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Culture-Building: The Importance of Truly Integrated Values

Values aren’t Decorative

Many leaders intuitively know that they need to establish core values for their organization. But, while leaders know they need values, they don’t exactly know what to do with them. More often than not, the path of least resistance is taken—the values, along with other identity-related items like mission and vision, are haphazardly slapped on a website or office wall. Witty words that the leaders identify with are beautified and publicized but, like oil and water, they fail to become truly integrated into the workplace. Leaders habitually reference “our” values and try to stir up some type of excitement around them within all levels of the organization. But, because of the disconnect, employees grow frustrated with reminders of core values, wondering why their boss is putting so much emphasis on these theoretical concepts that have little to do with their day-to-day. The problem, however, is not that these leaders placed too much emphasis on their values, but that they didn’t emphasize them enough. 

There are plenty of generic articles on the importance of core values in the workplace, but I want to share my practical observations on our culture at Camino. My hope is that by learning about the outcome of our cultural strategy, you will have no question as to the importance of developing values that are lived out by employees at all levels of the organization, not just recited by leaders at the top.

Who We Are

Camino is a values-driven organization—from top to bottom, we accomplish our mission of equipping people to live healthy, hopeful, and productive lives through our unique values. These values have framed our culture from the beginning; however, building a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and nothing is perfect at the outset.. It all began with the donation of medical supplies to Cuba from donated buildings here in Charlotte, NC—the same buildings we serve our people from today. Over the years we have grown significantly, offering a low-cost clinic, behavioral health services, community-based participatory research, a fledgling university, an upward mobility program, and so much more. While I could recount stories of our history (quite literally) for days, it is our values that have contributed to forming, protecting, and building our identity more than all of our stories combined. We have a wealth of stories from our history that demonstrate who we are, but the clear framework of our core values has solidified our identity.

We developed our values around a decade ago, or maybe our values developed us. Either way, the values didn’t just pop out of thin air, they were always under the surface—guiding our decision-making and ethics. But because we believed in our growing culture, we knew that we had to put them down on paper. Years later, we are still working hard to integrate and live out our values. While writing them down is a good first step, it’s not a magic wand that bippidy boppidy boos them into the core of your organization. Every step afterward will either ingrain your values more deeply into the core of the organization or push them further to the outskirts. One very important way to solidify a  culture is by bringing the right people to (and keeping the right people on) the team.  Our goal is to relentlessly hire and train our values because it’s not just about what we do (our mission), but how we do it (our values). It’s also about who we are doing it with, and hiring is an essential way to build a values-based organizational culture. Over three decades, our values have metastasized, and that in large part is because of who makes up our Camino team.

Soup Not Salad

For instance, our flagship value is “We Make Soup, Not Salad.” We define this value as: “Salad never offers true unity, pieces are tossed together to make a plate of separate pieces. So we are soup. Each person brings their unique flavor to the bowl but we are one unified dish.” The U.S. used to be referred to as a “Melting Pot,” where all the ingredients are denatured and all the distinctive cultural characteristics are boiled off. More recently, the U.S. has been referred to as a “Salad Bowl,” where all the ingredients exist in a segregated manner, united by nothing more than the bowl by which they are contained. 

At Camino, we run from melting pots and salad bowls, and instead try to serve up delicious soup.  Everyone in our organization brings their unique flavor, while each contributes to one dish. The soup is far from homogenous; but, the flavors join together to create one unified bowl. This value does a lot of heavy lifting for us. It reminds us of our common mission, but on a much deeper level, it reminds us how we are to relate to one another. 

One of our centering principles underlying this value is the idea of being a “brave space, not a safe space.” Since we are upfront about our unique flavors and united by a common mission, we are not afraid to truly be who we are, and we welcome true diversity. We don’t just expect people to be tolerant of one another; we expect our people to truly unite. We have not suppressed any speech or beliefs, and the most amazing thing has happened! You might expect that we are incredibly divided, but we are more united than we could have ever imagined. At Camino, you will find Marxists working side-by-side with refugees from communist countries, Atheists working hand-in-hand with Christians, and liberals and conservatives not just begrudgingly sharing the same office, but actually working as a team (yes, even during election year)—distinct flavors contributing to the same goal. We didn’t aspire to build a diverse team; we aspired to build a team committed to fulfilling our mission, and as a result, a delicious soup was made. Camino is one team, diverse by accident, and unified by design. 

Fly Like Geese

When we grew, we GREW. We went from around 20 employees to around 100 employees in what seemed like a day. Thankfully, the cultural framework was well developed prior to the growth, so we were able to not just grow in size but grow in cultural strength. Another value that we hold dear is “We Fly Like Geese,” defined as, “Geese fly in formation, united in focus and purpose. Each goose contributes to the whole and serves an important purpose. Like geese, we fly in unity while caring for one another.” To put it simply: geese fly in formation to a common destination while offering encouraging “honks” to one another. Sometimes the leader changes based on the task at hand, but they always honk in encouragement. This doesn’t mean that we pass around the CEO hat from month to month; it means that when it is a team member’s responsibility and duty to lead us in a project or task, we get behind them when they take point. 

The proper conditions must exist for this value to become applicable. Core values, along with a good understanding of the mission, empower employees to stay aligned with the organizational focus and be able to lead well. And when good employees are great with our values, we don’t have to micromanage them. We can trust them and follow behind them when it’s time. If we didn’t live out our values, we would struggle to trust an individual on our team to be the lead goose, and rather than flying in a V formation, we would stand in front of cars and block traffic (a goose trait we try to avoid at Camino). 

Honorable Mentions

For the purposes of this blog, I have only included two of our five values. Our three other values are as follows:

We Cross Borders: Crossing borders is a dangerous and messy business. But that’s the business we’re in. We go places others have never been before and do things others will never dare to do!

We Laugh: Laughing doesn’t mean that everything is always easy—it means that even in difficult times, our faith brings joy that transcends circumstance and so we bring joy to those around us. 

We Recycle: We live in a “replaceable” culture. When our clothes tear, we don’t mend them, we throw them away. But at Camino, because we value people and resources, we don’t replace—we recycle. 

These guiding principles are critical for the fulfillment of our mission, so I would be remiss to completely neglect them in this blog. 

The Simple Takeaway

The non-negotiable thing is this: core values cannot be installed as an appendix or afterthought. You can’t expect employees to do the hard work of processing everything that they do through decorative values if you fail to do the hard work of laying the cultural foundation. Values must be reinforced at every turn along the way. At Camino, we have reaped the benefits of our core values, and we will continue to fulfill our mission through them, as long as God wills. 

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