podcast: creating culture with Maryann Kerr

You've been having a lot of really important conversations to try to change our sector in a really important way. So let's start with the Genesis behind your research and what led you to take a step back and say, “hmm, we have a problem and that problem is culture and we need to fix it.”

I've been in the sector for 33 years and I've loved every minute, even the tough days because at the end of every day, I knew that I was doing something that made a difference in the world.

I looked back over my years and I said, “when were the times when I felt really engaged in the work, what was present for me in those organizations?” And what was present was great leadership, great teams and healthy organizations in terms of their culture. And you can measure that in all kinds of ways. So I asked, “what does it take to have a healthy organization?”

What do we mean when we refer to unhealthy cultures? What does it feel like to work in a place that doesn't have a culture that supports you?

In a culture that is not healthy, your feelings actually really don't matter very much. You feel like you can’t fully express yourself, where there is a lot of insular stuff happening. There's an inner circle and I think you see a ton of turnover.

So our sector really suffers from high turnover and, and that can be a sign of an unhealthy organization.

But if I were to say the one thing is that you would feel as though you are not valued, as though you're not respected, that what you brought to the table didn't really matter.

I think that most people have experienced that at someplace and it's not specific to the charitable and nonprofit sector. But I also feel like because we're doing this really important work, there's a sense of we should be a little bit selfless. Can you tell us the dynamic of why we let this sit for so long or why is it so prevalent?

I think that the sector, we attract people who tend to be fairly empathic. So we care a lot about the work. And so you may be put up with bad behaviour because you think, well, this is the price we pay to do the good work that we do. I think a lot of people have moved into the nonprofit sector thinking it's going to be a place where it's all rainbows and unicorns. And the truth is if it isn't at all.

How can we come in and start to create change?

I think the truth is that, that we all own a piece of culture, right? The way that we interact with our coworkers, with the people that report to us, we all have an opportunity to treat others with kindness, to be open to the different ways that people work.

We need to pay attention to it. And how we do that is by engaging with the staff. We need to talk, we need to talk to everybody to get a benchmark of where are we today. How would you describe culture? How would you describe the way we get things done around here? How would you describe the way that a leadership team is functioning? We need to engage with people and have conversations.

I really believe strongly that it has to start with the leadership.

You mentioned retention, which I think is a great and clear indicator. What other ways can we both benchmark and then come back and reevaluate what culture looks like in terms of metrics?

One of the things that I do with clients is an organizational health audit. So that's how we create the benchmarks. So we look at everything including the physical characteristics, and the environment that people work in. We deep dive into customs and norms. What are the kinds of behaviours that people are involved with that we're okay with? You look at things like policies and procedures, how formal and organization it is. You look at rules and regulations. What are those things that really matter to us? Where are the lines of accountability and are they working? We look at leader behaviour. We look at things like payroll or rewards and recognition. We look at symbols like how do we celebrate all of those things. So there are lots of tools that are available that allow us to really deep dive into what a culture looks like. And, it doesn't matter how big or small the organization is, it's entirely doable and it, it really involves connecting with employees across the organization.

So what I'm hearing is that it’s the combination of all these things that fit together to create the environment for your organization to be successful. So obviously it doesn't look the same in every organization.

Well, absolutely. And one of the examples I like to use is, let's say an organization has created a set of values that they say reflect who they are. And one of those words that we hear all the time is respect, right? So how does respect play out in terms of the physical characteristics? So if my office is a little teeny tiny closet with no windows and the CEO has a big huge quarter office, tell me how respect is played out there. How is, how is respect played out in our holidays and celebrations? How does it play out in rules and policies?

How do you go about creating values that reflect the kind of organization you want to, you want to be part of and you want to create?

So to me, that values are reflected literally through that word we started with, which is emotion, right? I use something called the emotional culture deck, where we literally sit down with a leadership team and we say, here's a deck of cards. Tell me which are the emotions not good and bad, but which are the emotions you want to feel at work, which are the emotions you want people who work here to feel and which are the ones you don't? Then what are the actual specific behaviours that we need to support in order in order for that to happen.

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Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership Fundraising Strategy Guide


The Medalist Group

Maryann on LinkedIn

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano

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