Building Culture By Getting Out Of The Building

Culture isn’t a decree from on high. It can’t be implemented with the simple swoosh of the CEO’s hand.

Instead, it has to be built by and for the entire team it represents. Rather than having executives write handbooks, we should empower teams and individuals to interpret and define the essence of an organization’s culture. And often, some of the best culture-building happens when we literally get out of the building.

There’s a ton of literature on creating culture – heck, I’ve even written some of it! But it wasn’t until this summer that I realized how crucial time outside of the daily grind is to creating a healthy organizational culture.

Both with Education Pioneers and my partner organization, Noble Impact, I took part in and facilitated a number of culture-critical experiences. Above all, I learned that real cultural strength happens when leaders hand over the reins and intentionally make room for culture-building.

Handing Over the Reins

The Noble Impact team and I were empowered to host a capstone event with 50+ students and “Little Rock Nine” member Minnijean Brown Trickey through EPU programming.

At Education Pioneers, we build culture in many ways; my favorite is Fellow-organized events, which we call EPUs (Education Pioneers Unplugged). A zip-line excursion, a panel on entrepreneurship, a tour of Nashville’s foodie spots: These were all “Unplugged” experiences created and organized by Tennessee cohort Fellows this summer.

Tennessee EP Fellows visit Little Rock Central High School.

I organized a Little Rock, Arkansas EPU (my Fellowship was unique in that I worked in Little Rock, but my EP experience and cohort were based in Memphis and Nashville), to share my city and its history with the Tennessee cohort, introduce my EP colleagues to the work I was doing, and bring us together through a day of meaningful activities, which included:

The events were powerful from a programming experience – Little Rock has a deep history in education, both from the painful memories that happened at Central High School during the era of desegregation, all the way up to the innovation that’s happening at the Clinton School with its focus on public service.

While growing up in Arkansas, I took for granted and even underestimated the national spotlight that my state has and continues to hold within the education sector – in both positive and negative lights. Education Pioneers and the EPU experience empowered me to explore and share those stories with my cohort.

Plus, I expanded the work that Noble Impact does in the classroom – it’s an education nonprofit that aims to provide a relevant and purpose-driven education to all students through entrepreneurship and public service learning. More than 50 high school students in the Noble Impact program joined our EPU to help them build culture in the classroom, even though the work the students participated took place on the weekend, outside of the classroom.

For the EP cohort members who joined, I believe it brought us together like never before. Walking through the halls of Central High, seeing where Minnijean Brown Trickey’s “chili incident” took place, and then sharing lunch, hearing her life story, and witnessing how it resonated with students – that was powerful. To visit a classroom of eager students together, and then join forces with them to propose ideas for solving the opportunity gap – that was inspiring. And to stay up late over pizza and intriguing conversation – that was bonding.

It all started with an EPU – in which Education Pioneers empowered us as Fellows to define our experience, to define our culture.

Making Room For Culture

Business often focuses on efficiency, and we forget to take time out to “build culture.” Taking a team retreat or spending a day with colleagues, just shooting the breeze, can seem counter-productive. From what I’ve experienced, though, it’s important.

A week or so after I started my EP Fellowship, the Noble Impact crew took a team retreat to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain. We shared an apartment, hiked in the woods, stood under a waterfall together, shared our personal stories with one another, and spent time (in between outings on the mountain) defining our mission and values.

That three-day trek set our team up for optimal efficiency. Prior to the retreat, we didn’t have a set idea of how to describe Noble Impact’s work, and given that I was new to the team, my role and summer project hadn’t been 100% defined. Furthermore, I didn’t know much about my teammate’s lives – where they came from, what they care about, why they do what they do. The retreat helped me get closer to some of these answers. By the end of the trip, we had also defined our core values and mission statement, as well as connected on a personal level, understanding each other’s backgrounds and ambitions.

Today, I’m more capable of doing every single aspect of my work because I understand my teammates and our mission together. As a Fellow it’s helpful, but it’s even more crucial now, because post-Education Pioneers, I’m working full-time at Noble Impact.

Tying It All Together

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

― Margaret Mead, anthropologist

Every day in the office, out to lunch, or on team outings, our culture is being built. It happens whether we plan it or not. But what would it look like if we built intentional culture exercises into our organizations, such as EPUs and team retreats?

I challenge you to think about ways to enhance your organization’s culture intentionally. How can you hand over the reins and empower your team to create a lasting culture that will drive your work?

EP Alum Erica Swallow Erica Swallow is a 2015 Education Pioneers Fellow and a status quo wrecker, currently helping reimagine America’s education system as VP of Product at Noble Impact, an Arkansas-based social enterprise that aims to provide every student with a relevant and purpose-driven education. She is a first generation college student, alumna of MIT and NYU, and has written for Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.