By: Kathy Wagner
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re featuring six women—thought leaders, disrupters, trailblazers, and groundbreakers—all “people people” who are pushing the boundaries and challenging the norms to shape our culture and our planet for the better. Meet:
- Liz Baird, President/CEO at North Carolina Aquarium Society
- Winnie Bresnahan, Associate Manager, Conservation Education at New England Aquarium
- Dawn Chávez, Executive Director at Asheville Greenworks
- Sue Chin, FAIA, SVP Strategy & Advancement, Zoos & Aquarium at Wildlife Conservation Society
- MaryLynn Mack, COO, South Coast Botanic Garden; Board Chair, American Public Gardens Association
- Sunny Nelson, VP Conservation & Science, Lincoln Park Zoo
They share their experiences, thoughts, and hopes for the future below. This week we feature questions four through six—scroll down to read their responses to the role of culture and requests for advice and resources:
We’ve all heard the expression “culture eats strategy for breakfast” right? Well, let’s start off by asking each of you what you eat for breakfast.
Liz: Honestly, I’m not much of a breakfast eater—more of a “grab a cup of coffee and go” type. I used to say my stomach wasn’t awake in the morning! If we are talking brunch, it is a completely different story…
Winnie: Typically, a granola bar or a bagel. (I prefer with peanut butter, but cream cheese will do).
Dawn: My typical breakfast is two eggs over-easy with toast and decaf coffee with a splash of peppermint mocha creamer. My breakfast is a combination of being practical (protein to keep me going through the morning) and joy (a little caffeine, even from decaf, and sweetness from the creamer).
Sue: I don’t usually eat breakfast, but thinking about the quote, I think strategy aligns people from an organizational perspective, the organization’s goals; how you achieve it is in the implementation, how people achieve these goals is more of the culture.
MaryLynn: On a work day it’s a yogurt and coffee. On off days, I take the time for waffles or crepes, but you can’t beat brunch with friends!
Sunny: I actually hadn’t heard that expression before, but it does make sense! I’m not a big breakfast person, so I normally start with a cup of coffee. Actually it’s cream and sugar with a splash of coffee!
Now that we have that out of the way, and speaking of culture, what does “culture,” specifically “workplace culture,” mean to you? What does it look like? What makes a great culture?
Liz: A great culture includes trust, optimism, gratitude and a commitment to do what is right for the people and the institution. At the heart, it starts with an understanding of the vision, mission, and values of the organization and grows into behaviors that exemplify those goals. It looks like a place you are happy to be, even if the work is hard and when the hours are long. It is made of a team that know that their colleagues “have their backs.” This means there is support when needed, but also the candor to address things (kindly) that are not going well before they get out of hand. The team shows gratitude to each other and believes in the mission of the institution.
As I reflected on this question, I thought about working with volunteers. What makes them want to join an organization? What makes them stay? I wonder if considering employees with the same thoughtfulness we give volunteers might help us figure out ways to foster better workplace culture?
Winnie: Workplace culture, to me, means the overall atmosphere and aura of your team. It looks like how people act and respond to not only you as their boss, but to their peers. It’s about their work ethic and personalities. How they act and respond to situations can tell you a lot about the culture of the workplace. A great culture starts with a great leadership team. Pair that with balance, communication, honesty, and clarity and you are all set. To empower a positive culture, the expectations of the team need to be clear and concise.
Dawn: A healthy, supportive workplace culture reflects a commitment to building relationships among staff members based on mutual respect, trust, and open communication. The management philosophy that Kim Scott describes in her bestselling book, “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” really resonates with me. In the workplace, whether virtual or in-person, it’s important to practice getting, giving, and encouraging guidance and feedback so that individuals feel heard and valued. Too often, real, honest feedback is hidden behind what Scott calls “manipulative insincerity” or “ruinous empathy,” or can come across as “obnoxious aggression.” Being open to giving and receiving radically candid feedback can transform workplace culture.
Sue: Sharing a vision, direction, understanding their roles, goals—no matter what your role is. As a 16-year-old in the Bronx Zoo selling memberships, I knew what I was selling—I knew this was about conservation, it was something important, and I knew why it was important. Culture is about how people contribute to the mission; in a good culture they share ideas freely, are creative, think big; offer crazy ideas; but are always heard with respect—respect and accountability are important.
MaryLynn: Culture to me means the integration of norms combined with core values. This is something that doesn’t happen organically, but takes time, effort, and a holistic approach to make sure employees take part in creating norms and that leadership is clear about the values of the organization. It looks productive, creative, and positive, A great culture leads with knowing that its value lies with how employees are treated. Success of the company follows.
Sunny: Workplace culture is something I think we as department leaders strive to consider, but is sometimes difficult to define. I think it’s something that we try to cultivate to create an environment that allows teams to feel productive and achieve shared goals.
How can/do you measure culture? Do you have defined metrics?
Liz: Measuring culture is challenging. A favorite bumper sticker says “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything you can count, counts.” Metrics come through in qualitative ways. When I think about a way to measure trust, it is deeper than believing that people are getting their work completed while they are remote or are accurately completing travel reimbursements. I look for that willingness to be wrong, or make mistakes, knowing that there will be honest feedback and a chance to try again. I recently had an important document to submit, and I was grateful to trust my director to read it over and tell me where to change and improve it without fear of judgement. He has established a level of trust which makes all our work better.
One of the things I notice is demonstrations of teamwork. For example, I had a finance department member offer to vacuum the building in the morning before guests arrived so that the building services staff member could attend a conference on sustainable practices. I expect to see my leadership team show up in jeans and work gloves when we have a particularly challenging task that takes many hands (such as unloading a truck full of filter media or hauling debris after a hurricane). And, recently we learned that the bikes belonging to a staff member’s children had been stolen. The staff quietly came together and found bikes to replace those that were taken. Teamwork shows up in many ways.
I try to foster gratitude by demonstrating it myself. I’m known for dropping off handwritten thank you notes but I also see it from staff in kind text messages, gifts of food in the staff lounge and “shout outs” in meetings. Recently we had a leadership retreat offsite at a sister institution. I was delighted when one of the first comments the next day was about how to thank our hosts. I felt as if that demonstration of gratitude was an expansion of the internal thanks that we share.
Winnie: I do not measure culture and I am not sure how to measure it. I am able to tell the culture in different areas and would love to know if there is a way to measure this.
Dawn: I’m not sure we can measure culture except through indirect ways like listening to employees comment on their feelings of belonging and satisfaction in the workplace. I don’t have defined metrics. Since attending a “Managing to Change the World” workshop last summer, all our staff has been having weekly check-in meetings that include sharing personal and professional feedback. These conversations have been especially helpful to strengthen our connections and relationships after working remotely for so long during Covid.
Sue: It’s hard; it’s like the question about the value of a visit to the Zoo; how do you measure that? In part, it’s how well teams are able to achieve their goals, get things done. At WCS, we know that different parts of the organization have different cultures so it can be challenging to create appropriate metrics. There are no defined metrics; I wish we had something more deliberate, but you know it when you see it.
Retention is a metric, though; we had a celebration for people who had been here 10-15 years, some over 30 years. It’s a journey of change that offers opportunities along the way—mentors and advocates who give opportunities for growth, jobs, skills, cross-training—this builds respect and understanding for other’s jobs. Morale is also a metric, but you can’t always measure it, you need to engage people individually.
MaryLynn: People stay at places where they feel valued and a great culture shows that every day. The best measurements are retention and professional growth with individuals. We track retention and recognize people for staying with the company. And we strive to make sure there are multiple paths forward for every level.
Sunny: I have used one-on-one check-ins with our staff as well as group meetings to discuss our department’s status. I’ve also asked for people to think of ways that best work for them to provide feedback to be inclusive of individual feedback style.
Whose job is “culture”? What is the leaders’s role?
Liz: Culture belongs to everyone, but the leader is key. This reminds me of a quotation from Frances Hesselbein, one of the leaders of the Girl Scouts. She died in 2022 at the age of 107. She said “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do. The North Star for leaders today is establishing an ethical set of values and striving to be the living embodiment of those values. If today’s leaders focus on how to be—if they develop a clear set of principles and values and apply them in all their interactions—then they can weather any storm.” If you want a culture that includes trust, you must be trusting and trustworthy. If you want gratitude, then you need to express it. You want people to be “team players”—then you better be one too. If you start with the values you wish to see in your work, the actions you need to take as a leader become clear.
In a previous position, I once remarked to a friend that I was proud that nearly every staff member had cried in my office. Not because of anything related to work, but rather that they felt safe and trusted me enough to share what was going on personally. I heard about failing marriages, miscarriages, family members with substance abuse problems, challenges of managing the care of elderly relatives, ailing pets, and financial struggles. My folks demonstrated that they trusted me to keep their struggles safe, to be a listening and compassionate ear, and to be beside them. You won’t necessarily find this responsibility in a job description, but it certainly was an important part of mine for creating a positive work culture.
Winnie: The job of culture falls on everyone within the team as they are all contributing to the culture. The leader’s role is awareness and guidance of the culture. Just like they say there is no “I” in team, there is no “one person” culture, it’s a collective and unique mix of people, as it should be.
Dawn: Establishing and maintaining culture is everyone’s responsibility. The leader’s role is to set the tone and foster a safe space and opportunities for staff members to build trust and connections with each other. The leader needs to model the behaviors she wishes to cultivate in the workplace, but also to make herself vulnerable at the same time. Being perfect shouldn’t be the goal. We’re all going to make mistakes and mess up from time to time. No one, not even the leader, should be expected to get it right all the time.
Sue: Everyone’s. A leader’s role is to make sure everyone understands that culture is their job—they are part of a community working together; they need to be actively living and promoting that culture. The leader’s role is to model, communicate, and live it—to show that you understand and value the culture, that you live the core values and help others get it. Leadership has to drive any change—leaders can change culture and need to—one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch; the rest can be working well but one can take it all down. We need to be aware of the need to continue to nurture and feed it.
MaryLynn: It is everyone’s role. A frontline employee should be able to define the organization’s culture as easily as the CEO.
Sunny: All team members have a role in creating the culture of a place. We’ve all heard that “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” It would be great if the opposite were true, in that one person could drive “good” culture within a team. But that is not the case—everyone has to work at creating the environment we wish to be in. A good leader’s role is to acknowledge when there are areas of improvement to be made, demonstrate the type of interactions that should be had, and support team members who are working at encouraging a productive work environment and culture.
What advice would you give emerging leaders (or your younger self?) wishing to shape culture and drive positive change?
Liz: Watch, learn, and practice:
Watch: Find a leader who has created a positive culture, and watch what she does, how she speaks, and what she does not do. Does she demand that everyone call her by her title all the time? Probably not. Does she know everyone’s name and greet them on the elevator rather than looking at her phone? Probably so.
Learn: Talk to your favorite leader. Is she just as concerned about culture as she is about getting the job done? And if so, how does she balance those demands on her time? Find good books to read or pieces to watch. They can be helpful to expand your vision of culture.
Practice: Put your understanding of positive change into your work, such as saying thank you, or pitching in to assist colleagues. Find ways to practice outside of the work environment too, such as in a volunteer setting. Ask for feedback from a trusted colleague and try a different approach if something does not go well.
Winnie: The biggest thing I have learned is if you’re new to an area and trying to shape the culture, listen and watch first. Don’t make any changes immediately; you need to gather information and see how the culture currently is in order to see what changes you want to make. Then stick to your boundaries and expectations of the culture with a slow roll out of changes. Too much change at once can be stressful for people.
Dawn: I encourage emerging leaders wishing to shape culture and drive positive change to keep at it. Use that youthful energy and optimism to fight against the status quo. And, in order to avoid burnout, follow these words of wisdom from author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, “Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
Sue: People are stronger together, so seek out like-minded individuals to drive change and build teamwork. By finding people who care the same way, we can succeed together, sharing the load both emotionally and doing the work. We do need disrupters, but we also need that ethos or philosophy to ensure alignment around a positive culture. The pandemic made things tough—it’s hard for new folks to get the culture on Zoom!
MaryLynn: Find your voice and be brave enough to leave a company that doesn’t match your own values. Find a mentor or advocate who can help you navigate new paths.
Sunny: Be authentic. It’s okay to not have all the answers and to seek counsel and advice from people all around you.
Can you recommend resources to learn more about culture change and developing positive culture?
Liz: I’ve recently been reading “Radical Candor: Becoming a Bad Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott. It provides a great explanation of why giving honest feedback is important and it also gives great examples of ways to do so. I’m also a big fan of Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” When I read it, I felt as if I was having a conversation over coffee with a good friend. It’s filled with stories that can be funny, inspiring, or heart-wrenching, but always relatable. You can also find her on TED Talks and the “Unlocking Us” podcast.
Winnie: I like TED talks, webinars, and podcasts on an issue I’m looking to resolve with my team. I also enjoyed learning about culture and teams throughout my time in my Master’s program. There are tons of programs and certificates leaders can participate in!
Dawn: I can’t wait to read what others recommend, as I’m always looking for great resources. I recommend Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor,” as I mentioned earlier. I’m also reading and getting a lot of good ideas from “Together We Decide: An Essential Guide for Making Good Group Decisions” by Craig Freshley. And, I had the pleasure of attending the keynote speaker presentation at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits’ annual conference given by Jada Monica Drew, the CEO of Social Designs, a leadership and diversity firm. Her book, “Sharpen Your Inclusion Edge: The 8 Step Approach” lays the foundation to advancing diversity and inclusion strategy for organizational and people power and includes a chapter and worksheets on organizational culture that I’ve found helpful.
Sue: I’m not so good at finding and hanging on to resources. I try to find people who model the change we need and learn from them.
MaryLynn: The resources I’ve used over the years are too numerous to list. I consult and teach team building, culture, inclusion/diversity, and leadership in my own industry of public gardens.
Sunny: I like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website. There are usually really good tools and short articles on anything I need assistance with. They also provide lots of resources to subjects that I’ve had questions about.
Lots to ponder in these responses! We’ll continue to feature more questions and answers next week so stay tuned all month!