The Intricacies of Tending to Culture

This morning, I’m struck by the profound nuance inherent in culture – in the building of it, the maintenance of it, the tenuousness of it, and how easy it is for moves to have good cultural intent yet be entirely misaligned from the desired end state.

In my 11 year career, I’ve taught in a public school and a charter school, worked for a national non-profit and for a state-level non-profit. I’ve worked with school teams across the country from their inception through multi-year formation, implementation, improvement, and renewal processes. No two teams are alike. Every team is a unique recipe of personalities, histories, and beliefs, working within a unique set of structures, policies, norms, and rituals – unspoken or explicit.

Some teams have thriving and vibrant cultures, others are wrought with malfunction but desire to be better, while others are so deeply poisonous that the labyrinth of interwoven causes and effects seem a mountainous endeavor to untangle and reweave.

I’ve had the privilege of working on a team with an enviable culture, and here are some animating characteristics of that experience organized by cultural element and its impact on me:

Cultural Element Impact on Me
Team norms that we created together in an intentionally planned way and kept present in our collaboration:

  • Assume good intentions
  • Trust the process and the people
  • Ask for needs, clarity, expansion and welcome responses
  • Be mindful of communication
  • Allow learning to drive our work
  • Engage in healthy conflict and tough conversations
Creating norms and holding ourselves to them as a team was an uncomfortable process that sparked a wide range of emotions for the team members involved. But because we engaged in that difficult work together, I felt more connected to my team members, better understood where they were coming from and what they needed from me, and was able to transfer my experience into how I facilitated the same type of work with school teams.

I also witnessed the risk and courage it takes for someone to leverage a norm to speak up when they might not have otherwise, and this empowered me to be more of a risk-taker myself. Observing how norms influenced team members’ ability to engage, and being considerate of them personally, helped me become a better version of myself and a more aware leader.

Supervisor relationship that was focused on support and reflection over accountability. We met bi-weekly or monthly, and the time was largely a holding space for my own sense-making in relation to my goals, successes, and challenges in alignment with a team-developed set of competencies. My supervisors (I had 3 over the course of working on this team) shaped how I engage as an adult and as a professional. They empowered me to take initiative and ownership, and they encouraged me to develop my own ideas and beliefs. The support provided by my leaders developed and grew me as a person, not just an employee. Their own vulnerability, honesty, and openness – and at the same time, their selflessness – inspired my way of understanding what leadership really is.
When we met in our small teams or as an organization, you could expect the collaborative experience to involve:

  • Connecting personally and socially
  • Reconnecting with our purpose
  • Learning something new
  • Applying our learning to a critical analysis of our work
  • Open moments to be vulnerable with one another, whether to acknowledge colleagues or to explicitly grapple with tensions or “elephants”
I would leave these experiences overwhelmed with gratitude and pride for being a part of such a team, and empowered by the fact that I continued to be pushed cognitively. Judging by my colleagues’ social media presence after moments like this, I was not alone in this sentiment. I felt like I was at the forefront of the conversation in my field. These experiences carried the assumption in the way they were structured and facilitated that I would show up and dig in, and it influenced my drive to be a significant contributor to the team I held dear and respected as thought leaders.
We used and lived language like “model the model” and engage in work with schools with genuine care. This language permeated how I framed my thinking about engaging with those I was positioned to support. When I developed an agenda for work with a school team or my own team, I considered the ways in which we train and support school teams to engage in their work, and I crafted the agenda to model it. When I pulled into the parking lot of a school I found challenging or knew was struggling, I put myself in the mindset of genuine care and genuine curiosity, so that I came from that place throughout the day. These, to me, are powerful examples of the influence of language on culture.
Continual organizational restructuring and alignment to honor growth, create leadership pathways, and capitalize on internal strengths. Over the course of 6 years, I had 3 positions, starting as a coach, moving to a Manager of coaching, and eventually onto a Director position. In 6 years, I had the opportunity to be a part of significant conversations about how to restructure and reorganize our team to accommodate our growth, and we were invited to express interest in and apply for the new leadership positions that emerged as a result of that reorganization. I was regularly asked what I was enjoying most about the work and what aspirations I had, so that as new opportunities, work, or positions emerged, our team knew who would likely be most interested in and fulfilled by it.

It should go without saying that these regular opportunities for professional growth and to engage in significant conversations about the direction of our organization were empowering. My knowledge and skills were expanded and diversified, and I am a more marketable and deeper contributor to my field as a result. The gratitude I feel for this runs deep.

I write this today for a few reasons…

Personally, the further away I get from the team described above, the more fleeting the cultural experience I had feels. This is somewhat heart-wrenching, and I want to continue to find ways to hold onto the experience and to carry it with me.

Because I’ve had this privileged cultural experience, I also believe it is incumbent upon me to carry it into my role on new teams, to exude and model the cultural elements that have had such a profound influence on me. As opportunities emerge to lead teams in the future or to support leaders, I aspire to live up to the leadership I’ve experienced and continually expand my capacity to create the same opportunities for others.

I also write this because I’ve read plenty of articles and books about the attributes of a positive culture, but concrete examples of what causes those attributes are often absent. My hope is that the explicit examples above prove practical for you and are able to help more teams achieve what they genuinely desire.

I’ll leave you with a question:

Is the (cultural) move you’re thinking of making truly aligned to its intent and likely to help you achieve the outcome you desire?

I think if leaders carved the time to critically analyze their efforts through the lens of this question, and acted courageously in response, we’d see more thriving organizations today.