Using a Culture Code to Achieve the Impossible

August 15, 2014

When your job is to provide medical services in rural Nepal, and the water stops running, power goes out and the Internet drops, what do you do? At Possible, a nonprofit that delivers healthcare to the world's poor, you must “embrace challenge with grit” and push forward.

Embracing challenge, along with nine other principle values, make up the organization’s DNA. Having a well-defined culture is critical to a company that operates in "the world's most impossible places," says Laura Schwecherl, Possible’s marketing director. It's the reason why they created and published a Culture Code.

“The 10 principles provide an extreme amount of clarity around what we need to do to create effective and durable change,” Schwecherl says. “Going to the office each morning with that as a foundation fuels good work."

Indeed, one of Possible’s values states, “We believe everything is impossible, until it isn’t.” Others: “We are transparent until it hurts” and “Treat efficiency as a moral must.”

Schwecherl says Possible's Culture Code was inspired by companies like Netflix and Hubspot, who have also shared what they value in employees, and how they operate. At Possible, they needed to foster a culture that transcends New York City, Boston, Kathmandu and rural Nepal, and resonates with Harvard-trained doctors alongside illiterate women working as community health workers.

“Because our geography, responsibilities and backgrounds are so diverse, the Culture Code acts as a tying force that brings us all back together,” Schwecherl says. “Just knowing all of our workers are focused on grit, being efficient with time, knowing we have incredible challenges that we have to tackle with fire and intensity -- without having these principles laid out, there will be confusion within your organization. It sets a standard that will always be there.”

So how do you go about defining those standards? Possible CEO Mark Arnoldy suggests starting off by answering two questions when creating a Culture Code:

1) What's your “why?” Put aside the idea of sales. What's the actual core of why you exist and why you dedicate most of your waking life to what you do?

2) What values are central to getting the results you need, and can you make a compelling argument for them? Don't just write nice sounding things. You have to be able to argue for why particular values matter in a unique way to getting the results you need to get.

For non-profits, the mission and "why" should be easy to answer -- the tough task is constructing a value code that is effective and has impact.

"Each of our principles aren't simply statements," Schwecherl says. "They are a calls-to-action to do the impossible."

READ MORE: Using Culture to Attract Talent

Photo: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock