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4 Candid Lessons on Heart-Centered Culture

My obsession with Culture started in 1999, my sophomore year in high school, when Mr. Richard Parkhouse was hired to lead my school’s Associated Student Body (a.k.a. student leadership).

Director of Talent Experience, Cheria Young

I’ll never forget the day the door swung open, and he walked in. He marched right to the front of the classroom, unphased by the skeptical teenagers staring back at him and said, “My name is Richard Parkhouse. You can call me Park. And I’m on a mission to build the world’s greatest high school.”

His mission and vision were crystal clear. He told us he wanted to create “a culture of significance where everyone matters.” And though Park’s message was undoubtedly inspiring, it stood in direct opposition to most of our teenage sensibilities. Then, we were mostly concerned with climbing the social ladder, certainly not leveling it. Needless to say, his ideas were immediately met with resistance. Most of our elected student leaders dropped out; the majority of whom were upperclassmen, perfectly content with their popular positions on campus and “the way we’d always done things” that kept them there.

But with the small group who remained, Park wasted no time. “Raise your hand if you can tell me the names of all our school janitors?” Not a single hand was raised. “That’s your first assignment. Go get to know every janitor who works here. Introduce yourself, learn their names, introduce them to your friends, get to know them, and NEVER EVER walk past them without saying hello and thank you.” He adamantly explained that the hard-working people who cleaned up after us every day were just as significant to our education as our teachers and administrators –there was no difference. That was our first lesson, and it was a brilliant one.

As we built relationships with our janitors and made them known and celebrated on campus something electrifying happened. We’d lived out a strategic narrative that changed our story, surfaced our values and eventually radically shifted our behaviors.

“We’d lived out a strategic narrative that changed our story, surfaced our values and eventually radically shifted our behaviors.”

We caught the vision of a future where just like our janitors, no student was less significant than the next. Our marching band wasn’t less than our football team. Students who belonged to no group, club, or social circle were no less than our yearbook team, debate team or cheerleaders. Every single student deserved to be championed, supported, and celebrated –everyone mattered in the world’s greatest high school.

Park poured into us, teaching us how to do the difficult work of leadership. He held us accountable for our actions and let us know when they did or didn’t measure up with the mission. He demanded excellence and he taught me everything I know about leadership. In time, the way we ran our school and the vibrant culture we’d grown stood out among the rest when it came to both performance and pride. But the reason we were successful, in my opinion, was because he embraced me (a 16-year-old kid) and everyone on our team, as equity partners in our culture transformation.

“He embraced me and everyone on our team, as equity partners in our culture transformation.”

By my senior year, a handful of us student leaders began traveling the west coast with Park speaking at schools and conferences, teaching student leaders and educators how to do what we’d done — culture transformation. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of my life’s work.

Whether your work culture is a thriving and ever-evolving environment where people show up every day ready to do the best work of their lives, or whether it needs a serious transformation; whether you are an executive, people leader, or individual contributor, there is something for all of us to take away from Park’s leadership.

COHS class of 2001 dressed in our class color orange, with hearts that bled our school colors, blue and gold. Rest in power Adrian Portillo.

Culture starts with the heart

When Park showed up and said he wanted to build the world’s greatest high school, it sounded just crazy enough to pique our interest, but that was about it. We didn’t become believers in the mission until we saw with our own eyes the impact of our first assignment. That was a heart conversion moment that beckoned us to ask ourselves “What do I believe? What drives me? What do I stand for?” It raised our values to the surface and showed us a new way of working that led to deep meaning and pride.

Great cultures don’t lead with the things employees can gain from working there: position, title, money, or perks. It’s not to say that those things aren’t important, they are! But great cultures start with the heart. They win you over by showing you exactly what they believe, what they stand for, and they show you how it feels to be part of work that matters.

Culture is not about making everyone happy

It’s easy to fall into the trap of striving to build a culture for everyone. But great cultures don’t aim for that. Instead, they are crystal clear about their values and how those values show up, so much so that they become the magnetic push or pull for talent. The key is to invest in finding, empowering, appreciating, and developing the people who whole-heartedly believe in what your company stands for.

Even though culture is not about making everyone happy, the byproduct of proper investment will be happy, passionate, and dedicated contributors.

Culture is everyone’s responsibility

It’s up to every contributor to actualize your company’s values. Everyone owns a plot of land in the culture and is responsible for what grows there. No one person or department is responsible, not your Chief Executive Officer or even your Chief Culture Officer. Their job is to empower (and as Park would say, “To empower means that I may start off with all the power, but my job is to give it away until I have little to none left and you have it all.”).

In a culture where everyone is responsible and empowered, employees at all levels expect to be held accountable and to hold each other accountable for embodying the core values and staying laser focused on the mission.

Culture grows in the direction of what you practice, promote, and permit and everyone is part of that. In great cultures employees ask themselves: How am I showing up? How are we showing up? And does it measure up?

“In great cultures employees ask themselves: How am I showing up? How are we showing up? And does it measure up?”

Great cultures know you matter and make it known

Diversity wins and inclusion is a non-negotiable…period. Great cultures know that, and relentlessly pursue talented, unique, and interesting people to join their team and invite them to show up with their whole selves. And just like the world’s greatest high school, every single employee actualizing the values of your company deserves to be celebrated, supported, and championed.

Even after all these years I am still piggybacking on Park’s personal mission to grow cultures of significance where everyone matters. That’s what attracted me to Known — our culture is in our very name. To be a Knowner is to be passionate, interesting, human, and uniquely you. It’s to be one team, a brilliant collective with unique skills, diverse backgrounds, and pioneering schools of thought, bound by passion. Great cultures know how much that matters, how much you matter, and they make it known.

Tired of Zoom? Sometimes. Tired of seeing the faces of our CX and Comms Team at Known? Never!

To my colleagues, let me take this moment to remind you how significant you are, and to say thank you for showing up every day with your whole selves to do the best work of your life. To the talented folks out there reading this who are interested in the culture at Known, consider coming to work with us. We are growing something incredible here and you won’t regret it. And to everyone reading this, imagine how you might take a page out of Richard Parkhouse’s playbook (my forever mentor) and work towards building a culture of significance where everyone matters, and everyone is KNOWN.

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