One Step in the One Team, One Goal, One System Culture Upgrade
“There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Susan Cain, Quiet
“It is wiser to find out than to suppose.” Mark Twain
I could ponder over quotes all day long; some stick, others do not. During a series of ‘discovery’ meetings in March, I kept coming back to these two quotes as the meetings organically began focusing on personal empowerment, leadership, and group/team dynamics.
Velocity. It’s here and, as you’ve no doubt heard, the overarching goal of the Nelnet Consumer Loans segment is to upgrade our culture to be more team-focused, strategic and purpose-driven – One Team, One Goal, One System. The strategy behind delivering the actual technology piece is to foster an environment - or Culture - that improves processes, encourages true collaboration, provides a safe place to speak up, and drives our One Team’s commitment to success.
Culture as an Internal Brand
Fostering an inclusive, open and coalesced culture is a major focus for us as a company. I’ve been at Nelnet about 19 ½ years and have been part of the Client Services team in one form or another during my long tenure. I am also one of the five members in our Consumer Loans Culture Committee (Alissa Johnson, Nichole Herrmann, Chad Krogstad, Mary Boisen and me, Dawn Knight) – and we’re all from different areas including marketing communications, technology, consumer loans, client services and business operations. We’re working on other areas of focus to continue to build on our One Team, One Goal, One System objective. This will be an ongoing and deliberate effort to upgrade our culture, and we are always looking for ideas from associates, as well as involvement.
It has to do with people first. Wouldn’t it be great if the first step in cultivating a new, inspiring segment message or company culture would be to learn more about each other, examine how each of us operates as ‘people’ and find ways to work together in a safe, successful environment? Buckle up, the NDS Consumer Loans segment is committed to raising the bar in all of us and creating an active, trusting and engaging culture.
Learning about Building Trust in Teams
One of the first areas of focus for the newly established Consumer Loans Culture Committee is helping leaders learn how to take steps toward the One Team, One Goal, One System culture in their own teams. In March, we completed the first series of ‘Lunchtime Learning for Leaders’ to give leaders an opportunity for open discussions about creating the best communication and building trust in our Consumer Loan teams. We offered five one-hour sessions, with a cap of about 12 attendees. The first topic was “Psychological Safety: How to Build Trust and Create Open, Successful Teams.” We began with a Ted Talk, then had an open discussion about what we learned in the video, and how we can build better trust in our own teams. In this video, Professor of Student Success at San Juan College, Chris Strouthopoulos, explores how fear, whether of judgement or failure, holds us back, and provides specific strategies to build trust and create open, collaborative, and high performing teams. (Shout out to Nelnet University for adding the course “How to Build Trust and Create Open, Successful Teams” with this Ted Talk! It was perfect timing for us to use in our culture initiative!)
Culture of Fear vs. Social Risk
I’d define the first as the fear of how others may perceive/judge you while the second is the way you perceive/judge yourself in a social situation. After the video, we had an open, raw discussion, and one of the main topics centered around the Culture of Fear among associates and the ability (or inability) to have a forum where all associates are comfortable offering honest feedback, sharing new ideas, asking questions, etc. without a fear of judgement, being ‘shot down’, having repercussions, not being ‘team’ oriented, and more. In a typical unplanned and organic fashion, that brought us to the second main discussion point – how differently introverts and extroverts generally express themselves and how they can effectively participate in group meetings. We discussed how many people prefer having more time to process things and would like alternate forums where they can articulate their ideas/feedback vs speaking up in a meeting – yet ensuring their voices be heard in the same manner. Doesn’t everyone wish to feel fully equipped and prepared to communicate their feedback?
During the sessions, we garnered a list of Best Practices and ‘things to think about more’ from a variety of leaders and articulated in one form or another.
1. Onboarding: Along with training curriculum and functional training activities, bringing in a culture component about ‘safety in teams’ and encouraging open communication might help carry that goal over to associates.
Agendas - Provide agenda 24 hours before the meeting to give all people, especially analytical people, time to process beforehand and also a way to continue the discussion after the meeting.
Meeting Purpose Statement – Clearly outline meeting purpose, attendee roles and expectations beforehand. In Recurring meetings, people may shift in and out of the meeting, and having the Purpose Statement visible in the invite can be important.
3. Feedback Loop and Mechanisms: Offer alternate feedback forums to allow everyone an opportunity to have their voices heard and another way to collaborate as a team.
4. Time: This is an important piece of a meeting and needs to be part of the equation when expecting everyone to react/reply with their best ability. Give people time to process things before requiring a quick, off the cuff answer or reply.
5. Build Relationships: Find ways to build better relationships between leaders and their teams because if that relationship isn’t there, there won’t be trust.
Incorporate other teams into outside team-based activities to get to know others.
Begin each meeting with an icebreaker - asking a low-risk question is a way to begin building trust and creating ways for attendees to connect with each other in a non-task-related way.
6. Setting the Stage as Leaders:
Is there an emphasis in our organization to give associates capacity to think through their actions as a priority vs. the focus always being to hit a deadline?
Evaluate what we can do as leaders to consciously recognize our behaviors. Are we unintentionally creating a ‘culture of fear’ type of environment?
Do we have the ability as leaders to make time a priority with our fast moving timelines?
7. Safety in Teams:
It's important as leaders/teams to embrace and celebrate an inclusive culture.
We need to promise to call out others (privately) if they’re unintentionally shutting people out/down so they realize how it might be taken by their teams.
Be open to finding better ways to drive certain things like timelines as part of the culture communication. Can we message items like this better and differently?
We encourage teams to watch the “Psychological Safety: How to Build Trust and Create Open, Successful Teams” Ted Talk together and have their own discussions on building trust. Talk about the best practices outlined above. What other ideas do you have for building trust in your teams?
Sidebar Tip: We found that by having an open registration – where anyone could sign up for the time that suited them - versus structuring each session for a particular team allowed for fresh, transparent and often vulnerable feedback to be shared with the group.
About the Author
Dawn Knight, M.S. - National Director, Nelnet School Services
Dawn joined Nelnet in 2000, and is the National Director on the Nelnet School Services team. Dawn is the school escalation point of contact and one of the key managers for Nelnet’s relationships within the higher education space. In addition, she contributes her talents to various other initiatives for Client Services and Consumer Loans, including managing the Firstmark Accessibility project in 2018, offering insights and written articles for internal communications efforts, and acting as a culture champion on the Consumer Loans Culture Team.
She received her B.S. degree in Business Administration and Tax Accounting from the University of Southern Maine and her M.S. degree in Exercise Physiology and Biomechanics from Purdue University.
Dawn says that road biking is her “thing,” but you can also find her practicing yoga, devouring a good book, or enjoying a hike through the mountains near her home in Colorado.