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I was passionate about creating a different type of workplace, yet, when I looked objectively at our team functioning 18 months into our journey – I’d reproduced some of the worst organizational practices that I had set out to change. 

I founded Shift in 2017 with two overarching purposes. The first purpose is around what Shift does – we use improvement methods to accelerate social change for the many pressing issues and inequities facing our society today. Throughout my career specializing in improvement, I have seen the power of these methods to change systems across many topics – from reducing maternal and newborn deaths, improving quality of life and care for those living with chronic illness, or eliminating inequities in the education system. I wanted to be able to scale the power of this work to meet a need beyond what I could do as an independent consultant.

The second purpose centered on how we do our work. It was important to me to create an empowering and energizing place for people inspired by change to thrive. I dreamed of creating a more just and equitable workplace that is:

Deeply Collaborative: I learned that working in improvement is powerful – and lonely. There are few people in the world who do this type of work, many of whom work alone in organizations and are eager to engage with other improvers. I dreamed of a workplace where people who are passionate about improvement could collaborate to unleash something greater together.

Flexibility to support the whole person: I wanted to create a culture that valued the complex lives that people lead – whether as parents, caretakers of family members, or active leaders in their communities. This was especially true for me as a parent of two children who were very young when I founded Shift. Throughout my career, I watched so many talented women opt out of the workforce in droves to nurture growing families – which we now see on enormous scale during the pandemic. I wanted to create a compelling and flexible place that would entice people –and especially women – with diverse lives and passions to bring everything they are to their work. 

Joyful organizational culture. I saw the power of flattening hierarchy in improvement work. I wanted an organizational culture that didn’t have rigid structures or rules. I deeply believe in learning by doing and wanted to create a curious and playful workplace that fostered creativity to work with our partners to find new ways to improve difficult topics.

Diverse and equitable: Shift started out with just two people. Many people asked how I would offer competitive salaries or expensive benefits like healthcare, matched retirement savings and paid time off. It was important to me to design for this infrastructure from the start so that opportunities at Shift would not be left to the chance of who could afford to join our team. We put best practices into place to avoid reproducing pay inequities that are still pervasive today – like advertising positions with transparent pay scales and not asking salary history.

I was passionate about creating a different type of workplace, yet, when I looked objectively at our team functioning 18 months into our journey – I’d reproduced some of the worst organizational practices that I had set out to change. 

As a young organization operating on lean resources, Shift embraced ways of working that didn’t feel core to the values to which we aspired. We hadn’t carved out the space to develop structures or policies, and this lack of structure benefited those with the most power. Roles and opportunities for growth weren’t clear or equitable. Collaboration fell short as we didn’t have a shared understanding of what we were there to do or how we work together.

The diverse, equitable, and joyful culture I’d imagined required focused effort, not just good intentions. Shift had structures to include people in conversations, but they didn’t feel heard or that their ideas carried equal weight. Work felt anything but playful – it felt full of tension and microaggressions. We invested time and financial resources into diversity, equity and inclusion trainings as a team, but this felt insufficient and superficial without a strong foundation of trust.

I realized my mistake: I had put my energy and focus into our first purpose of Shift – what we do – and not enough intentionality into the second purpose of Shift – how we do it. The mission is not enough – we have to work continuously to create an inclusive culture to actively prevent reproducing harmful practices. 

I’m happy to say that we’ve come a long way in the last two years. And I recognize that we still have far to go. The next blog in this series, The Benefits and Challenges of Culture Change, shares how everyone at Shift is working to learn from our early stumbling blocks to intentionally build an inclusive, just and equitable culture.

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