Improving Organizational Culture: The What vs. The Why

By: Janice Walton and Caroline Vander Ark

Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing leadership and organizational culture tips that we have gleaned from our own experiences, the experiences of the Getting Smart team, and the experiences of our partners. The work we are all collectively embarking on, providing powerful learning experiences for all students, is incredibly important and we can’t do it alone. We need strong, healthy leadership and organizations if we want to achieve our goals which is why we think focusing on developing strong leadership and organizational culture is so important.

The start of a new year is a great time to take a personal, team, and organization pulse and set intentions which will help carry you throughout the year. One helpful exercise for all organizations to go through is to reexamine both the organization’s “why” and each team member’s personal “why”. Going through this thought process is beneficial on the personal and professional level as it helps remind us of exactly why we are doing this work.

Finding Your Personal Why

If you haven’t done so already, watch Simon Sinek’s TEDxPuget Sound talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and read his book “Start With Why” for an excellent discussion on digging into why you do what you do, and how that translates into inspiring others. In both the video and his book, Sinek describes the WHY as: “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” He believes, and we agree, that you should answer these questions because it is from this understanding and framing that you not only find motivation, purpose, and inspiration for yourself, but it’s also how you motivate and inspire those around you to achieve your organizational mission and goals.

The “Start With Why” book and website both have many tools and resources for how to get started with this exercise, and we highly recommend reading them. But one way we have found to quickly get started is to carve out reflection time individually, and then with your team. For this step, simply focus on the “why” as an individual and leader, not your organizational why. We recommend that you first take some time to answer the questions above by yourself, reflect on them and how they shape you as a leader. You can go one step further and check out Sinek’s book, Find Your Why which “picks up where Start With Why left off. It shows you how to apply Simon Sinek’s powerful insights so that you can find more inspiration at work — and in turn inspire those around you.”

Once you know your why, try this out with your team. Perhaps center a staff meeting around this discussion and be transparent with your own responses. As a team we’ve found that understanding each other’s why has been an important relationship builder. Knowing what drives someone can help cater your interactions and prioritize work with and for them that is aligned to their why.

Want to know what drives some of the Getting Smart team members? We asked this question and here’s what a few of our colleagues had to say:

  • I get out of bed in the morning partially because a 3-year-old needs breakfast, but mostly because there are young people who need us to make this work happen. There are poeople whose lives are affected every single day for something that CAN and SHOULD be fixed. We all agree on our team that Education may be one of the world’s greatest problems and can be one of the biggest changes makers if we can get it right.
  • My why: Along my journey, I have been provided with relationships that supported my stumbles, dusted me off, provided encouragement to make excellent mistakes and partnered in countless celebrations of growth. My why is simple – increase the capacity of others and design opportunities that open doors for people to experience the same “gift” I have been afforded.
  • My why: Leveraging and amplifying the voices of those that need to be heard.
  • What’s your belief? I believe in the power of people working together towards a common good. Our team is rooted in our mission of powerful learning and equity for all. That allows us to ban together, with our different experiences and expertise to make an impact and help other organizations do the same.
  • My why: I have been fortunate enough to have incredible learning experiences both in school and in my career, but I know there are many people who come from similar backgrounds as mine who do not (or have not) had the same opportunities, and they should. Ensuring they have rich and rewarding opportunities in all they do is my why.

After you and your team have gone through your personal “why”, it’s time to take a look at the organizational “why”.

Finding Your Organizational Why

Most organizations focus first on the what, they have a clear sense of what work they are doing but often forget to start with the why. While it is important to be clear on what type of work you are doing and for who, it is vital to understand and have a consensus on why. For Getting Smart we have seen the what and who shift in our work as the education world changes. We are constantly adapting our work to meet the needs of partners, and always do what we can to best serve students. We are able to be nimble because we have been crystal clear that our why is access to a great education for all.

Your why should become a company manifesto that drives your decisions, guides the course of your work and allows for reflections on how well aligned your team and work is to your why. One of the manifestos our team has appreciated and adapted our own from is Brene Brown’s Leadership Manifesto from her Daring Greatly book.

Why This Matters

We believe finding your “why” matters as an individual and as an organization because it gives you a sense of purpose, and helps fuel your work. This is especially true in the education space because this work is hard. We are all working towards ensuring the best outcomes for all students and that can honestly be challenging at times. But, if we stay focused on what drives us to this work, why our organizations exist and how we as individuals who make up a larger team, fit into that picture we can not only accomplish our goals but we can also find more joy in doing it because we understand our purpose. As such, this is not just a beginning of the year exercise, but one we think should be completed several times throughout the year so you can keep the “why” ever consistent in your mind, and let it serve as a reminder when the days get tough.

Our next post will focus on moving from the why to identifying your, and your team’s, personalities and strengths and how you can intentionally work to maximize the individual talents of each member of your team.

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Caroline Vander Ark

Caroline is President of Getting Smart.

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