When I joined The Hill Center in Durham, North Carolina, as Executive Director nearly two years ago, I realized immediately that I had joined a wonderful, successful, highly conventional education organization. Hill has been transforming students with learning differences into confident, independent learners for nearly 40 years, and many of the faculty and staff (including the outgoing Executive Director) had been at Hill for most of that time. Hill has a strong culture, and its faculty and staff all consistently deliver high-quality programs for students and teachers alike—all despite evident tensions, misunderstandings, and mistrust between senior administration, faculty, and staff as well as across different programs and teams in this rigidly siloed, hierarchical organization.
From the start, I publicly stated I wanted to address issues of culture, trust, and transparency, in part by establishing organizational core values. But I didn’t know how or when to do so. And, candidly, I was scared. I knew I couldn’t come into Hill and impose my own core values, yet I was petrified of what might emerge if I opened the value-creation process to everyone—and I didn’t how I would respond if I simply didn’t believe in, like, or want to adhere to what did.
Hill did have core values posted on its website and included in its strategic plan, but they just didn’t resonate with me, and hardly anyone within the organization could articulate them. I saw both an opportunity and a challenge. Despite my public proclamation, however, I decided to wait.
The time comes
Fast forward 18 months.
I’d read The Open Organization (and many other articles along the way) as I tried to navigate the path forward, discover my authentic leadership and management style within this (still very foreign) context, and lead change in a non-threatening manner. I’d adopted and promoted “All Hill” language and events to help break down siloes. We’d engaged in an All Hill “strategic visioning” process that was faculty/staff-centric, rather than being led by the board, and that resulted in some new relationships, dialogue, and common language. We had hired, retired, or exited many faculty and staff, resulting in an organization that was suddenly fairly evenly split—almost exactly one third newer personnel, one third in the three-to-ten-year range, and one third employees who had been at the school more than a decade (half for more than 20 years). And we were still very, very far from being an “open organization.”
So I decided it was time to embark on a core values process, and I decided to do it as collaboratively, openly, and organically as felt possible. I had no idea where it would lead or what would result. And I was still scared.
Why did I decide suddenly it was time? First, we were losing veterans to retirement each year, and I didn’t want to lose their perspectives on what made Hill successful and unique—and what had made them dedicate decades of their lives to Hill. Moreover, as we welcomed the next generation of faculty and staff, we needed to be able to recruit and retain great people, and clearly communicate and deliver on “Why Hill?”
By soliciting ideas and feedback from staff, I could honor what we’d done well in the past while preparing for future transformations. Second, I knew teachers at The Hill Center often spoke positively about feeling autonomous and enabled in their classrooms, and I wanted to recreate that feeling of empowerment and involvement at an organizational level. Finally, I recognized that a sense of ownership of shared values could foster parity across staff members with varying levels of experience and authority.
When it comes to adhering to and executing on our core values, nobody is held to a higher or lower standard; consistency of values prevents favoritism or bias in decision making. Anyone should be able to ground a conversation with anyone else—regardless of position, team, or program—in shared core values without making that conversation personal. In short, by asking All Hill to collaborate on “discovering our core values,” and then making the final product explicit and alive, I hoped to reinforce the greatest strengths in the pre-existing culture of The Hill Center while continuing the move towards a more open, transparent, and trustful organization.
We just needed to think about how we’d actually do it.
Discovering our core values
Along with Michelle Orvis, Hill’s Chief of Staff, I began reading articles and watching videos related to open sourcing core values, and we informally interviewed personnel from other organizations to solicit their advice. In the end, we wanted a hybrid approach: something open and inclusive but not completely democratic or consensus-driven. We also did not want the process to be too time-consuming for our already busy faculty and staff. We wanted to conduct it over several months, but not forever, and we wanted to accept input in a variety of forums.
After announcing the process and sharing multimedia examples from other organizations over email, we had an optional “lunch ‘n learn” kick-off (I had learned early on that the only possible window for bringing All Hill together was lunchtime, between morning and afternoon classes!). I provided some context, laid out two guiding principles for our core values—”clear and simple” and “truly authentic”—and folks worked individually, in pairs, and in small groups to describe the “essence” of Hill in words and phrases. We captured the words and phrases, then shared and discussed them via email communications, smaller informal lunches, and preliminary synthesis and discussion at a half-day leadership team retreat. During this process, we also added two more guiding principles: “Bias towards action” and “All Hill—knit together entire organization.”
Following one of the informal lunch discussions, I received an email from Kate Behrenshausen, one of The Hill Center’s newest teachers. The note surprised me, given that Kate had opted out of the kick-off meeting at the beginning of the process. Suddenly, she was ready not only to participate in the values-writing process, but also to engage further by collaborating on additional writing (like this article for Opensource.com!).
How had Kate made the jump from disinterested to engaged, and what could I learn from this?
Initially, Kate admitted, she did not believe the core values process would apply to her role at Hill; in fact, she admitted, she wasn’t even totally sure what “core values” meant. To her, they sounded like sterile, superficial management buzzwords.
But later, when I asked Kate and her coworkers to submit five words or phrases that described the “essence” of Hill, she was intrigued. She’d received a concrete method for providing feedback, and she appreciated the implication that her opinions mattered. In fact, she said, that feeling of appreciation had guided her decision to join Hill in the first place. During an early interview, Head of School Bryan Brander had reassured her that Hill gives its teachers the freedom to do what is best for student learning. Bryan’s words inspired her—especially after several years in the public school system, where decisions seemed to come from far-off offices of people who did not know her students and would never see her classroom. In her estimation, the follow-up core values activity had reinforced those feelings of reassurance, encouragement, and inclusivity.
All (Hill) in
I recently shared draft core values with All Hill at one of our bi-monthly, post-board meeting lunches. The draft was an updated version of what our leadership team synthesized from the “words” activity at the kick-off lunch, then modified to reflect the other feedback I had been collecting in formal and informal ways. We’ve posted them on the wall in the mailroom with markers, post-its, and dots in hopes that folks will share their reactions, ideas, questions, concerns. We’ll go from there, working towards unveiling “new” core values at our August Back-to-School kick off.
What currently hangs on the wall are not the core values I’d have written myself (though many of my original themes do come through). Some of them raise questions (even concerns). And yet, on the whole, I feel better about them at this point than I might have expected, and I think they will spur more needed dialogue as we progress. I’ve learned three valuable lessons so far:
- Letting go can be both scary and liberating. While I certainly haven’t let go completely, I haven’t “backwards planned” or tried to over-engineer it, and I genuinely have listened and sought out the input of everyone. And it’s been fun, engaging, stimulating, and affirming of the many great people, ideas and things happening every day at Hill—much less work for me than it could have otherwise been, too!
- “Authenticity” is a simple but challenging guiding principle, for both individuals and organizations. But to me it seems central to being an “open” leader and organization. What seems authentic to some may not to all; what is authentic in certain relationships or circumstances may not manifest itself in others. And what if there are things about “who we are” as an organization that we need to change in order to thrive and survive, or about who we think we are supposed to be that we need to actually embrace more fully rather than let go? I think we may need to have some hard conversations about authenticity as a part of this process.
- Nothing is better than actually sitting down and engaging in dialogue with different people, taking the time to talk less and listen more, and then having the discipline to capture and translate that dialogue into something that is made explicit and shared. It takes time. It takes planning. It takes effort. But it is so much better than just thinking about things or wishing them to be different or true.
I still have a long way to go and grow as a leader at Hill. And we still have a long way to go and grow as an organization. But the journey is one worth taking. And I am determined to enjoy and learn from the ride. Hopefully, many others feel the same—and will join Kate and me along the way.