How to succeed in culture by really, really trying

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace’s modern parable: Two fish are swimming along when they encounter another fish heading in the opposite direction. “How’s the water?” the solo fish says as he swims by. The two fish swim a little further until one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?” You can attach a variety of meanings to this parable, but my favorite is as a metaphor for culture. Culture is the water we swim in: it’s invisible and all-encompassing, making it particularly difficult to describe and change. At the same time, culture can help (or hinder) an organization’s ability to grow and achieve its mission. Taking time to make culture visible and improve upon it is critical to organizational success.

Think of your own workplace culture. What comes to mind? The free coffee, maybe. The happy hours, the brown bag “lunch and learns,” the birthday cupcakes from that one place down the street. These are visible markers of culture, and the ones we often tout to friends and new recruits. But culture is much deeper than that. It is specific attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, and traditions that all answer one question: what does a company or organization value most?

At Deans for Impact, we value data. It’s one of our guiding principles, and it’s embedded in everything we do. When we give workshops, we survey participants at the end of each day and display the live results. This approach surprises some folks, but not only do we believe in our work, we believe in using data to improve it. If teacher-preparation programs can gather common data about their programs in order to improve, we too can be vulnerable in our statistical self-reflection.

We also value feedback. We are eager to improve both ourselves and our organization. Feedback plays a huge role in that. Using Google Forms, we’ve created a way to give private feedback to anyone on the team at any time. Every Friday, our staff is strongly encouraged to give feedback to at least three coworkers. I’m not going to lie, I always take a couple breaths before I open my own results, but the feedback always proves prescient and useful. Deans for Impact both values personal improvement and has set up systems to support it. That’s culture.

Because culture is all around us, like air, it’s often hard to make visible. What does air taste like? What does air look like? Studying culture can be equally enigmatic. One of my favorite things about Deans for Impact is how thoroughly we examine our own culture (yes, examining our culture is part of our culture–it’s like culture-ception). Using an organizational science survey that’s changed and evolved with the organization, we look at our own culture quarterly, rating statements like “I feel comfortable disagreeing with my colleagues” and “This is a fun place to work.” We use the data to identify one or two growth areas to focus on for the next quarter, tasking two people to lead that work. There’s been times when this process has led us to face and process some difficult topics. But by making those tough topics visible and talking about them together as a team, we’ve been able to continue to improve our organization. Change truly doesn’t happen by accident, especially when it comes to culture.

My colleague Peter Fishman wrote that we “spend a lot of time talking about culture at Deans for Impact because we believe that our organizational ethos should reflect the types of changes that we and our members aim to see in the field of educator preparation.” And we’ve seen great examples of intentional culture change in a number of our member- and fellow-led institutions. Impact Academy fellow (and now member) Michael Hillis brought in a culture of encouragement to California Lutheran University. To do so, he, his team, and his teacher-candidates began embracing failure, seeing it as a necessary part of growth; as Hillis wrote, “unless we’re encouraged to ‘swing and miss’, we’ll never move far toward our goals.” Our program director, Terri Gierke, wrote about her experience adding feedback as part of her former program’s culture. In Chicago, we saw how the Urban Education Institute implemented a culture of reflection that was not only embraced by the teacher-candidates, but also by the students they taught. Culture is contagious, which is why a deliberate culture made visible is so important.

Culture is the water we swim in, but it doesn’t have to be invisible. Bringing to the surface what an organization values and how that affects the people within it helps everyone swim a little faster.

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