We become what we value


Kara Grieco
Vice President of People & Culture
May 21, 2019

A little more than nine months ago, I began my journey as the first Vice President of People and Culture at Pencils of Promise (PoP). I was excited to join the team that has and continues to build an organization with such an important mission, clear purpose, distinctive approach and strong results.

Finding your why, but what’s the how?

From the moment I walked into the office on my first day, I was happy to see that PoP’s mission, purpose and approach were embodied by our team members in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos and New York. That type of alignment and clarity of purpose is the foundation for a workplace culture that propels strong organizational results.

Case study: Listening tour

One of my early priorities during those first few weeks on the PoP team was to conduct a listening tour. The purpose of the listening tour was to learn more about PoP and begin to build relationships with my colleagues. In preparation for my listening tour, I wanted to learn about the values that drove decision-making at PoP and understand the habits and behaviors that made the organization tick. As I dug in further, I learned that several years back the team had done some work to identify PoP’s core values. That work resulted in a list of eight values (audacity, visibility, trust, honesty, teamwork, learning, community. and fun). Shortly after these core values had been identified, organizational priorities shifted and the values that had been chosen were not socialized across the organization. When I asked colleagues to name PoP’s core values, most were not able to do so, although a couple did remember participating in a brainstorming activity about the topic at an offsite a couple years before.

“It was a valuable exercise because it forced me to take a step back and think about who we are at PoP and who we want to be.”

Leslie Engle Young, Chief Impact Officer

Insights about our core values

I thought the listening tour would be a great opportunity to re-engage our team around PoP’s core values. I developed a tactile activity for each session in which team members would force rank the eight values based on their perception of behaviors they witnessed most at PoP. The exercise provided me with insight into how different team members experience our organization. It also showed me just how widely each person’s definitions of a value varied from those of his or her teammates.

It also became clear that of the eight values, three or four continuously surfaced as being central to PoP’s identity, and the key to what differentiates PoP from our peer organizations. Our Country Directors – Freeman, Jorge, Lanoy, and Ya – would be coming to NYC for our 10th Anniversary Gala and I wanted to seize the opportunity to do a working session with them and learn more about how resonant the eight core values were to our teams in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. The results from our Country Directors strongly mirrored those from my listening tour.

From left to right: Jorge Bolom (Guatemala Country Director), Lanoy Keosuvan (Laos Co-Country Director), Freeman Gobah (Ghana Country Director) and Ya Laoxayda (Laos Co-Country Director)

Defining what’s important

I assembled a cross-functional team to build off the learnings from my listening tour and my working session with our Country Directors. It was important to me that the team bridged functional areas, tenure, and seniority. Our Core Values Team consisted of my colleagues Ally Keenan (Associate, Program Impact), Emil Hafeez (Data Analyst), Leslie Engle Young (Chief Impact Officer) Neha Saini (Intern, Development), and Winnie Ng (Manager, Finance). Our objectives were four-fold:

  • Identify the values truly core to PoP’s identity, values that make our organization unique and provide us with a competitive advantage
  • Align on a simple and actionable definition of each value
  • Clarify how each value aligns to our programmatic work
  • Socialize our core values to ensure they underpin every stage of the employee experience – from recruitment, through onboarding and performance management.

In order to tackle our first three objectives, we looked at the results from our research and asked a series of questions for each value.

Guiding questions

  • What’s important to us?
  • What brought us together? What continues to hold us together?
  • What will help guide us when we’re making a difficult decision?
  • Which parts of our organization are we most proud of?

Refining questions

  • Is this something we will believe in 5 years? In 10 years?
  • Is this something we are willing to hire on? Fire on?

Unveiling: PoP’s four core values

After many thoughtful conversations, and countless rounds of revisions, our team aligned on PoP’s core values:

These are values that we are proud of and are truly visible in how we behave and work together. But perhaps more importantly, these are values that challenge us daily to do the best work we can for the students and communities we serve.

Applications: Socializing our core values

Our core values team is already working on the fourth objective. We unveiled our core values during one of our weekly huddles. We shared the process we used to arrive at each core value and encouraged feedback with our larger team. We were energized by our peers’ receptiveness to our newly minted core values.

Lanoy Keosuvan, Laos Co-Country Director, who has been with PoP since the very beginning (Photo credit: Timmy Shivers)

We are now building out the implementation of our core values from the earliest stages of the employee experience. For example, we’ve developed a set of interview questions and a rubric that we now use with candidates being considered for a role at PoP. To date, we have modeled and trained nearly all our NYC employees on how to conduct a core values interview and how to use the rubric. We’re excited to demonstrate the importance of our core values by weighing them as heavily as technical expertise and leadership competencies in our assessments of prospective employees.

We have also built out a four-part training series that will be used for all new employees during onboarding. We piloted the trainings with our first new hire in April. Each module explores one of our core values and provides readings and reflections to help new employees think about how they will demonstrate our core values in their role.

Our next large scale project will be focused on embedding our core values in our performance appraisal process by creating rubrics to assess PoP team members’ demonstration of core values.

In the spirit of our core value of learning, we will continue to look for new and authentic ways to embed our core values into PoP’s culture. Given my belief that we become what we value, I believe the core values we’ve identified will keep our PoP family accountable to being a bold, open, reflective and inclusive organization. From there, so much is possible!