion, and relationships – You need to be clear on how it “feels to work around here”, “how we always treat each other”, and “what’s always expected from leaders”. This has to be the overwhelming component of your culture. Your psychological safety. Your care for each other. The way you work. What matters most. The heart of everything.

You need a layer of frameworks, boundaries, and consequences, but only to hold the emotions and expectations in check, not to overwhelm them.

Finally, if you like, to attract people who will thrive in your culture, you can add a little PR, but only a slither. It’s not a ‘layer’. It’s just icing.

And what goes wrong in culture?

No foundation. No real purpose. No clarity on why the business exists and for whom.

Too many layers of “what you stand for”. A little bit of customer-centricity, a little bit of Lean-Six Sigma, a little bit of diversity, a little bit of productivity, a little bit of cost-saving, and a little of whatever other initiative-du-jour is going around. People think they know what your culture is all about, what the priorities are, but they get a shemozzle of everything, with each initiative led by someone different, and each playing into their performance and rewards, until each initiative is whittled down to such a small component, that nothing matters.  Six different employees describe your culture six different ways.

The next layer of boundaries and consequences, is so huge, that it becomes the only thing that anyone can talk about. So many policies, and rules, and processes, that there is no time to talk about relationships, or leadership, or inspiration, or any of the other emotions that connect us all so deeply. The taste of the rules outweighs everything else.

And then we PR the whole thing so absurdly, that its unrecognizable – like covering a vanilla slice in meringue. Anyone of working age, and beyond their first job, knows that culture and organisations are never perfect, but they can still be good. Really good. They don’t need the crazy over-commitments to perfection. Instead they seek honesty. Clarity. So they can choose a culture that works for them. That shares their priorities. That appreciates their particular way of coming at the world. That makes expectations clear.

And that’s Culture.

A good foundation – strong clear Purpose.

A big full layer of relationships and leadership that align perfectly and simply. From top to bottom. Never competing.

Clarity on boundaries, and consequences.

And a little (tiny) piece of PR so people (honestly) know what to expect.

Maybe it’s the holiday speaking, or maybe the humble Vanilla Slice is, in fact, a perfect metaphor for organisational culture.

Next week, I’m going to look at Scones as a Metaphor for Talent Management. Trust me, it makes perfect sense as well 🙂

Rhonda Brighton-Hall

CEO/Founder of mwah. So proud to be part of this community. Determinedly optimistic Normal Person

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