Building organizational culture

In the early years, members of the Learning Exchange staff team found themselves in a situation where the usual organizational “bones” were absent. We had little or no history, bureaucratic or administrative protocols, behavioural norms, sense of identity, or cultural traditions.

Walking a tightrope

We had to invent “the way things are done around here.” This task was particularly difficult because the organization needed to be able to navigate two very different contexts: a large, mainstream, highly bureaucratic, research-intensive university and a low-income, complex, conflict-ridden, marginalized community of communities. In both of these contexts, we had to fit in. We had to be organized, efficient, and professional enough to be seen as credible within the university. We also had to be casual, flexible, and down-to-earth enough to be seen as trustworthy within the Downtown Eastside. It was quite a balancing act.

In fact, this metaphor provides a great description of what the work life of the team was like in the early days, months, and years. I often felt like I was on a tightrope, edging my way slowly and unsteadily across the chasm between UBC and the Downtown Eastside. The saving grace was that I was not alone.

Finding the right people

All of the work of the Learning Exchange was dependent on our relationships—with people from community organizations, students, professors, administrators at UBC, local residents, donors, and others. Therefore, the success of our work depended on the effectiveness of the people who made up the staff team.

Shayne Tryon
Shayne Tryon (photo copyright UBC)

Elsewhere I have described how I came to hire Shayne Tryon. I was fortunate to find Shayne, who was a key element in the success of the Learning Exchange. During his seven years on the team, Shayne advanced from being a part-time student to an intern, then to coordinator of the Trek Program, then manager of the Trek Program, and finally he was promoted to Associate Director. Shayne was a perfect fit for the developing Learning Exchange. He was creative, versatile, and willing to do anything that needing doing, from scrounging used furniture to giving speeches. His thinking was not constrained by ideological preconceptions. When he encountered obstacles in his path, he simply went around them or over them. He had energy to burn. Plus he has a great sense of humour so he was fun to work with.

Dionne Pelan

I was also fortunate to find Dionne Pelan, who was part of the original storefront team and still works at the Learning Exchange. She was first hired as an administrative assistant. After playing a key role in establishing the character of the storefront, she was promoted to the position of storefront coordinator. Dionne was a resident of the Downtown Eastside who had previously worked in the neighbourhood. She had some life experiences that were similar to some of the patrons. Dionne became an extremely effective presence in the storefront. She has an extensive behavioural repertoire and the flexibility to approach people in different ways depending on the situation. She maintained order and respect in the storefront through a combination of empathic support, joking friendliness, and disciplined boundary-setting.

Some of the other hiring decisions I made did not work out as well. In the years before the Learning Exchange established a coherent identity and before I learned some hard lessons about hiring, we tended to attract two kinds of job applicants: either left-leaning radicals who wanted to overthrow “the system” or middle class people infused with noblesse oblige who wanted to help poor people. Neither type was appropriate to the Learning Exchange, but it took me a while to recognize the patterns. After a few difficult experiences, the Human Resources advisor from UBC who helped me navigate these situations made a suggestion. She thought it might be better to identify promising talent from among the Trek Program student population and develop the skills and knowledge we needed rather than hiring people whose pre-existing attitudes and beliefs did not fit with our operation. This seemed like a sensible strategy.

By 2004, I had given up trying to find experienced middle managers to oversee our programs. Instead I hired short-term people on contract to deliver particular storefront programs and relied on contract staff and student staff overseen by Shayne to administer the Trek Program. This approach meant that the staff team consisted primarily of young people who were enthusiastic and energetic but inexperienced.

It also meant that, as Shayne observed, “None of us were the usual suspects.” None of us were aligned with any particular ideology, e.g., the social justice discourse. None of us had particular agendas for the Downtown Eastside. What united us was an excitement about doing something new and different and an entrepreneurial spirit oriented towards identifying great ideas and bringing them to fruition. We sometimes acknowledged that we were making it up as we went along. This was one of the reasons we became a cohesive team. We knew we needed each other’s support, advice, and feedback.

Developing people in the right way

Fortunately, the young staff members were amenable to being part of a fluid, changing organization. They did not have a lot of preconceptions about the professional world. They did not seem to mind that the organizational chart was redrawn on a regular basis. An ethic developed that everyone worked hard and made sure the job got done, partly because Shayne and I provided strong role models for this level of commitment. And staff worked hard because they were excited about the fact they were helping to shape the organization, to build its skeletal structure and put flesh on the bones.

We devoted considerable time and effort to the process of shaping the organization and the team. We established a routine of holding half-day staff development workshops every month. We took a day or two each year to do a staff retreat. We identified themes to cover based on what Shayne and I observed and what staff said about the challenges they were encountering. We covered topics such as professional etiquette and interpersonal communications, writing for clarity and impact, delegation and teamwork, working collaboratively, and project planning and evaluation. Shayne and I did a lot of coaching, mentoring, and trouble-shooting.

We saw this approach to building our internal team as being highly congruent with our hope that the Learning Exchange would be an incubator for skill development, learning and innovation. As we gained more experience trying to develop a cohesive, high-functioning team, and read more literature as a way of developing our own skills as leaders, Shayne and I realized that the Learning Exchange was in synch with the latest organizational fashion—we were a learning organization. We worked at creating a culture where everyone was seen as a work in progress, where dialogue and critical reflection and questioning were valued, hierarchy was kept to a minimum, and not much was written in stone.

Articulating our purpose

In 2003, when UBC’s leaders started talking about revitalizing the Trek vision, I tried to put my evolving sense of the Learning Exchange’s identity and purpose into writing. I wanted to make sure the next iteration of UBC’s vision would be informed by what I and my team had learned. After writing ten pages of single-spaced text, I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I realized this was probably not the best way to convey what my team and I had figured out.

Instead, I developed a one page schematic representation of what the Learning Exchange did, how we did it, why we did it, and what difference it might make. This became known as our vision graphic. It listed the two major areas of our activity at the time: the Trek Program (Community Service Learning) and the storefront programs. It included a third area of activity that I believed we should eventually develop given that UBC was our institutional base: research and policy analysis.

The “how we did it” column listed our core practices and core values.

The “why” column linked our activities directly to UBC’s vision: our aim was to cultivate global citizenship and strengthen civil society. In addition, given our particular role in the university and the Downtown Eastside, I included an explicit commitment to innovation, i.e., innovation deriving from and leading to new understandings (rather than technologies or products), which would lead to new urban change strategies and thus to the creation of new social and economic spaces between the centre and the margins. I described the larger societal impacts we were aiming for as the attainment of social and economic sustainability (the link to the other major theme in UBC’s vision). This was envisioned as entailing major shifts in the ways society balances considerations of the individual and the common good and the widespread adoption of the five values of respect, responsibility, reverence, restraint, and redistribution as cultural norms.

This vision graphic summarized everything we were trying to do. For me, the most important part of the graphic was the articulation of our core practices and values. I believed that our ability to achieve any of the idealistic outcomes or impacts we had identified depended on how the team did its work. As the saying goes, we needed to embody the changes we were trying to achieve.

Core values: the five Rs

The Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology brought together theologians, philosophers, and scientists to discuss the relationship between the world’s major religions and the environmental and social challenges the world is facing (described in a special 2001 issue of Daedulus). After several years of deliberation, the group put forward a list of the core values shared by the world’s major religions. These five values are:

  1. Respect
  2. Reverence
  3. Restraint
  4. Redistribution
  5. Responsibility

The Learning Exchange staff team adopted these values as guiding principles for our work. For example, as individuals, if we were involved in a difficult interaction with someone, we would try to remember our intention to treat everyone with respect, even reverence. Similarly, if we felt angry, frustrated, or threatened, we would try to practice restraint by refraining from directing our frustration or anger outward.

As a team, we used these values as themes for reflection during staff workshops and retreats. We explored what each of the values meant in the context of our work. For example, we asked, “What does reverence mean? Is it a loaded term associated with certain religious ideas? What might a more secular interpretation of this as a value to guide action look like?” Or, “What does redistribution mean as a value? How is the idea of redistribution relevant to what we see happening in the Downtown Eastside?”

We used the five values as reference points. We aspired to embody them but we acknowledged that, just like learning to play a musical instrument, we needed steady, disciplined practice in order to become virtuosos. We knew that sometimes we would forget to be restrained or we would fail to show enough respect or consideration for another person. We gave ourselves permission to fail. We worked at maintaining the team culture as a space where our lapses would be opportunities for learning not judgement or regret.

Building TRUST

We also developed concrete guidelines that helped ground our practice of these values. In our staff development workshops, when we discussed our working relationships, it was often said that, “We need to build trust.” So we began to ask, “Well, how exactly do we do that?” We knew from experience that there are some actions that create trust and some that break it. As a result of our exploration of how the creation or loss of trust happens, we prepared what became known as the TRUST document. This document laid out guidelines for behaviours that would strengthen what we identified as the five key elements of trusting working relationships: Truthfulness, Reliability, Understanding, Self-awareness, and Timeliness.

These values and the work practices described in the next article became the core of the Learning Exchange’s organizational culture. Our commitment to learning how to embody these values and skillfully use these work practices enabled us to navigate the complex and contested territories in which we worked. The values and practices became our safety net. The undercurrent of our shared intentions to follow these values and practices became our tightrope. The tensions inherent in the effort made the tightrope taut enough that we could stand up and put one foot in front of the other.


Daedalus Special Issue. Fall 2001. Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change? Vol. 130; No. 4.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Five core practices.