Building a team culture that reflects your values

At Pillar, we are connected through strong values and a shared vision of creating a vibrant community, and we know that achieving that vision starts with us. We collectively put people first and we believe deeply that together we are better. Employees here have a genuine respect for each other and acknowledge each other’s differences without passing judgement. Our team has an energy of passion, commitment and belief that change happens when you are willing to accept people from where they are at.

We believe the way that we work is just as important as the work that we do. We also hold space for generosity and forgiveness knowing that we are not perfect and our culture will always be in flux. While there is always more to learn and we continually adapt our practices as our team shifts and grows, the core processes and values outlined below help us maintain a culture we’re proud of – a culture that landed us on the list of London Inc. Magazine’s best places to work in 2019.

Breaking down silos with a cross-cluster communications team and plan

While our new organizational structure created certain efficiencies, it also created silos and we had to be intentional about how we would share our work both internally and externally. We created a cross-cluster communications committee to develop and implement an integrated, cohesive communications plan for Pillar aligned with our current organizational strategic priorities. Our communications plan was informed by a human-centered leadership approach. 

Taking time together to build connection

We make time to be together outside of work for fun and to build connections. Over the years, some of our more memorable team outings have included a caravan tour to thank our sponsors by singing a jingle, making fortune cookies that had the message “Be The Change – Volunteer” and handing them out in a local park, attending the Grand Theatre to see Prom Queen, and participating in random acts of kindness. We do simple team outings to local restaurants too. The important point is time to connect outside of work to get to know each other on a personal level as this builds understanding and human connection. We have volunteered  at the Special Olympics, ONERUN, United Way Stair Climb and for Reforest London, and together we also collected over 1000 pairs of “Underwear for Kindness”. Taking the time to volunteer together is good for the collective heart of the organization and is just one way we lead by example in our community. 

Living out our team alliance

We have created and live out our Team Alliance – a set of agreements that we have built together. It includes important aspects like celebrating successes, being present to each other, honouring self-care and supporting flexible working hours. We value failure, because we know that it creates a culture of learning and innovation. We also prioritize inclusion and mutual exchanges and invite community to those conversations. We recognized we have a bias for positivity so we have committed to ensuring conversations are honest and non-judgemental, checking out assumptions, saying what we need to say, actively listening, and following up so nothing is left hanging. We have fun together because we recognize that knowing each other as our full selves is just as important as knowing what our roles are in the organization. Our leadership team models these values and encourages feedback from the team if they are not. We plan to revisit our team alliance regularly as our team grows and changes.

 Adapting our organizational structure 

In 2016, with growth to our team we had a need to reevaluate our organizational structure. Previously, more than 15 staff reported to our executive director and this model was not sustainable. We opted to create clusters with a director who would support the team members. The clusters offered focus and better connected team members working together on common programs and services. While we have tried not to create a hierarchical organization, the reality is that there is power and privilege that comes with being in a leadership role and we are exploring this further. We think it is important to acknowledge that hierarchy exists within teams and to talk openly about who has access to power. 

It’s never like ‘work comes first.’ It’s the understanding that you bring your holistic self to work.

As change happens within an organizational structure, employees can feel a sense of ambiguity and unease. When one of our team clusters was facing these feelings, they went through a journey of reflection about their role at Pillar. They used a poem to frame their experience and work, and shared the poem and new name of their cluster – the Network and Education Cluster – at a team meeting. This creative expression was just one example of the way we encourage open dialogue at Pillar. The practice empowered the team to establish a new identity while acknowledging all of the pieces and individual experiences that make them who they are. 

Building and relying on our decision making tool

Our team is always thinking in terms of future possibilities and look for ways to maximize opportunities. While this makes for a lot of great ideas and projects, sometimes there is a need to go deep and not wide. One of the priorities for our current strategic plan is to “Be Focused”, which has us focusing on maturing our core services and existing programs among other objectives. To help us stay on track, we co-created a decision making tool as a staff team that walks us through strategic alignment, organizational fit, resources and time commitment to get to a decision.

Walking together for empathy and discovery

After participating in the Shifting from Ego to Eco conference in 2016 that was based on the ULab method, we were introduced to the idea of empathy walks. Our team suggested that we implement this simple but powerful tool for deep listening to build trust and empathy. We also use discovery walks with our team where each member takes the time to get to know each other, and when new team members start we have them meet with each team member. Walking meetings have also become a common practice as well as we know that walking alongside someone mitigates hierarchy, puts people at ease and of course you get to be outdoors getting fresh air. Here are the instructions on how to do an empathy walk.

Leading the way through ambiguity 

Teams are made up of people who thrive with clarity and those who thrive with ambiguity, finding the balance requires time, open conversation and recalibrating. As we prepared for our Executive Director to embark on a Reflective Practice & Research Fellowship, we tried to reduce ambiguity through extensive preparation for the transition. Half way through the fellowship, a survey was sent out to the staff and board to check in and the results showed that our team culture was struggling and the pressures that our building was putting on our team were significant. We had team coach come in and facilitate an open dialogue about what was working and what was not working. We are now recalibrating and making adjustments and this open conversation has helped the team to feel supported through this transitional time.

Pillar Nonprofit Network Team Alliance