Recently I had the opportunity to interview Jeff Nelson from OneGoal for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.
Jeff Nelson is the co-founder and CEO of OneGoal, a national organization comprised of teachers, students, school leaders and education advocates working together to close the college degree divide. As a lifelong learner and former educator in Chicago Public Schools, Jeff believes that every young person in America deserves the opportunity to earn a postsecondary degree — and the life that comes with it.
Krish Chopra: What are the 3 most important values that your company’s culture is based on?
Jeff Nelson: First, we’re continually striving to be a more equitable organization and a greater reflection of what we hope for in the future of our country. Like many organizations, we have missteps, but equity is the north star that we’re working toward.
Second, because our organization and model are so deeply dependent on others, we recognize that we must be build and sustain transformational partnerships if we are to achieve breakthrough results. We know that effectively tackling the degree divide requires a broad and aligned coalition. We rely on teachers, known as Program Directors, to coach and mentor students for three years as they transition from high school to college. We rely on high school and college partners to ensure our program is successful. It’s not just about being a good partner, we engage in reciprocal learning where we are courageous enough to push our partners and humble enough to be pushed.
Lastly, we are innovators and learners, or as I like to say, we’re constructively dissatisfied. That means we confront our learned biases, lean into our fears and discomfort, and challenge assumptions. We iterate on what’s working and take smart risks that will move us boldly toward our vision. We understand that failure is a necessary step toward progress. It’s not a knock on our work or effectiveness, but we’re trying to close the degree divide and the problem is extraordinarily vast in terms of breadth and depth. So we’re going to have to continuously learn and make progress.
Krish: Managing millennials can often be a polarizing topic. Can you elaborate on your advice for managing the “millennial mindset?”
Jeff: Of course, cultural differences exist in any subgroup of people — it’s human nature. But if we are to truly lead and operate as exceptional partners through an asset-based approach, we must identify the assets that each of our people bring to the table and recognize that categorizing people based on age or any other identity marker tends to devalue the individual characters of each person.
Krish: What are your “5 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Culture” and why.
Jeff: 1) Focus first and foremost on vision and mission because it attracts the right people and gives people direction. Without a vision, the community crumbles.
2) Ask your people how they would operate in a given situation if our most important constituents were in the room. For us, our most important constituents are our Fellows (students). So I try to consistently think about if there were 1,000, 100 or even just one Fellow in the room. How would we operate? What would we expect of each other? And it tends to be that your expectation of yourself go up far greater than they would otherwise.
3) Continuously strive for inclusivity and equity. Acknowledge that it is a hard and challenging aspiration in this country, but that is the work.
4) Operate in permanent beta. Recognize that scaling an organization is constant change management. It’s just a way of being and that’s exhausting, but it’s also the work.
5) Culture is built through a combination of rituals you create and values you stand up. But culture is often also built in the informal moment-to-moment humanity of work and community. Yes, culture comprises the big things you do, but recognize that it’s more about the little steps you take to be the kind of person you would want to work with.
Krish: Strong company culture is something that everyone likes to think they have but very few have it. Why do so many organizations struggle with creating strong, healthy work environments?
Jeff: The biggest challenge that I had and have had over time is that culture is so much about being fully human and, because of that, it represents us at our best and our worst. It adapts, it changes. The biggest way to build culture is to release and to embrace the strengths of the community and to share power. And that’s hard for an entrepreneur.
Krish: What is one mistake you see a young start-up founders make in their culture or leadership practices?
Jeff: A big mistake that I made in the beginning was it took me four or five years to pick up my head from startup mode and be willing to see some of the ugly truths about our culture.
While there was so much to be proud of and people touted our organization as having a great culture, we did a listening tour four or five years in and the reality was that our culture didn’t work for everybody and it wasn’t inclusive. And that was incredibly painful to hear because it was antithetical to our mission and what we’re about.
But I started to realize and recognize the blind spots I had and so if I could go back and do it, I would have done that listening tour every year, starting in year one to actually be able to hear and confront the brutal truths.
Krish: To add to the previous question, young CEOs often have a lot of pressure to perform and often wear many hats. What’s a simple time efficient strategy they can start doing today to improve their company’s culture?
Jeff: Find the space in your life to be still. Building companies can be life-changing and it can also be intensely personal. You cannot ignore how much of your leadership and influence at your company is about doing your internal work; having a consistent spiritual practice; or whatever it is that gives you stillness and an ability to process with loved ones all of the emotions that you’re going through as you build something and it grows. And some of it is great, and some of it is not great. So I think it’s finding places on a day-to-day basis and a weekly basis to find stillness.
Krish: Success leaves clues. What has been your biggest influence in your leadership strategy and company culture?
Jeff: A book that’s been making the rounds lately among our senior leadership team is “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott. The premise is that we’ve done a disservice to people by not giving them authentic feedback. If you truly care about the people you’re working with, you’ll give them the gift of feedback so that they can move forward. At OneGoal, we often encourage one another to “say the thing” as a way of addressing the elephant in the room or initiating a difficult conversation and it’s paid off tremendously.
Krish: What advice do you have for employees that have bad bosses? How can they take control and improve a bad situation?
Jeff: If you’ve been working for a period of time, chances are you’ve encountered a bad boss. But I want to also acknowledge that taking control is a privilege and, historically, White men have often been given the freedom, power and agency to take control in a power-dynamic situation.
This is why culture must be inclusive … your office environment has to be a place where someone who, historically, has not had control and power, feels safe to push back and confront a tough situation.
In an ideal work environment, you’d be able to go to your boss and say, “Here’s what I’m experiencing. Here’s how it felt. Here’s where I’m coming from. Where are you coming from?” It’s vital that an organization sets up safe structures for these discussions and that bad bosses don’t get to stay.
Krish: Okay, we made it! Last question — what’s one unique hack you or your company does that has enhanced your work culture?
Jeff: Because we’re a largely virtual organization with team members working across the country, we seek opportunities to bring folks together. Whether it’s at our yearly all-staff retreat; regional exchanges where folks from one region will visit another region to shadow team members in similar roles, build relationships and learn from one another; or teams convening for design sprints, it’s an opportunity for us to connect in real life and build invaluable relationships that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. We also intentionally carve out time for fun, whether that’s a baseball game, karaoke or a flash mob on a school bus. Because at the end of the day FaceTime can’t replace face time.
A note to the readers: Improving company culture happens at any level in an organization. If you learned one thing in this interview, please share this with someone close to you.
A special thanks to Jeff Nelson again!
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