How can a leader’s integrity, vision and faith be the catalyst for turning a diseased culture into a remarkable picture of health? The leader, in this case, is Joseph Castleberry, President of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington.
Ten consecutive record enrollments and an 88% enrollment growth don’t begin to tell the story that seems almost too good to be true.
Joseph Castleberry remembers the moment in January of 2006 when he saw the results of the first BCWI Employee Engagement Survey and admitted there was nowhere to go but up. At a loss for how to move forward, he asked, “What should I do?”
Three things were certain: First, Northwest University’s culture was so toxic I didn’t have any answers. Second, trust among the faculty, administration and staff was almost non-existent. Third, any possible improvement wasn’t going to be easy.
The University’s dramatic culture turnaround involved what I call six wise commitments. Which ones resonate with you and what you desire most for your culture? Here’s what Joseph told me:
“When I came to Northwest as president, there was mistrust among the faculty, staff and administration. We were quickly transitioning from a small Bible college to a university, and in the midst of it all, some people felt alienated.
“Our school’s previous presidents had done a phenomenal job of growing the university. Yet, as culture declined, I brought in a consultant who led us through a process of community reconciliation. It became very clear who was on board and who was not. As a result of some strategic changes in personnel, people began to trust me and other leaders, and mutual trust among faculty, staff and administrators began to grow.”
“Rather than telling the faculty and staff how they should behave, our executive team led a strength-based appreciative inquiry process. This created something we call The Northwest Way. It’s all about recognizing people who go out of their way to serve others well and thus live out the calling we have in Christ.” (The Northwest Way illustrates and amplifies our belief at BCWI that the process of building a healthy culture is an end in itself.)
“Our culture took on a new, intentional look,” said Joseph. “I stopped wearing suits and ties and went with more casual clothes so people could see the school’s administration was approachable. We eliminated a lot of VP titles in exchange for more descriptive titles; rather than VP of Finance, Chief Financial Officer. We re-approached our culture like an anthropologist who values rituals, symbols and traditions. Example: We introduced an all-campus chapel that brought everyone together.”
“We created a Community Covenant every administrator, faculty member and staffer signed as a pledge to how we were going to communicate with each other. As part of our calling to educate and disciple Christian young people, we learned to pay attention and listen better, and our trust for each other grew.
It’s our obligation to do better. We don’t have the right to be a miserable workplace in the name of Jesus.”
“From the very start of our culture turnaround, we realized it’s our Christian obligation to be better and to do better. We don’t have the right to be a miserable workplace in the name of Jesus.”
Joseph exemplified this by building on Northwest University’s culture strengths of Fantastic Teams, Uplifting Growth, Inspirational Growth, and Healthy Communication, four of the eight factors that drive healthy-to-flourishing culture.
“In the ‘bad ol’ days’, our culture was like a crumbling marriage that stays together for the kids; everybody loved the students but they didn’t necessarily love the other adults. Over time, the student community began to wear off on the rest of us in a warm, beautiful way to the point that today, staff and administration love being together. Ask any student, ‘What do you like best about Northwest University?’ and he or she will say, ‘It’s the community!’”
For Joseph Castleberry, Northwest’s culture turnaround comes back to leaders who are at the top of their game. “Whether it’s our CFO, John Jordan, our Provost, Jim Heugel, or Ken Cornell who heads our advancement, our executive team is doing the best work they’ve ever done.
“As a leader, I’ve learned that you always need to lead out of who you are—your best self. When people see you for who you really are, they’re going to trust you.”
That’s immensely practical wisdom I can use today. What about you?
The Employee Engagement Survey
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