This guest post was written by Anitha Pai. Anitha is the co-founder of Tokabee, an education startup that delivers cultural experiences for children to learn about the world. Prior to founding Tokabee, Anitha worked on a range of international development issues including financial literacy programing for the urban poor in India, primary school education programs in the Middle East and Africa, and cross-cultural exchanges in the US.
Creating and sustaining great company culture is something every organization should be thinking and talking about. As a critical factor for success, ignoring it just isn’t an option. I’ve worked for organizations with a variety of missions and organizational structures; I’ve witnessed some that have gotten it right and others that have struggled to inspire and guide employees to engage in the greater good.
At CultureCamp DC, I wanted to learn about how to develop great company vibes, regardless of an organization’s purpose. Hosted at the OpenGovHub offices on April 29, 2015, CultureCamp DC brought together a group of culture enthusiasts from nonprofits, government, consulting, startups and others to talk about organizational culture. Participants pitched and led session topics based on their interests and experiences, rather than their areas of expertise. The topics ranged from “documenting culture” and “introducing security in an open culture” to “creating culture change from the bottom-up.”
Using the unconference format, the day’s schedule was self-led and the sessions flowed. In each of the sessions I attended, conversations looped and pivoted in response to ideas from the group. While we started chatting in one session about struggles with a “culture of sacrifice” in one nonprofit, attendees then shared ideas in recruiting for “culture fit” and later we moved to real-life examples of group norming. Forget the stale presentation or discussions where one or two people dominate the conversation, this conference observed the rule of two feet. If you weren’t learning or engaged in the conversation, then you moved to a place that could make it happen.
With more than 20 sessions, participants presented challenges, proven techniques, and even games around creating collaborative culture. To support the participatory nature of the event, we embraced the four key principles of an unconference: 1) Whoever comes are the right people; 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; 3) Whenever it starts is the right time; 4) When it’s over, well, it’s over.
Here are my top 3 takeaways from CultureCamp DC.
- What is organizational culture? We’ve all heard success stories from companies that are consistently voted the best places to work, but I wanted to learn more about how people were identifying and fostering collaborative and open culture.
To start, a few themes emerged from the sessions that I found helpful for defining the term. Organizational culture is an ongoing conversation that reflects the values and behaviors of the people within an organization. It might be directed by the company’s founder or senior leadership team, but it is much more powerful when it is crafted from the collective experience.
Culture expresses itself among individual employees and teams, and it can generate a number of subcultures within a large company. A company’s culture should be aligned with its core purpose. It is sometimes codified through a formal document or put up as wall décor; yet, its potency is in the informal way that the culture is lived across the organization.
- How can culture change? Often times, we’re not at the helm of the organization and the place we work has been around for a lot longer than we have. Under these circumstances, I was curious about how an individual can initiate a shift in culture, especially when key members of leadership are not onboard or are unaware of the need for change. It’s a situation that I and others around the table had found ourselves in at different points in our career.
We talked about the tactile things that we can do to turn things around. While there is no magic bullet, presenting research or internal data can be an effective way to initiate the conversation about culture change. Using studies that point to the financial benefit of positive work culture might be one way to get decision-makers committed.
Collecting data within the organization through employee satisfaction surveys can be another way to expose issues and open up dialogue beyond the grumbling at the water cooler. If it’s done in a manner that responds to the perspective, incentives, and habits of those who are resistant to change, then it can create allies and encourage collaboration while creating a more positive work culture.
- What should leaders do to cultivate great culture? As the co-founder of an education start-up, I wanted to learn the how-tos of creating and cultivating a great work culture during our company’s initial phases. I was curious about how to get it right with our team, so that we could avoid the pitfalls that others have experienced in creating an open, collaborative and mission-driven culture.
As organizations grow and employees transition, so does organizational culture. If you’re lucky enough to be in the initial stages of a company, start the conversation early and encourage continuous dialogue so that the culture reflects the company’s inevitable evolution. When there is a shift in culture, it is useful to make it explicit to avoid confusion or disengagement.
Employees appreciate authenticity and vulnerability from leaders. Leaders aren’t expected to get it right every time, but by asking questions and creating opportunities for continuous feedback and engagement from all levels in the organization, leaders can foster an environment of great culture.