Facing The Culture Building Challenge

by Dan McDonough, President, Kansas City Chapter of Culture Ambassadors

Culture building requires effort…Kansas City wants in on the work.

Kansas City is a prospering Midwestern city that has a thirst that needs quenching. Across our skyline, the workplace denizens explore and pursue high-performance cultures–the cultures enkindled by tangible, observable, and measurable values and behavior practices.

From this search has come a compelling plea, ­an overture heard from business leadership guided by The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Healthy KC Initiative and the City’s local Chapter of the Academy of Culture Ambassadors (ACA):

“Find a strategizing playbook to help our employers excel at culture building.”

As a burgeoning and prideful metropolitan area, the city’s business leaders spoil for a method of attack to help shape a flourishing workforce. We need an approach that can transverse all industries. A strategy that ultimately can create a working community that Kansas Citizens love; a place where ideas flow freely, progress comes easily, and people wake up excited to arrive at work each morning.

The plea and nudging generated a request for direction and tools for culture shaping…how to indulge the growth of kindness and purpose in the workplace? Explicitly. Practically. Optimally.

The power of culture to vitalize meaning, performance and engagement is established and accepted. Universally, the secret is no longer a secret. Responsible purpose-driven organizations profit from the rewards. They reap the support, encouragement, and loyalty that cascades from their workforce, their clientele, and their community. Many companies have successfully created such cultures. So, how is the transformation actuated?

In Kansas City, a leadership team asked the Academy of Culture Ambassadors to help design a process of culture building…relying on the body of precedents, experience, and collective documentation. Create and usher a plan of action for one of our employer organizations as an example for others. We were searching for a process to build a culture organized and mobilized to perform, finding excellence through the daily experiences of compassion, kindness, forthrightness, honesty, listening, sharing, feedback, and meaningful accomplishment.

We picked Ability KC ­a healthcare system in the throes of change. Ability KC and its leadership began forging a path to combine separate cultures as a result of a merger between two longstanding local organizations, Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City. Both of these revered organizations opened their doors to serve children and adults with disabilities in 1947. Seventy years later they came together as one, reconstituted as Ability KC. They merged two distinct cultures that required a symbiotic oneness to articulate why they work, how they work, and how they best work together.

One advantage and shortcut resulting from the selection of Ability KC is the fact that the services the organization provides are not transactional…their very mission is to “build brighter futures for children and adults with disabilities.” Their work is life-saving and life-changing. The renewed culture needed to reflect, embody, and make each day, each action, and each interaction intentional to that purpose.

Ability KC began with the advantage of a leadership prepared to accommodate and evolve a healthy supportive culture. The CEO and leadership team was equipped and impassioned to pilot the organization through such a process. There was a steadfast understanding that success demanded that inspired leadership, combined with employee ownership, bridged the proceedings.

Two preparatory steps to a culture-shaping challenge allowed time and comfort to position employee understanding, interest, and involvement:

1). An in-depth survey including the entire workforce flushed out meaningful employee welfare issues, interests and status;

2). A series of open mic Culture Forums were completed to explore employee perspectives of the cultural identity voicing their impression of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

With the detailed results from the Employee Survey and Culture Forums in hand, the stage was set. Ability KC team members representing all levels and working areas of the organization came together to participate in a two-day workshop facilitated by the Academy of Culture Ambassadors (ACA).

The World Café workshop methodology adopted by ACA involved group collaboration to discover and reaffirm Ability KC’s values, and the behavior practices supporting those values. By creating an environment where productive conversations and problem-solving discovery could take place, we experienced authentic conversations and the sharing of ideas in a relaxed, informal and creative atmosphere. At the end of the 2-day collaboration, we had a firm grasp of the guiding values and behavior practices, defined in a contextual language and experience of the organization.

The workshop was followed by a concerted effort to wordsmith the values & behavior practices to match organizational expression/phraseology. The process enabled Ability KC to uncover a unique set of values and behaviors practices as expressed by the voice of the employee staff.

The next stages of culture building planned for Ability KC involve what is referred to internally as culture “climate”­– the policies, programs, activities, and physical environments meant to support, accommodate, and actualize the expressed values and behavior practices. Recognizing that culture is habitually implied rather than concretely defined, there still is much to be gained in the provision of guidance and support.

Through ACA two types of software meant to create guidance and support to the communication forum and internal working dialogue are planned:

1) Culture Story Software is being developed to have all of an organization’s culture related data in one place and accessible to all employees. This software provides Ability KC employees total access to company culture data that affects their wellbeing. The information establishes real-time connectivity and understanding through a transparency console.

2) Teams Get It Software, also on the development track, will allow Ability KC teams to be aware of and measure their achievement of the identified behaviors practices. The software shows how well each team member is achieving each of the behavior practices. Combined results for the entire group are available to all, and confidential individual results are available independently.

Three culture club committees have been formed at Ability KC to continually focus on each of the three stated values and supporting behavior practices. By accepting ownership, each employee-lead committee ensures attention to values and behaviors remain constant, consistent and relevant. With these committees in place and with the support tools in hand, Ability KC’s preparation for follow through to align its Culture includes:

A. Restructure the organization’s performance reviews to encompass values and behavior practices and provide the targeted adjustments establishing positive and constructive feedback in a timely and effective manner.

B. Integrate the values and behaviors practices into the employee orientation and training programs.

C. Reinforcing the values and behaviors practices by providing program and activities for:

1) Appreciation

2) Recognition

D. Coach and support employees on how to demonstrate the core values.

E. Share “Stories” that spotlight values, behavior practices and the organizational artifacts that best express the living culture. Solicit & share examples.

F. Emphasize values and behavior practices within and as a part of regular meetings and gatherings.

At Ability KC the work continues. From the inside out, the entire workforce has identified and strives to embrace the behaviors that demonstrate shared values and beliefs. The desire and plan to sustain a flourishing company culture where aspiring values blend into palpable daily behavior practices describes progress. The specter of change hovers. Attention to ongoing renewal, and response to evolving situations contours the constant. Still, at Ability KC effort continues toward a workplace culture that emphasizes a life worth living, full of actions, pursuits, and motivations that contribute to a thriving life. The culture is bending to reflect what is fundamentally important and meaningful. The culture-shaping ultimately stands to support both the individual and the organizational purpose and the requisite to survive and thrive.


We emphasize the wellbeing of every individual, ensuring there is meaning in what we do each day, with dedication to quality relationships, security in our finances, vibrancy in our physical and mental health, and fervent pride in contributions to our community.

Make A Positive Impact Everyday — Practicing Positivity and Advocacy

  • We find meaning in what we do.
  • We build each other up.
  • We show commitment through our actions and celebrated successes.
  • We exhibit kindness.
  • We advocate for all.
  • We appreciate joy, humor and revere our journey of service.

Embrace Legacy and Innovation — Honoring Our Heritage and Progress

  • We preserve our heritage while seeking advanced solutions for our colleagues and those we serve.
  • We take pride in contributing to our community
  • We combine the richness of our heritage and leading edge ideas to ensure exceptional care, expertise, and education.

Together We Rise — Empowerment Through Teamwork and Respect

  • We empower and support each other.
  • We excel in creating quality relationships with our colleagues and those we serve.
  • We deliver exceptional services.
  • We cultivate connectedness.
  • We give it our all.

Dan McDonough

Dan McDonough is the current Kansas City Chapter President for the Academy of Culture Ambassadors. He dedicates a life of work to help people and organizations achieve engagement, fulfillment and optimal health. A lifelong Kansas City native, he has enjoyed 25+ years of healthcare industry commitment in dual roles of consulting and management across the spectrum of human performance, productivity, and wellbeing.