One Compelling Culture
Changing organizational culture is often talked about, but the examples of it succeeding are sometimes hard to find. I spent part of the afternoon today with Nathan Siebenga, Principal at Hamilton District Christian High School. Having lived most of my life within 20 minutes of the school I was vaguely familiar with it’s reputation, but having never been involved in the Christian schools system it was a distant, and not particularly intriguing institution. While touring the halls I saw students engaged in all sorts of problem based learning projects, working enthusiastically without teacher supervision, and demonstrating pride in their school. It was a very positive atmosphere, but more than that, it was a place that just felt like it had purpose. That’s a hard thing to quantify or explain, but you know it when you experience it. A highlight of the tour was being shown the above mural on the wall of an upstairs classroom. It was proposed, designed, and painted by an art class to express the vision of the school. At a glance it tells a story. Students at this school are being challenged and encouraged to become influencers well beyond the walls of the building. They have a role to play in their entire city and beyond. Throughout the school, and in the conversations I had with Nathan and the students, the theme was repeated. This is a place that is for students, constantly being redesigned to better prepare them to pursue their dreams and impact broader society. That may seem obvious, but a visit to any high school will give plenty of evidence that it is a sadly rare thing. Establishing and maintaining a culture like that requires enormous effort, consistency, creativity, and a team of energetic and committed people who are willing to make personal sacrifices and take organizational risks. It’s the kind of culture that has an impact. It’s the kind of culture that people can quickly decide if they want to be involved with, and that wins loyalty from participants, staff, and donors. I’m sure there are plenty of problems at HDCH, and certainly some people probably don’t agree with some part or all of their vision. But that doesn’t entirely matter. For those who are attuned to similar dreams, this is an organization that clearly knows what it aspires to and is actively pursuing it. From Nathan, through the staff, to the students, their families, and their community, there is a commitment to a shared vision that is continually repeated and refreshed. The results so far are impressive.