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[ Institutionalize Culture and Values as You Scale ]How can you continue to evolve and leverage your organizational culture to drive performance, especially as you continue to change?
Photo courtesy of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator
Culture is what people are describing when they talk about “the way we do things.” It is the beliefs, expectations, values, and ways of interacting and behaving that define an organization. Initially, culture is defined by the founder and founding team, but as enterprises pursue scaled impact, each new person or partner will shape the culture — and, if you are not careful, perhaps in ways that you did not intend. The basis of an organization’s culture is the values — not just the words but the principles that guide the actions and decisions of an organization and its employees — embedded within. What is the personality of your organization that you want to set and maintain throughout scale and how will you define, communicate, and live that culture as scale occurs?
Advice from the field includes:
1. Use culture as a tool to reinforce values as you scale.
In some organizations, culture is largely ignored or seen as an unnecessary burden to handle. In many others, including the social enterprises we interviewed, there is no question that cultivating an organization’s culture is absolutely essential. But to what end should culture be reinforced and managed? Laura Callanan, Founding Partner of Upstart Co-Lab, which disrupts how creativity is funded by connecting socially responsible and impact investing capital in the U.S. to the creative economy, emphasizes that “culture should always be in service of the bigger mission and effectiveness of the organization.” The risk, she cautions, is that without clear objectives for culture, it can overtake the work — even at the expense of the organization’s external mission. Clear objectives are critical to inform and guide culture during the constantly evolving reality of scale.
The Competing Values Framework, developed by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, lays out four different organizational culture types — each of which has associated values and outcomes it is working to maximize. For the leaders we interviewed, culture was further nuanced during scale; while most enterprises could fit into one of the four culture type buckets, they spoke extensively about culture as a tool to manage change and to maximize the intrinsic motivators of play, purpose, and potential (as described in the Leverage Non-Salary Incentives article).
The organizations use language and take deliberate actions to underscore the culture they seek to achieve. For example, VisionSpring strives to create a culture of empowerment among its staff — in particular working to drive problem-solving and decision-making closer to the customer — to best serve the customer. It has found, however, that in cultural contexts where people default to phrases like “let me ask my superior” or “headquarters said…,” these kinds of changes are slow to take root. To reinforce the message that the organization is in service to the customer and the customer-facing team members, VisionSpring’s organizational chart has the front-line sales staff on the top and the CEO — Ella Gudwin — on the bottom. VisionSpring has also paid attention to semantics and eliminated the terms “head office” and “headquarters” from its lexicon to de-emphasize that hierarchy.
Additional Resource: Organizational Culture Types from the Competing Values Framework
Researchers Cameron and Quinn identified two competing polarities that influence organizational effectiveness and created a matrix to map an organizational culture within each quadrant. One axis maps organizations on the competing values of “internal focus and integration” versus “external focus and differentiation”; the other axis maps them on “stability and control” versus “flexibility and discretion.” The emerging organizational culture types are the following: Clan Culture: friendly working environment, driven by values of commitment, communication, and development. Adhocracy Culture: dynamic and creative working environment, driven by values of innovative outputs, transformation, and agility. Market Culture: competitive and results-based working environment, driven by values of market share, goal achievement, and profitability. Hierarchy Culture: formalized and structured working environment, driven by values of efficiency, timeliness, consistency, and uniformity.43 The framework authors also offer an online tool for organizations to assess their own cultures. See the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument at www.ocai-online.com and below.
From the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument at www.ocai-online.com
2. Communicate regularly — and thoughtfully revisit culture and values at scale
Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America (TFA), cautioned that as TFA decentralized, it made assumptions that the “basics” (i.e., north star, values, and tenets) were well-understood and would continue to cascade around the organization. This assumption led to teams adopting tactics that were not necessarily aligned with those “basics.” TFA soon realized that it needed to be clearer about what defines TFA — the non-negotiables that set norms and behaviors — and make sure that local leaders were engaged in deep conversations about the nuances before they could adapt tactics and programs.
Health Leads shares a similar experience about the importance of ongoing communication about cultural tenets. During an intensive period of change and growth during its Grow & Catalyze scaling plan, CEO Quinn admits that “culture went on the back burner.” During this period, Health Leads prioritized innovation among and across teams but didn’t predict how this could lead to silos between offices in different geographies. Quinn reflects, “There was a different culture in each of our New York, California, and Boston offices. We went from being consistent around our culture and values throughout our organization to having misalignment. Now the pendulum is swinging back. We recently refreshed our vision, values, and mission in a process that included the whole organization and external partners. We are using our vision, mission, values, and new strategy as the foundation to do some resetting of our all-organization culture through specific interventions (e.g., designing practice agreements for meetings and incorporating values into performance measurement). Our aim is to enable each of our teams and communities to infuse their local culture into the larger container.”
Like Health Leads, many interviewees described a process of revisiting their culture and values during their scaling journey. The stories below outline two different approaches to revisiting values and ensuring that key stakeholders (staff, beneficiaries, etc.) are engaged and bought into the outcome:
EXAMPLE: VisionSpring — Codifying Values
When Ella Gudwin joined VisionSpring in 2015–14 years after its founding — she could feel there was a VisionSpring way of doing things, but she noted, “I would find myself in difficult situations saying, ‘this doesn’t feel like it aligns with VisionSpring’s values,’ but I didn’t actually have something to point to. I could just feel that it was counter to the organization.” Process Points: 1. CEO reflection: For three months, Gudwin documented moments where actions or decisions of VisionSpring employees, subcontractors, or partners felt at odds with the organization; she also documented moments where she would feel, “Wow, this is a VisionSpring value
in action!” She reflected on the “lore of VisionSpring” and made note of the stories and chapters in the organization’s history which had become important reference points for the organization. These notes became the basis for a draft set of values. 2. Management team engagement: Over a six-week period, managers were invited to make note of their own observations of do’s (i.e., legends), don’ts (i.e., taboos), images (i.e., symbols), and key phrases (i.e., language) that defined VisionSpring. They added these observations and made other tweaks to the values that Gudwin had drafted. Gudwin also ensured that VisionSpring Founder Jordan Kassalow was a key stakeholder during this phase of the process since she wanted the values to be true to VisionSpring’s founding, while also relevant to how VisionSpring had evolved and where it was going. 3. Pressure testing the values: The team sat with an almost-final set of values for four months, posting them on walls around the offices and then came back together to integrate feedback in a round of final edits. 4. Board alignment and approval: At the end, Gudwin discussed the process and the values with the board for alignment and approval. Result: VisionSpring Values
VisionSpring has posted the five resulting values (listed below) around the organization and on its website, has integrated them into the Strategic Framework (which all employees have on their desks), and uses them as organizing themes (on a rotating basis) for quarterly all-hands meetings.
1. Uphold equity.
2. Constantly adapt and relentlessly improve.
3. Learn together.
4. Default to transparency and reveal hard truths.
5. Help others do well.
[Learn more about how VisionSpring brings their values to life as they navigate crisis through their Scaling through Mass Disruption video interview].
EXAMPLE: Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator — Recommitting To Values
After reaching its first 10,000 youth, Harambee leadership determined the model was ready for further scale up. The organization recognized the need to capture “The Harambee Way” that had led it to this point so that the culture could be sustained as it scaled. In 2013, Harambee’s leadership team codified six values to capture “not just what we do, but also how we do it.” The team drew inspiration from the same values that guided the youth served by the organization, creating alignment and accountability between Harambee’s team and the customers it serves. Process Points: 1. Cross-section engagement of employees: Team members from across the organization came together to identify actions they as employees believed they should be doing more of or less of to demonstrate that they are living Harambee’s values. 2. Organization-wide voting process: From these sessions, the team identified four actions to do more and four actions to do less for each value. On a voting day, all employees were encouraged to select the most representative actions to be written on the walls so as to give life to each of the six values. Those who contributed to the process were celebrated with “I voted!” badges. 3. Song production: As a final step to close out this process, Harambee produced a song called, “The Harambee Way” and have since invited staff to personalize it using their own musical talents. See the video here. Result: Harambee Way of Working
The Harambee Way of Working consists of a set of six values, each supported by specific “I” statements, which describe how Harambee’s employees understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from others. For example, “Driven by Results: I make it my business to know our targets and how I contribute to them.”
3. Integrate Values and Culture into Talent Management Processes & Systems
In an organization’s startup days, culture is often seen as a nebulous concept that is more felt than formalized. As an organization scales, a “feeling” is no longer sufficient. Beyond reassessing and recommitting to vision and values, our interviewees described how important it is to formalize how culture is embodied throughout the organization in order to weather growth and change.
Recruitment is a key spot that leaders reported needing to systematize the way culture-fit is being integrated and assessed. Even as a scaling organization differentiates roles and looks for more technical expertise, cultural fit must remain central to hiring decisions. By embedding values and cultural expectations into the recruiting process, social enterprises can ensure that they are bringing on talent that will help maintain its culture as they scale. Jonathan Reckford of Habitat for Humanity underscores the criticality of recruiting for cultural alignment. “Don’t compromise culture in pursuit of technical expertise,” he warns, reflecting on a time he made the mistake of hiring someone who was technically excellent but a culture mismatch. “It can create short-term productivity wins but at too high a price of loss of trust and collaboration. It ended up reflecting poorly on my leadership, as it appeared I was tolerating poor behavior. We are tempted to compromise because it can be so hard and time consuming to find leaders with all the attributes we’re seeking. We’ve learned that it is better to hire slowly — to take the time to get to know candidates and make sure they bring a servant leader mindset with the needed skills.”
VisionSpring sees its recruitment cycle as a two-way process: assessing candidate fit and inviting candidates to assess their fit with VisionSpring. VisionSpring asks short-listed candidates to write a one-page response to three key questions, which Gudwin calls “Why VisionSpring, Why Now?”:
Why is joining a social enterprise in the X role right for you at this time in your career?
What challenges do you anticipate VisionSpring is experiencing and how might you contribute to solving those in this role?
How will you know that VisionSpring is the right fit for you?
Gudwin shares, “We are asking people not to share how they are right for us, but actually how they will judge if we are right for them. How thoughtfully candidates answer these questions helps us identify people who are clear about their own motivations and intentions.” Candidates who move on to the next stage can expect additional interviews with different team members who are looking for a blend of role-specific skills and character traits, as well as the qualities that speak to VisionSpring’s culture and values. This process is standardized across the organization through a set of interview protocols including scorecards and question sets.
Harambee recognizes that even with the best recruitment process, it can be challenging to truly assess an individual’s fit with the organization’s culture. Its philosophy is that team members should “work for work,” so it structures initial short- term service level agreements with potential team members to create an opportunity for both parties to assess fit. Boys & Girls Clubs of America has found that using a formalized and highly prescriptive onboarding program also helps it and the new employee more quickly assess fit, so as to enable changes before investing too deeply in a new hire.
Once an employee is on board in a scaling organization, the work is likely to be challenging with continuous iteration. Harambee captures this in its motto, “#changeistheonlyconstant.” One of Harambee’s goals for culture is to make coming to work fun. As Sharmi Surianarain, Solutions Design Lead, shared, “We put in brutal hours so it’s really important to enjoy the time we spend together and be able to laugh with each other. We believe that creating a culture of empowered decision-making, transparency, inclusion, and fun makes it easier to sit through the necessary day-long meetings about scorecards and metrics and things that move us forward.” Another important element of culture for Harambee is how its values help navigate tough integrity-based situations. Rather than have only a punitive approach to address integrity issues (like someone stealing), Harambee draws on its values and uses restorative approaches as well to engage in deeper learning (why did the person steal?), which leads to a values-driven response.
Caution: “Culture fit” has proven to be a risky concept for diversity, equity, and inclusion. According to Lauren Rivera, Associate Professor of Management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, too often, culture fit “has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with.” Creating formal processes and tools — such as VisionSpring’s interview guide and scorecard and having multiple interviewers is important in mitigating this risk. Health Leads has taken the step of hiring a consultant to assess all the organization’s HR processes for equity and inclusion because of its commitment to ensuring its values of DEI are reflected in the actual policies and procedures. For more on diversity, equity and inclusion, see the article here.
4. Recognize potential culture friction-points when scaling impact.
The pathways chosen by organizations to scale their impact can have significant impacts on culture. Moving from direct to indirect work, entering new geographies, and expanding organizational thinking with people from new sectors (e.g., business, research, engineering) can all result in unintended consequences for an organization’s culture. Similarly, organic growth can radically influence culture as organizations move from an informal family-like atmosphere to one that is more formalized, sees shifts in power as the structure evolves, and brings in new people who lack a shared experience with the legacy staff. As a regular reminder that change management never truly ends, Health Leads CEO Alexandra Quinn reiterates, “The status quo is not an option.” Leaders must understand which changes are causing friction, and why, in order to address it proactively or reactively.
Many organizations shift over time to partnering with and enabling others to amplify their work, which means a shift for staff from more direct work to more indirect work — and a need for a shift in mindset and culture. According to Jagdeesh Rao, Chief Executive of Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), “it is a cultural shift we are working on to ensure all FES staff have the skills to work effectively with partners according to our vision. This requires us to worry less about whether our logo or name is attached to something and instead let the partner be the leader and be celebrated for successes. Humility in working with partners comes through in every interaction from how we answer the phone to how quickly we respond. We are working with staff formally and informally to support them in developing these skills.”
For organizations pursuing multiple scaling pathways, talent in the organization can become increasingly diverse — and can cause friction unless acknowledged and embraced. For Water & Sanitation for the Poor (WSUP), scaling its impact means not only executing direct work in core countries but also conducting research and codifying knowledge to share with the field and reaching new clients through a for-profit consulting subsidiary. The latter two strategies have introduced academic researchers and private sector consultants to a team that was initially engineers and technical experts. Each group brings different skill sets, preferred ways of working, and culture. Keeping everyone working toward the same ultimate goal requires increased communication, shares Neil Jeffrey, WSUP CEO. “Everyone is entrepreneurial, which is great, but if we’re not careful, things can take on a bit of a life of their own. I do a lot of mentorship to help each team see things from different points of view.”
Interviewees also talked about how the beginner’s mindset of continuous learning that many people bring into social enterprises at earlier stages begins to fade once organizations are more established. New tensions and resistance can arise. Trapani of Redwoods shared that opposition to change within his organization is often based on insecurity for one’s particular job or from “inertia manifested as opposition to scale” where individuals are challenged to step outside the set direction of their work. To underscore its emphasis on “constant and courageous learning,” which often leads to change, Health Leads works to reinforce the ultimate goal for any change — that “what we are trying to achieve is bigger than any one of us.”
“We needed to shift our culture to one that had staff feel more ownership of the youth unemployment challenge beyond just our own work. Our staff needed to see other partners and players as being on the same team and as people we had to work with in order to scale up solutions more quickly. This really helped us encourage staff to think about building and delivering impact with others — and not just trying to do more and more on our own.” — Maryana Iskander. CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator
Do’s and Don’ts of Institutionalizing Culture and Values as You Scale