I would love it if our partners looked at our culture and thought, “I want our organization to work this way too.”
Building and shaping organizational culture is a tough task, but absolutely vital to ensure team members feel that they belong, are valued, and can meaningfully show up and contribute. Karen Zeribi, Founder of Shift, knew culture-building was essential to realizing the dream she had for the organization, but in the beginning, did not realize how intentional culture work had to be or where to start.
In December 2019, she enlisted the help of La’Kita Williams and her team at CoCreate Work. CoCreate Work partners with organizations, many of them are small and growing businesses who are looking to build inclusive and dynamic cultures. Over the course of two years, CoCreate Work has become a trusted partner, strategically guiding Shift on an intentional journey through their components of inclusive culture:
- Shared purpose: Clarity on why the organization exists and how each individual has an impact on this existence
- Working Agreements: Principles that make implicit or unspoken ways of working clear and improve alignment and increase accountability
- Inclusive Systems: Systems and processes designed to support how we operate and ensure consistency, alignment and inclusion
- Autonomy & Flexibility: Building a culture of flexibility and accountability
- Intentional Connection: Systems for measurement and formal check-ins, as well as opportunities to walk the journey of the team experience
Together, they spoke about the transformation that Shift has undergone during this journey, and future directions for culture building.
Karen, how is the organization’s culture different today from when the company started?
Karen Zeribi (KZ): Where we started to where we are now looks quite different. I really wanted to create a workplace that emulated what I love most about improvement networks – that they are creative, fun, informal, and bring people together that care about a cause. In the early days, we were so focused on building what we did, but not as focused on how we did it.
To get to the “how,” we had to put intentional structures in place. This took the form of creating agreements about how we work together. More recently, this has evolved to how we work together as a virtual, remote team. These agreements also helped to keep each other accountable to our work, to each other, and what we believe in.
When we started, we didn’t have clear reporting and leadership structures or formalized methods to give each other feedback. Our early systems were not intentionally designed to ensure people felt included – we assumed that if we kept space open and encouraged feedback that would be enough. Now, we have very intentional working structures and feedback mechanisms that are rooted in flexibility and shared accountability.
How did you connect with CoCreate Work to support culture building at Shift?
KZ: I heard La’Kita speak at an event hosted by a female founder's network, the ‘F’ Bomb Breakfast Club. After hearing her speak, I knew that her expertise was exactly what Shift needed. At the time, we really needed to work on our organizational practice, our culture, and our reporting structures. She spoke about microaggressions, unclear structures, and mistrust. I was lucky to hear her speak, and I immediately thought, “This is the person we’re missing from our equation.”
La’Kita, were there any rules or requirements that you established in the early days of working with Shift?
La’Kita Williams (LW): Yes, with all of our clients, we begin with a retrospective. We all come together and ask three questions: what’s working, where are we stuck, and what might we do differently? Starting off this way allows us to get information about where an organization is and where they may need additional support. Shift was very open to this process and gained deep insight from the entire team about where we might be with this work.
We also know that the work of organizational transformation is challenging. Therefore, CoCreate Work couples culture work with leadership coaching. This coaching allows leaders to have space to process and get realigned on the goals of the organization and define what they want to achieve.
What came out of conducting the retrospective with Shift?
LW: During the retrospective process, we noticed that there were gaps in the organizational structure. However, these gaps couldn’t be filled by hiring someone for a singular role, so we established what I call “10% teams” to develop a system of shared support and distributed leadership. The idea is that different groups of people take a small part of their existing capacity to focus on the organization’s shared services, like internal systems, communications, and other cross-cutting needs. CoCreate Work developed this idea for small and emerging businesses that don’t have the resources or need to have a person or team in a “culture building” role.
KZ: The 10% teams have been really interesting. They are a way for us, as a small organization, to use the pockets of availability and energy we have to lean into the things that people are really interested in. For example, we have an Inclusion and Belonging Team, which focuses on our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility efforts. We’ve been able to bring the whole team into creating and reviewing our policies and creating the kind of structures we need to learn and grow our DEIA skills and not just leaving it up to the leadership team.
Even if we were a bigger organization, I would still want us to use this method!
Let’s talk about leadership coaching. La’Kita, what’s your approach to coaching leaders?
LW: I firmly believe that personal transformation is a necessary part of organizational transformation. I seek to understand what a leader’s vision is for the organization and what changes need to be adopted to meet those needs.
I also help leaders recognize how they’re showing up. Sometimes, that means learning through assessments like Strengths Finders or Myers Briggs – anything that brings self-knowledge and helps with personal transformation and accountability.
At my core, I believe that every person has what it takes to be a great leader. I work with founders like Karen and their leadership teams to identify what their natural leadership skills are, how to develop the skills that may not come so naturally, and build these skills to move the entire team forward toward their vision.
Karen, did you have any light bulb moments during this coaching process?
KZ: Listing only one will be tough because there have been many “aha” moments for me. I’ve learned so much from La’Kita and her leadership coaching.
La’Kita once mentioned that starting your own organization is one of the biggest opportunities for personal growth. I feel like I have been on my growth edge throughout this whole experience!
One of my biggest light bulb moments has been identifying my collaborative leadership style as a strength. La’Kita has been there to guide me on building organizational structures that align with my collaborative leadership style and to coach me as I grow more comfortable in owning the leadership style that feels authentic to me.
What more can be done to move Shift in the direction that you are envisioning?
KZ: This work feels similar to improvement. It’s continuous, iterative – and it shows up in many ways. For example, this work has shifted how we select the partners that we want to work with and the type of work that we want to do.
Previously, it was the other way around. Because formal structures were not in place, our culture conformed to the culture of our clients and the types of projects we were working on. Now, we proactively state how we want to work together and find ways to make that happen.
LW: I agree. One of the things I really admire about Shift is the organization’s deep commitment to building their culture. The whole team is engaged and involved in moving the culture forward. Team members challenge each other to think about things differently. Learning different perspectives is critical and powerful in terms of moving Shift in a positive direction.
Recently, the leadership team took an entire day to do a deep dive on the culture, the systems they have built, and how they partner and work together as a leadership team. This included some difficult conversations and tough decisions. These conversations aren’t easy, but it is vital to be intentional about creating space to have necessary and direct conversations. They make a huge difference in how the group functions and works together and it’s an example for other organizations.
Shift’s journey is also a great model for other organizations. CoCreate has seen Shift move the culture work from an internal method to an external one. Now, they’re starting to have an impact on their partners as well. This cultural transcendence outside of the organization is very powerful. That’s when we start to have greater impact.
How does that resonate with you, Karen?
KZ: I think it’s absolutely what I had dreamed when starting Shift. I wanted to create the kind of workplace that I would want to work in, especially as a young woman. I would love it if our partners looked at our culture and thought, “I want our organization to work this way too.”
In terms of future direction, we’re starting to systematize some of the things that we’ve learned over the past year. For example, we’ve allocated roles in our team to make space for this work. We now have someone on our team who largely manages team culture and human resources. She’s starting to assume some of the things that La’Kita has been doing, like ways to hear how team members feel about working at Shift.
La’Kita – it sounds like you’re working yourself out of a job!
LW: Absolutely, but that’s the goal. We want to see the team take over the aspects of culture building and integrate all of these practices into the work. My goal is to work myself out and hand things over. And we also know that this work is a continuous process. There’s just not one thing that can fix everything; rather, it’s a combination of things that bring our culture together.