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How one CTO built a culture of trust and engagement

Sharon Florentine | March 1, 2016
When Joe McBreen took over as CTO of St. Vrain Valley School District in 2009, he walked into an IT nightmare. Seven years later, he's turned things around. Here's how he did it.

"I was going to turn this culture around if it killed me -- and it almost did. A lot of people didn't think it would work, because we had a lot of cerebral, business-type stuff to handle, but if we ever were going to move forward with that, we had to address the culture first. I was determined; I started by focusing on the culture, and building a culture of trust and engagement by following 'recipes,'" McBreen says.

McBreen offers a list of seven 'recipes' for culture change in an organization, including one he calls 'Huddle Hash.' The premise for Huddle Hash is frequent, short meetings devoted to team-building exercises that encourage trust, engagement, fun and camaraderie.

"This is not rocket science. If you can read, you can follow a recipe -- but remember that this is not a 'microwave fix.' You have to devote the time and energy into doing these kinds of things consistently, and you have to adapt them to the unique aspects of your own organization and challenges," McBreen says.

Here's how Huddle Hash works: First, schedule a time for your team(s) to meet. At first, McBreen says, DTS met weekly, though now they've extended the time between Huddles to twice a month. Second, start with short meetings. At first, DTS Huddles were scheduled for about fifteen minutes, though now they are an hour long.

Each Huddle has four distinct features that happen in each meeting, McBreen says: Motivation, Appreciation, Recognition and an Activity.


When's the last time you cheered on someone you worked with? McBreen says, for example, members of his team began encouraging each other and literally cheering on team members, even for mundane tasks. "My administrative assistant processes a lot of purchase orders. Sometimes we will stand behind her and cheer, and high-five each other -- 'Way to go! You enter that vendor name! Hooray! Way to process those order codes!' and it seems really hokey, but it gets everyone smiling, and everyone laughing, and it's fun. It builds on a relationship," McBreen says.


McBreen's team began using and distributing "Above and Beyond" cards to others outside the department. These cards serve as a special thank you to anyone who's gone out of their way in a professional or personal capacity to help another, he says. "What's great about this is that I notice that people who've received a card, even if it's been years, they keep them. They display them proudly in their workspace. How special is it, and how human is it just to say, 'I see you, I acknowledge you, and I appreciate you'?" he says.


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