How organizational culture can serve First Nations in the long run.

- posted June 10, 2021

For over twenty years, we’ve worked with hundreds of organizations, including First Nations and First Nation organizations, on the common issues of aligning culture, brand, and strategy to support long-term success. And while all organizations face many similar challenges, First Nations face some specific challenges of culture. To be clear, we’re talking about organizational culture, not traditional First Nations culture (although they are clearly linked).

Organizations everywhere are just starting grasp the true meaning of ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. They’re just beginning to see the true costs of an organic culture, that inherited mishmash of past stories, the strongest personalities, and layers of processes that together create ‘the way we do things around here.’ 

In our experience, organizational culture in First Nations is a push/pull of four major influences: the overlaid hierarchical government bureaucracy; community, personality and family-based political influence; the cultural traditions that First Nations are trying to re-vitalize; and the culture of the widespread direct and indirect impacts of trauma, all of which are results of colonization.

Financially, many First Nations are gaining a bit of breathing room, through economic development, land settlements, financial certification and better access to credit, and through better negotiation of funding envelopes, eliminating line-item program funding. With this capacity, we see First Nations writing declarations of rights and freedoms, reclaiming their CFS authority, rewriting curricula, expanding health services, expanding economic development, and so much more.

But all the best laid plans falter if people can’t count on one another to get things done. 

We see a culture where there is so much important work to do and so few people to do it, where there is tremendous pressure to deliver on every front, and so much at stake.

If any plan is to sustain momentum, it is necessary to create an organizational culture that allows people to consistently succeed in large and small ways, toward shared goals.

There is a real opportunity for many First Nations today to build their own unique organizational culture with a best of all worlds approach. But it has to start with the knowledge that organizational culture can, and should, be created on purpose.

Every organization struggles to create a culture that can efficiently drive change. First Nations organizations also face the day-to-day challenges of living with the effects of long-term and persistent trauma. Often, we see the people who feel the strongest on any day picking up other people’s priorities, as their colleagues deal with family issues, illness, justice, personal and financial issues. The strong leaders are handed all kinds of portfolios and responsibilities, many without adequate resources, because they are seen as the ones who get things done.

These people take on the extra work because the priorities that will ultimately heal the community are so important. And they keep doing this until they are not strong enough to do it anymore, and hopefully someone else then takes the work from them.

Add to this that it’s almost impossible to set and keep priorities – because you have to take advantage of any funded opportunity that comes up, and you have to deal with the political tides on any given day. This is a formula for project starts and stops, long-gone deadlines and worst of all, burnout.

There is a different way, but it has to start at the top – the political top. It has to start with leadership protecting their key people to work the priorities that really matter. When subject experts and administrative leaders have the ability to set their priorities, have them approved and stick to them, then people can be held accountable and projects can advance.

This is about establishing a culture of healing, compassion and respect, that begins with the core people who are doing the day to day work of healing and rebuilding the community.

It has to start with leadership who set a credible, achievable plan, with no more than three priorities at a time, and who have the integrity to stick to it. It starts with elected leaders putting their foot down and changing the expectation that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

As planning consultants, we often say ‘if you can predict something, with enough time, you can manage it.’

‘if you can predict something, with enough time, you can manage it.’

The First Nations we have worked with can reliably predict that there will be emergencies – there will be unexpected events – and those things will need to be addressed.

They can expect that people’s personal lives will get in the way of organizational priorities. That’s not a personal slight, it’s the result of over 100 years of colonization.

They can see that the pressure to improve the lives of people in their community will remain; and that the pace will never be fast enough to catch up to the past.

They can recognize that unless they address the culture of incessant competing demands, there will always be political pressure to do everything at once.

But here’s what we know about momentum: the ability to solve problems that matter is extremely motivating to people. That’s why we’re willing to work to burnout – even if we don’t accomplish the goal. But people need two other things: the skills and tools to become very good at what we do; and the authority to make decisions. We all need room to breathe and do what we do, well.

A culture change toward a healthy, respected, protected workforce, moving toward a limited number of specific priorities is the way to gain some much-needed, sustained momentum.

It is a healthier way to become a healthy organization, and ultimately a healthy community. Instead of punishing people with multiple, overlapping priorities ‘until we get there’, there is an opportunity to create and support a culture of wholeness that holds limited, realistic priorities, and strengthens people and teams, as they fulfill their work.

And when these leaders go home each day after a reasonable day of mostly predictable work toward a meaningful goal, they can continue to be strong leaders in their personal and community lives.

The tasks before today’s First Nations are monumental. This is a call for leaders to take care of their own health and the health of one another first, by resisting the pressure to do it all at once. It’s possible and achievable. The challenge is that it has to be a unanimous agreement, and it has to begin at the top.

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Jenna Boholij, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba