I have just finished reading a wonderful new book, The Nonprofit Organization Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance by Paige Hull Teegarden, Denice Rothman Hinden and Paul Strom. This work builds on that of Edgar Shein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership, where he distinguishes between an organization’s artifacts (the image the organization projects through its physical presence and observable activities), its explicit values that it advertises, and the hidden cultural norms that often have to be teased out and are not apparent to the outsider. These are the expectations that the organization has of the people who are involved, expectations they have of each other, peculiarities of the understandings between the parties concerned, and assumptions of what is possible and what is not possible.
When an organization is not clear about its hidden cultural assumptions, it may bring in people who have splendid resumes and perform well in formal interviews but encounter difficulties when adjusting to an environment in which they are not comfortable or effective. This can be a problem at any level and can have major consequences when the cultural mismatch involves a new CEO from outside the organization.
As an example, staff atTAP, where I spent most of my adult career, talk about new folks having to be “tap-a-sized” before they adjusted. To be “tap-a-sized” meant in part that you had to put all notions of superiority on the shelf whether it be with other staff or, more often than not, our clients. If you happened to have a Ph.D., it meant recognizing the intelligence of others and appreciating their ideas and experience without regard to a lack of initials after their name. It meant being used to people saying what was on their minds and expressing their feelings. It meant not leaving work until the job was done. It meant carrying your load and then helping someone with theirs. It meant being socially conscious of the reality of economic, social, and racial oppression.
I think a major contribution of this wonderful volume is its suggestions of the kind of questions an outsider can ask of an organization to discover these hidden cultural norms in advance of working with the organization. These questions are also important for an organization to ask of themselves to discover its hidden cultural norms in order to discuss the possibility of a culture shift that would benefit the organization and the people it serves. The questions are important for an organization to ask itself so that it can represent itself truthfully to those it would bring in to be a part of their mission.
An organization’s culture revolves around its stories and the three questions involved in each. First, the creation story: What were the circumstances at the beginning of the organization? Who were its founders? What did they do and how did they impact the organization? Second, the survival stories: What were the critical periods of the organization’s history? What were the challenges? How did the organization respond? Third, heroic or successful staff stories: Who were these people and what did they accomplish? What drove them? What did they overcome?
When I decided to write a book on nonprofit leadership and management, it was important that it be more than a history of the organization I was privileged to lead. I feel certain that I have more than accomplished what I set out to do. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the book is at the same time a classic example of what would go into teasing out an organization’s culture. The chapters on creating a vision and executive leadership give full descriptions of the two most critical founders of the TAP organization. The twelve profiles in excellence describe the achievements of twelve persons whose heroic service shaped the organization’s history. The chapters on program development, networking, collaboration, managing for results, economic engines and economic accountability are fueled with lessons learned in survival and success.
It appears to me that these two volumes (The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide and Navigating the Nonprofit Rapids) are indeed complimentary in the ongoing discussion of nonprofit leadership and management.