By: Alison Myers 

When we think about organizational culture, what often comes to mind are the efforts of path-carving giants like Google and the Huffington Post to make work feel less like, well… work, and more like a daily adventure into life’s possibilities. Whether it’s free food, a fitness centre or meeting rooms that look more like a basement rec room, these organizations have dialed into what makes their staff tick.


But organizational culture goes beyond foosball tables, nap pods and daily green smoothies. Those are merely the art on the walls of a carefully constructed house, one built on a foundation of mutual respect, personal values and an organizational identity that speaks to everyone who passes through the door.


“The most important thing a leader can do for organization is invest in the culture,” says Laura Istead. Istead is the executive director of a small but mighty team at Two Wheel View, a Calgary non-profit that helps teens and young adults activate their own resilience through their participation in programs centred around bikes.


“When you build culture and build a sense of shared identity in your organization, it leads to so many amazing outcomes,” she says. “Work becomes more purposeful, people feel more connected to their roles, and the idea of achieving goals becomes more of a team concept rather than any one person’s pursuit.”


Istead became particularly interested in the concept of organizational culture when she took over as leader at Two Wheel View. Originally a staff member promoted to the top job, she hopped on the seat of the charity’s proverbial bike and started looking for ways to help it shift gears. She started with survey, asking her colleagues what they liked and didn’t like about working for Two Wheel View.


“Culture for me is very much about building a sense of belonging,” she says. “It’s the difference between cult and culture. People are either told how it is or they become active participants in the creation of an intentional community built on shared values and trust. As the leader, you have to trust people to be your co-learners and co-designers in the process.”


Through these conversations, and discussions around workplace culture with other non-profit leaders, Istead developed a culture-building blueprint for organizations to follow if they want to be more intentional about their commitment to growth and purpose. In it, she encourages leaders to explore the importance of these key tenets:



Values and Identity: Building a common identity with shared values that people can subscribe to and strive to uphold.


Trust and Vulnerability: A key piece of belonging and connection is the willingness to be vulnerable but also role modelling clear boundaries


Communication: It’s important to consider all the ways you communicate with your colleagues, donors, stakeholders and board and whether they are similar and aligned.


Environment: Examine what your physical space says about your organization’s culture and whether there are any clear or even subliminal messages about your shared values.


With Laura’s help, we’ll spend the next few months taking a closer look at these concepts in the hopes of bringing organizational culture to the forefront of the drive for—and meaning of—success.