2011 NTC Preview: Rebel in a Polyester Sash: A Recipe for Cultural Revolution

Submitted by Brett on Wed, 01/05/2011 - 2:22pm

Jessica H. Lawrence, CEO, Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council

They fill up the pages of business magazines and set bloggers’ fingers typing. They are tweeted about and liked on Facebook. Companies with great organizational culture have become the new business rockstars.

Maybe you work at one of those companies -- a brand new organization fueled by enough energy, passion, and awesome people to make spending days in a small, windowless office with little sleep and a diet consisting of ramen noodles feel like the best job ever. You have an amazing culture that is centered on collaboration, openness and innovation. Lucky you.

But what if you work for a dinosaur? An organization that needs cultural rehab more than Amy Winehouse needs straight-up rehab? What if you work for an old-school, stereotypically uncool, butt-of-jokes and yet still loved non-profit that is now nationally known as an organization with a “weird child army in tablecloth dresses”? (Thanks SNL’s John Mulaney!)

What if you work for, I don’t know, the Girl Scouts? A place where pantyhose, polyester, and clock watching are still raging like its 1985.

That’s where I work. And despite the many great things the organization does, working there sucked until we decided to make it not suck anymore.

We broke the rules and reinvented everything: clock watching turned into working however we want as long as the work gets done; pantyhose gave way to jeans; and the polyester met its demise on the Sacred Cow BBQ right next to a heap of senseless rules. Closed doors opened and untrusting hierarchy was dismantled and rebuilt into a solid foundation of trust.

If your culture sucks, it doesn’t have to. Whether it’s sucked for five weeks or five years or half a century, I’ve learned that there is still hope. The world conspires to have us believe that a job is a life sentence that we all have to suffer through, but work truly doesn’t have to suck.

When I started in my role as the CEO of Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council three years ago, I had been working at the organization in other roles for four and a half years, so I knew the single biggest factor holding us back from making progress was our horrible culture. We served 10,000 girls in Southern California and we were at a place in our organizational history when we needed to be innovative. Girl Scout membership had been declining for years and girls were finding our programming less and less relevant, but our culture didn’t support the mindset and behavior necessary to lead to the radical changes that our organization needed.

As I began to confront our culture and look at our need to change, I was bombarded by all of the “yeah, buts” that the world could throw at me in relation to culture change. I was told that it was practically impossible to change the culture of an organization that was almost 100 years old. I was also told that if I were able to make any changes, it would take at least ten years before I saw any substantial improvements.

I personally wasn’t willing to buy the idea that culture couldn’t change, and I certainly wasn’t going to wait ten years for a culture to magically appear that would make me happier about coming to work every day and that would put us in the right place to make the changes we needed in order to better support the girls we serve.

Our culture change needed to come in the form of a revolution, not an evolution. I needed some defibrillator paddles to jolt the organization into a different way of working and existing, and fast. Our recipe for revolution included a couple of key ingredients:

Ingredient #1 - Sacred Cows

Like so many other issues in life, the first step in fixing our organizational culture problem was openly admitting that we had one. There are lots of tools out there to help diagnose culture issues, but we chose an alternative: a BBQ.

I invited our organization’s stakeholders to a Sacred Cow BBQ -- an idea I got from Bernard Ross, author of Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations -- where we openly discussed our Sacred Cows: the rules both written and unwritten that our organization has been following whether we’d realized it or not.

For each Sacred Cow an attendee wrote down on a Post-It note, they received a piece of BBQ: a hamburger bun for Post-It note number one, the hamburger for Post-It note number two, etc. After about an hour, all of our problems were stuck up on the wall, staring back at us, and we could finally start moving forward.

Ingredient #2 - Trust

It’s pretty simple: if employees don’t feel trusted by an organization and aren’t given a significant amount of autonomy, they won’t take risks and they won’t be engaged. No risk-taking and low engagement have a negative impact on organizational performance by putting a damper on innovation.

To show our employees that we truly trusted them, we became the first non-profit in the country to migrate to a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Instead of watching the clock, employees are trusted to work wherever they want, whenever they want -- as long as the work gets done.

Ingredient #3: WWAFYOD?

What would a five year old do? Well, they certainly wouldn’t host an 8 hour-long meeting with crappy food and boring presentations. We have been taught to believe that work has to be serious and full of rules, and while there are human resource laws that are important for us not to break, the rules had gotten so out of hand that no one can quite remember why half of them were created in the first place. When we started remembering how a kid might approach a meeting or a training session or a dress code, work got a lot more fun and we got a lot more productive.

Ingredient #4: Decide Who You Are & Then Hire for It

Our organizational personality revealed itself pretty quickly after we started pulling all the years of red tape away. We realized that when you combine hard work, risk-taking, being a wee bit radical, laughter, a little wackiness, and caring about each other like family, you get us.

Figuring out who we were then started to impact who we hired. I think back on how we used to conduct interviews, and I can’t believe we used to think that having someone sit in front of us for an hour basically to recite their resume verbatim was a good use of anyone’s time.

Hiring that way often resulted in people who may have had the technical skills to do a job, but couldn’t get along with any of their coworkers or couldn’t deliver amazing customer service, all things that were important to us as an organization. I learned from Zappos.com how to change that: we started asking interview questions that were connected to our core values and everything changed for the better.

In a period of less then a year, we went from an appalling culture to a culture that makes us proud. Work no longer sucks, and it just so happens that our business outcomes got better too: more relevant programming, unprecedented increases in product and retail sales, and growing, sustainable membership. Not bad for an organization that until a couple years ago cornered the market on pantyhose and polyester.

Jessica Lawrence was selected by Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council’s board of directors to serve as the council’s Chief Executive Officer in February 2008. Jessica is currently the youngest Girl Scout Council CEO in the country. Read Jessica's full bio.