Happy Holidays! As COTS’ CEO, each month I take a moment to consider what I want our community to know about our organization and our progress in serving Sonoma County’s homeless. I look forward to sharing these thoughts with you in this Virtual Cup of Coffee – my monthly communique about the business and mission moments of COTS (Committee On The Shelterless).

My best,

Being Intentional About Culture…

As we close 2021 and reflect on another year of COVID, I wanted to share with you my biggest learning of the year – and that is the importance of being intentional about creating a healthy culture at COTS. Our news is filled with stories about “toxic cultures” in business, sports teams, and other types of organizations. The reasons are many, but they typically start with the CEO, President, founder of the company, or a department head, usually someone with power and influence. Sadly, this seems to be the norm instead of the exception.

So, what is culture and why is it so important, especially in the current “great resignation” environment? And what can we do, as non-profit leaders, to prevent this from happening in our organization?

As business leader Peter Ashworth said, culture is a company’s only “unique identifier.” At COTS, we provide homeless services such as shelter, case management, and street outreach. We also have administrative services like accounting, grant writing, and fundraising. But other homeless organizations have the same thing. What we do is not unique. It can easily be replicated. Lots of companies make cars or electronic items, or provide services like legal, real estate, or financial assistance. Even innovation can be replicated. But the only unique identifier of a company that cannot be replicated is its culture. A vibrant, healthy, and positive culture differentiates a company from its competitors.

Culture is about your shared values, beliefs, and norms. It includes things like your policies, procedures, expectations, code of conduct, opportunities to advance, even disciplinary actions. It’s formed in part by how the leaders communicate and interact with employees; what they communicate and emphasize; their vision for the future; how the organization is managed – its systems, structure, hierarchy, controls, goals; and workplace practices like recruiting and retaining staff, compensation and benefits, rewards and recognition, training, and advancing and promotions. Culture is also formed by the people you hire – their personalities, diverse skills and experience, and behaviors; and even the office layout – artifacts, color of the walls, furniture. And of course, the clarity of the mission, vision, and values play a large role in forming a culture.

Healthy cultures have transparent communication; have trust, cooperation, and collaboration; minimal internal politics; less complexity that can lead to faster execution; a strong sense of identification; and work toward a common goal. Weak cultures have the opposite and hire employees who don’t fit; don’t create and communicate a clear and inspiring mission, vision, and values; have lackluster work environments; and tolerate management styles that threaten employee engagement and retention.

So why am I sharing all this? Because we’re facing the biggest talent crisis in years. People are no longer competing for jobs. Instead, companies are now competing for people. For the longest time, people felt disconnected from their work, faced burnout, low morale, were underpaid and under-appreciated. COVID caused people to rethink their passions, and many are leaving their jobs and making career changes.

Some organizations let their culture form organically and without defining what they want it to be. And that’s a mistake. Culture is a strategy and if a company wants a competitive edge, high morale, employee satisfaction and engagement, a safe environment where team members feel valued and respected, and have a voice, then a company needs to be intentional about building a healthy culture. The best prevention during the “great resignation,” is to create a healthy culture.

I continue to learn every day what it takes to humbly lead this great organization. And I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. The best people want to work for and with the best organization. And while we have made much progress, we still have work to do. Building a healthy culture is never ending. Because we have the best people at COTS, I want to make sure we create the best culture and environment for them – our compassionate and dedicated staff, our volunteers, our board of directors, our donors and investors, and our fabulous community.

At COTS, our culture is our personality. And if all of the norms, behaviors, and policies, etc. listed above are the structure of COTS, then the soul of COTS is our culture. Thank you for making that a reality.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez