I first met with Marina Giacomin, Executive Director of the Servants Anonymous Society (SAS) in their offices, the colossus of a building is tucked just behind the main drag of Inglewood.
Their building has to be huge to house the number of programs that SAS runs in Calgary.
SAS offers long-term programs and ongoing support to women who are victims of, or at risk of, sexual exploitation. Perhaps most importantly SAS also offers hope and wholeness to this vulnerable population.
As I walked through the maze of hallways, struggling to keep up with Marina’s pace, I was struck by how genuinely friendly and at ease the people we passed were, even the people we interrupted. Which is why I was very surprised when Marina mentioned that in the not-so-distant past, SAS had a real culture problem and that it had manifested itself in an unusually high turnover rate.
When I asked Marina if she would let me interview her for a story on the culture at SAS her answer was exactly what I was hoping for; she invited me to talk to the staff at SAS, as changing and defining an organizational culture is really done by the entire staff, and not solely the responsibility of the ED – this was my first real glimpse of the culture at SAS.
I was greeted by Sandra at the front desk, she escorted me through the maze to the chapel where we would be having our chat. I sat in the circular room full of pillows while I waited for the staff and pizza. The SAS staff trickled in slowly and sat all around me on the bleacher-type seats, they were a little bit quiet but otherwise inviting.
The resident dog, a dachshund named Sadie followed the pizza into the chapel as we politely made conversation about how soothing it is having a dog around when you are having a bad day. Everyone kept glancing at the boxes full of bread and cheese, yet no one opened the boxes; they were waiting for everyone to arrive so that they could eat together — another indicator of their community culture.
Once everyone had joined us and the pizza was consumed it was time to begin the conversation, so I moved to the centre of the chapel. When Marina said that I could talk to some of the SAS staff I was expecting maybe 5 people total… 14 people and a dog stared back at me, I am loathe to admit I was slightly unprepared for a group of that size.
It was a little bit of a rocky start. I kept tripping over my tongue as I felt everyone’s eyes on me. When I finally spit out my first question, I was greeted by a moment of silence. I was just about to back up and ask something else when Tara, operations manager at SAS, became the first to dive into the conversation.
“For me,” said Tara. “The people I work with make me want to come to work. They are not only my colleagues, they are my friends.”
The SAS staff started talking about how comfortable they are being themselves at work, and it became clear that being free to be themselves was a cornerstone of their culture.
“I feel really supported because I can be who I am,” said Tammy, a 9-month veteran of SAS. “I am a First Nations woman, and I can be that here. I don’t have to be something that I am not. It is honouring yourself because the women that we work with need to see that. In this organization I can practice my traditions and my culture, and still be respected and not judged.”
What really struck me as the all-female staff of SAS were speaking openly about their current culture, was that the SAS staff were also comfortable speaking openly about their previous culture, something that many had labeled toxic. “I think that there was a little bit of a culture of fear here,” said Lina. “In the last year that is really what has turned around. In the environment that we have here now you can be who you are, if you’re having a bad day, you can have a bad day.”
For those that had been at SAS long enough to experience their culture at its worst, I could hear in their voices a mixture of sadness and anger when they spoke about it; however, they also spoke about it as though it had happened a long time ago.
“It felt like you were always trying to be someone else so you could appease whoever your audience was at that time, and now it’s different because you just come to work as yourself,” said Tara. “Now, if we have something to work out, we just work it out. At the end of the day, it’s not all about us, it is about the women that we serve.”
It was talking about their programs and the women that they serve, something that all the staff had an obvious passion for, that Marina finally couldn’t help herself but join the conversation.
“I think that we realized that we weren’t really demonstrating the grace that we say we believe in and that is the whole premise of this organization in the first place. We went through a process of some pretty deep sharing and almost amends and forgiveness. Very similar to what we ask our programs Participants to do as part of their process of recovery.”
For Nicole, a former program Participant and now a staff member at SAS, she understands that process of recovery, and what SAS asks of its Participants more than most.
“I feel like channels of communication are a lot more open than they were a year ago. There’s more levels of trust and honesty. There’s a level of humanity that you know we’re all individuals we are all human beings we are not perfect. It’s progress not perfection. We don’t feel like we have to put on this front because just like the women we serve, we all have our own issues and our own skeletons that we need to deal with.”
As I was talking with the women of SAS I began to see how their mission demanded that they have a very tight-knit culture, where the Participants can’t feel supported unless the staff are also supporting one another. What I wasn’t expecting that the very nature of their work also dictated that their culture would have to be one of support. It was Liz, a six-year veteran of SAS that explained it to me.
“Because of the environment that we work in, we can’t go home and talk about our work. So, our co-workers are who we have to talk to. But, if you can’t trust the person you are talking to, that’s very harmful in our organization, because the staff here is really it for us.”
Listening to the group talk about how their former mistrustful culture had affected them, I really couldn’t see how a group of people could come back from that. Marina was quick to explain some of the steps that they took to improve the environment at SAS, something that all the staff was visibly proud of.
“Once it all came to a head, then we followed a very mindful process that started with a conversation at the leadership level about what is really happening. We introduced staff satisfaction surveys that happen quarterly,” explained Marina. “There were also a lot of conversations, individual and group conversations that happened as a result of some of the feedback from the staff satisfaction survey. We did an all staff retreat where we went away and all spent a night away with each other in Canmore.”
The second that Marina mentioned the staff retreat in Canmore that air in chapel lightened, faces brightened and everyone started talking at once. They didn’t even have to tell me, I could see that the retreat was the place where it all started turning around. “We got to see each other as women, outside of work. We do that already, but we got to really see each other,” Tammy said.
Katie’s eyes lit up when talking about the retreat. “You still have to wear your professional hat here,” she said. “But when we went away, if we wanted to run down the street yelling at each other that is what we did. It was good to see another side of each other without the professional hat, which was really cool.”
Keeping the momentum and energy from the retreat going was a real priority for Marina; she keeps it going by having regular get-togethers. Sometimes they meet in the chapel, at a theatre or in a restaurant. Sometimes those meetings are formal and others they do icebreakers and enjoy each others company. Get togethers like these are good for both the morale, and retention.
As most people in the not for profit sector know, staff retention is one of the biggest hurdles facing organizations. Having low staff retention rates can also be the symptom of a culture working against the mission.
“We had a real retention issue, it lasted for a solid year. Now, in the last two quarters of this fiscal year our staff retention has jumped to about 92% and stayed steady. Previously, we would have the hardest time getting people into jobs here, now we have a range of people to select from, which is really lovely.”
“Our hiring process is a lot different,” said Tara. “We can tell pretty quickly when we hire someone new whether they are going to be a fit with our culture and good for our Participants right away. You can really see when someone is not fitting with the culture now, it’s like the matching piece to the puzzle.”
“In a social service environment working with people who are vulnerable and who need connection it is not appropriate to have a revolving door of staff,” said Marina.
“I don’t want anybody to think, oh well culture is easy,” said Marina. “You just have to be nice to each other and have some fun and go out and team build every once in a while and be forgiving. You do have to have good policies that work with your culture, not against it. You have to review the policies quite often, with the leadership team and with your staff.”
“And get matching hoodies,” interjected Tara. “The matching hoodies really help. Everybody loves a good hoodie.”
“In all honesty though,” said Liz. “It was a struggle and it was a fight, but we’re still here. We’re doing good work, just without the chaos surrounding us.”
Marina summed up their need for an intentional organizational culture perfectly when she echoed what her staff said about serving their participants. “At the end of the day, it’s not all about us, it is about the women that we serve.”
-Written by Kim Wright