5 ways to build a positive culture at your organisation

Published by Kesheyl van Schilt on

I’m often asked how I created our culture at Blakely. I should probably take it as a compliment (since it’s usually a positive reference!), but I actually find it a perplexing question. I certainly didn’t do it alone, and every team member old and new helps to protect it and evolve it each and every day. But I also recognize that as president of the company, I own it and I can single-handedly f&*k it up. 

Culture is set by leadership. More specifically, culture is set by the leader. If you have a crap culture and you are the leader, then own up: The problem is you. It could be due to a lack of transparency, or it could be toxicity in the workplace, an unclear vision, old-school policies, treating employees like they owe you something… I could go on.

But to me, it’s pretty simple. And I don’t mean pizza lunches and social events. That’s all great, but that’s the superficial stuff.

Here are – in my humble opinion – five of the most critical elements of creating a positive culture.

Work toward a vision together
For some people, a job is a job. But I think that’s also the case when you haven’t set a clear vision and brought your team along on the journey with you. Whether that’s inviting employees to help set the vision, or input on the vision, your team members understanding their role in making great things happen (their personal role as Susan the human being, not their role as Susan the accountant) is so important. If they see themselves as critical and feel their efforts are valued (which they are  organisations don’t generally do well without good people) then they will work their butts off and love every minute of it. Except maybe Friday at 4; they’re human after all!

Don’t be a know-it-all
Be honest if you don’t have a clue, or you yourself are trying to figure stuff out. You’d be amazed what you get in return when your team knows that you know you aren’t a know-it-all. (Newsflash: They already know.) People value honesty and authenticity more than they value you knowing everything. It puts them on a more level playing field with you and gives you an opportunity to connect and build together. Plus, if you were smart in the first place, you’ve already surrounded yourself with people who are WAY SMARTER than you anyways.

Show genuine appreciation for a job well done
I was struck by a new team member’s reaction to me thanking them for going the extra mile in sorting out some process issues we were having. She had come from a larger agency and when asked for her thoughts, she immediately dived into helping to solve the problem. I would expect that from any team member, but the shocking part was her reaction to my gratitude. She was gracious and made sure to name all of the other people who were part of it and then went on to say that she couldn’t believe how nice everyone was and that where she came from no one ever got a thank-you for a job well done. Ummm… isn’t that just being a decent human?

Oh, and the flip side? Don’t mince words when people mess up – just tell them, help them, and move on. It doesn’t do anybody any favours to walk on eggshells.

Treat your team members like adults
If you have strict, ridiculous policies that tell people when to come in to work, when to leave, when to work from home, when not to work from home and what to wear to work – well, good luck. Resentment will just build up. Yes, you are going to get the odd team member who abuses the freedom, or doesn’t quite get it, but deal with those situations individually. Deal with those colleagues with respect and compassion, but also be firm and clear with the expectations. The exceptions shouldn’t make the rules.

Love your team more than your donors
Invest in them, talk to them, open up to them, and let them be open with you. Open and honest communication is key.  And remember, your team and their lives are more important than the organization. Yep, you heard that right. My son’s award at school is more important than me heading to a client meeting. The people you employ have lives, and you need to give them the time and space to live them. Sometimes it’s for something fun like an award, and other times it’s for things far more difficult like illness or personal issues. Every situation is different and needs to be dealt with uniquely, but you need to reassure everyone that they, and what they are going through, is far more important than work. You’d be surprised what you get in return.

Whenever I talk about this I hear, “Well, not everyone is a great employee and what if you get someone who just doesn’t get it?” Listen, it happens. We can make bad hires, and we can even have great team members who change and become not so great. Deal with it. Help them get on board or get them off the bus. Otherwise they will erode the culture. Period.

And if you are the leader of your organization, then you ACTUALLY HAVE TO DO ALL THESE THINGS!  This isn’t the managers’ job, and it’s certainly not HR’s.

It’s your job. Culture is yours to own. Yours to create. Yours to protect. Yours to lose

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Kesheyl van Schilt

Kesheyl van Schilt

Kesheyl is President and CEO at Blakely, and a fundraiser with over 20 years of experience in the sector. In addition to her role as President, Kesheyl’s discerning client perspective brings a sharpened focus to strategic planning and development for her clients, ultimately moving the needle and raising millions of dollars for amazing causes.


Simone Joyaux · June 16, 2017 at 12:39

Very very nice, Kesheyl. I very much appreciate your comments.

I’d also add….actually talk about culture. Have everyone read articles about organizational culture. Explore what it means and how to create it together. No need to be subtle, eh?

Peter Drucker, business guru once said: “Culture eats strategy for lunch and dinner.” In other words, strategy is pretty useless unless culture is working.

Lena Boicos · June 18, 2017 at 09:39

Well spoken darling girl. Very proud of you.

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