Culture Counts

Wellness in the Schools is built completely on the strengths, talents, passion and dedication (I could go on…) of our team of chefs and coaches, who work in schools feeding, playing with, teaching and influencing more than 70,000 children across this country each and every day. In the early years, I used to worry about growth because we are built solely on the power of something as complex as human capital. I worried how we would “replicate” these great talents. A wise mentor said to me, “you do not replicate people; you build a culture that attracts these incredible people and you continue to nurture that.” And, that is what we have done. For nearly 15 years. Every single day.

As we continue to grow and bring on new team members to propel this work each day, culture and quality continue to matter more and more. We have been extremely fortunate that as we have grown into new markets, we have recruited back chefs who worked for us here in NYC and who deeply understand our culture. This has made our national growth much easier. Thank you to Hollie Green in California and Annie Hanrahan in DC. Likewise, we love it when a chef takes a pause (to perhaps give birth to twins), and then comes back once those babies are in school. Thank you Kristin Atkinson. And, finally, we continue to work with chefs, coaches and administrative team members as they remain in the field at schools and other programs, or in graduate work. We are constantly supported by team members in all aspects of the wellness field, even if they are no longer with WITS.

I am often asked how to build a strong company culture. Below are my suggestions.

Establish Values.  Every new staff member, including the interns, meets with me to review our culture and to ask me questions. I love these meetings as I am now too often removed from the day to day work.

Live them. Walk the Talk. It means nothing to establish values if you do not hold your team to task on these values. Uphold them each day by your own actions.

Let your mission drive you. This is easy with a non-profit. We are 100% mission driven by nature. When all else fails, stop and remember WHY we do this work.

Create routines and rituals. Whether it’s a bi-monthly staff meeting, an annual holiday party, or an inspirational story to start the day, create rituals that you stick to. After many years of these rituals, something powerful happens!

Allow space for all voices to be heard. I do not love organizational charts as they visually put just one person at the top. I often say that all ideas are important – from the intern to the CEO. These ideas help to build the spirit and create the fabric of an organization.

Focus on what’s going right. With the help of our leadership team in the field, I send out short notes to team members to thank them for their positive contributions to our work. It can be powerful to acknowledge the positive. We all make mistakes and we all struggle from time to time. Instead of harping on these mistakes, learn from them and move on. People are not always going to meet their goals; look to what they have accomplished and encourage more of that. At the same time, if it truly isn’t working, don’t be afraid to suggest a move. This is an important example to others.

Communicate. Communicate, Communicate. Do not avoid confrontation. Address issues. Share ideas and vision.  Give space for open dialogue and lead by example. Much can be solved by simple communication. And, not by email. I mean old fashioned conversation.