What I’ve Learned about Company Culture as VP of Professional Development
Learn what Laura Chervenak, VP of Professional Development, has learned about company culture at ExploreLearning.
Not long after I took on the role of VP of Professional Development at ExploreLearning, I received a surprising compliment. A colleague congratulated me on the wonderful culture I was building in my department. I thanked him and then privately pondered his observation, for I hadn’t been consciously trying to build any particular culture.
I had developed my leadership style as the school administrator at a virtual school where I had built the team from the ground up. By necessity, we all worked as a team, establishing policies and procedures, building a class catalog, and coaching student success. To me, leadership meant supporting the people who were responsible for the work and then working alongside them to get it done.
When I joined ExploreLearning in 2010, I carried this viewpoint with me to my new position and my new team reacted very positively to it. We established regular continuous improvement brainstorming sessions called Dream Retreats from which we prioritized new initiatives and designed systems that would allow more transparency and open sharing of resources.
After spending some time thinking about my colleague’s comment and the nature of company culture, I realized that although I hadn’t explicitly identified the desired departmental culture and worked toward that intention, the end result of our method of work was a positive, collaborative atmosphere for my team.
I’d been lucky. Company culture is all about the way that the company is led and my past positions had shaped me to be a leader that would result in a positive culture. I realized that leaders serve as role models that define a culture, influencing the individuals of a department or company by the way that they work, both independently and with others. I also realized that the culture of the department couldn’t rest only on my shoulders as our company grew.
My leadership team began to be more deliberate about supporting the culture in our department by adhering to several guiding principles which include:
- Define the culture that you want by identifying the characteristics you wish to be at the center of the work. As former teachers, we all closely identified with a culture centered around collaboration. We wanted teamwork and communication to be central characteristics of our departmental culture. Depending on the nature of your work, you may choose other central characteristics such as individual development, inclusivity, or passion for a cause.
- Make those characteristics a priority in your workplace. We continued to have annual Dream Retreats where we identified what worked and what didn’t within the department. We then worked together to implement an annual continuous improvement plan. It’s important to provide team members with opportunities to engage in work that revolves around the central characteristics.
- Make the characteristics visible. Our strategic plans and project documents are available in digital collaborative centers so that the entire team can monitor progress. I encourage leaders to find opportunities to bring forward the central focus of your desired culture. Lunch and learns about professional development opportunities in an individual development culture or posters celebrating a passion-centered culture are nice examples.
- Provide tools to support the development and maintenance of the culture. As we have grown, we have added several diagnostic tools to help our team members work together. Each person takes a communication-style inventory, a strengths inventory and an appreciation-language inventory. The results for every member of the department are available to all so that we can identify potential partners with complementary strengths when beginning a project. The communication and appreciation data help us to communicate thoughtfully as we collaborate with each other on improvement projects. Don’t assume that your team members know how to work in the culture you’re creating – give them the support that they need to be successful in the work environment.
Company culture shouldn’t be an afterthought. Intentional planning, explicit communication and behavior modeling will help to build a culture from the beginning, and can also correct a culture that has gone wrong. Prioritizing initiatives that will build the culture you want will pay off in better productivity, innovation, and quality new hires.