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How we discovered Zeal’s people values (and what they actually are)

by Elliot Taylor

The start of our new culture deck reads: “Culture happens. So let’s make a great one.”

Think about it – in your home, your school, your workplace. There is a culture, whether it’s planned or not. 

When you and your mates are stuck in an endless cycle of “your mum” jokes, that’s a culture thing. When your fridge is a mosaic of passive-aggressive notes about dirty dishes, that’s a culture thing. When your family talk over each other, that’s a culture thing.

Culture happens, whether you’ve planned it or not.

At Zeal, we don’t want a culture by default; we want to name it, create it and hold each other to it. And the way we arrive at shared culture is through embodying shared values.

Throwback to 2010

In the early days, Zeal was a ragtag bunch of passionate, creative misfits dedicated to the cause of young people. We held our first national hui in November 2010, when your girl Susan Boyle was #1 on the album chart with her Christmas album (fans, you can relive those glory days here).

At that first hui, fifteen people gathered in Zeal West’s art room. We brainstormed the values of our people on a whiteboard. There were about fifty bullet points. Words like innovative, initiative, honesty, compassionate, questioner, humility, and risk-taker. There were also sketches of an elephant head, a bicep flexing, a smiling flower and what looks like an early iteration of the poop emoji. Whoever that was, I salute your pioneering vision.

Fast-forward to 2017

Seven years on, Zeal is near fifty staff and interns across five locations and seven departments. We have a management team of ten – and they’re some of the best social change warriors you’ll find.

We’ve held onto a set of banner values – Passionate, Creative, Innovative, and Inclusive – since we did some brand work a few years back. These are the values that we shout to the world.

Recently, with our growth, we noticed a need to return to the values of our people.

Our aim was to define who we are and who we want to be – the traits, characteristics, ways of working and relating that are truly Zeal. With those locked in, we can celebrate who we are and hold ourselves to it too.

So, here’s how we did it (and how you can, too).

1. Name the values of your best people 

Management gurus Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras argue that an organisation’s values aren’t picked from thin air but discovered from what already exists within. 

Another guru, Patrick Lencioni, recommends this useful exercise: consider the team members who best embody what is good about your organisation and brainstorm their ways of working and relating.

We performed this exercise at a managers’ meeting, amassing a treasure trove of raw data about the traits and behaviours of some of our best people. A side benefit was some frightening and accurate caricatures.

2. Collate the traits into themes 

After the brainstorm, we typed up the traits, printed them off, and cut them out into singular pieces.

At this point, around a hundred pieces of paper were on the table. Daunting much. We sifted through them all, piece by piece, gathering similar ideas and then merging those ideas into other ideas.
There was a lot of shifting traits around – a trait like vulnerability overlaps with humility, which overlaps with continuous learning, which overlaps with embracing failure. We found that keeping it hands-on and collaborative enabled divergent thinking and quicker iterations.

After a few hours, we had ten themes with working titles. Yay, progress!

3. Refine into values and test

With ten working titles, we kept banging them into shape until they resembled a set of values.

To avoid the values feeling abstract and intangible we began them all with a verb to inspire action. The sub-points begin with “You” statements to keep the ideas personal and gritty. 

Structuring the values in this way was just a random brainwave we had, but I read recently that we were following in the footsteps of TED talk hero Simon Sinek. He says: “For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. “It’s not “integrity,” it’s “always do the right thing.” It’s not “innovation,” it’s “look at the problem from a different angle.” Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea – we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation.”

With the values refined, we tested them with some of our team. A lot remained the same and a lot changed. We tried our darndest to keep them to ten, then this happened…

4. Be open to curveballs

We realized toward the end of the process that we had failed to name a critical value that has been with us since the very beginning. Words like innovative and questioner in our 2010 brainstorm gave us clues. One of our managers called it a DIY punk ethic.

Once we realised this gap, it was clear that we needed to add a whole new value.

We named the new value “Hold discomfort with the status quo” and it now sits at #2. Our clean ten commandments was ruined, but the value set just wouldn’t be complete without it.

5. Share them with your team

By the end of the process, we had eleven values that explain who we are and who we aspire to be. We won’t always get it right and that’s okay. But we’ll do the best we can with what we have everyday (you’ll find that nestled under value #4).

Like everything at Zeal, these values are a work in progress. We don’t aim for a static culture, but a dynamic culture that gets better and better the more we learn.

At our recent hui we shared these values with the team for the first time. The big cheese Matt Grey went through them bullet by bullet and then we ran an activity exploring stories of our team embodying these values, throwing darts at a board to dive deeper into those who “hit the target”.

Hundreds of stories came out of people working and relating the Zeal way. A spirit of celebration bounced off the walls and helped cement the values as truly ‘us’.

Now, without further ado, here are Zeal’s people values. They sound like you? Check out our jobs and internships page for opportunities.

Zeal’s People Values

v1.0. Last updated August 2017

1. Know the why

  • You have a deep conviction that propels you to make a difference in the lives of young people.
  • You view what you do as a mission first, then a job.
  • You remember our Christian motivation and ethic – “we love because he first loved us.”
  • You commit to a journey of biculturalism.
  • You know your why – for both tomorrow’s dream and today’s task – and can communicate that clearly.

2. Hold discomfort with the status quo

  • You believe more can be done to support young people.
  • You have a healthy obsession over the difference we make, always wanting to reach more young people more effectively.
  • You have the courage and creativity to adapt and change.

3. Make it happen

  • You have a proactive, self-motivated mindset, avoiding blame, apathy and empty talk.
  • You’ve got grit – the passion and perseverance to do what needs to be done until it’s done.
  • You make wise decisions with well-thought reasoning.
  • You innovate through experimentation, treating failure as learning.

4. Be dedicated and dependable

  • You are fully present, treating whatever’s in front of you as important and valuable (especially if it’s another human).
  • You ”show up”, doing the best you can with what you have every day.
  • You are trustworthy, steady and reliable.
  • You act in Zeal’s best interests, even when it is not your own.

5. Stay open and keep learning

  • You are curious, pursuing new ideas and perspectives.
  • You embrace ako – reciprocal, shared learning, no matter a person’s status.
  • You enter discomfort because it offers the opportunity to grow.
  • You embrace anything that helps you get better – feedback, failure, data.

6. Be vulnerable and transparent

  • You readily admit weaknesses, mistakes and failures.
  • You are brave, owning and sharing your thoughts and opinions.
  • You enter healthy conflict early because it brings us closer – connection over correction.
  • You view yourself as a wounded healer, recognising the struggles of those we serve are also within yourself.

7. Stay lighthearted and look after yourself

  • You keep an upbeat, positive outlook despite challenging circumstances.
  • You don’t take yourself too seriously, but take the mission seriously.
  • You tend to Te Whare Tapa Whā and hold rhythms of rest and reflection.
  • You form and enjoy genuine relationships with your team.

8. Collaborate and celebrate

  • You include and collaborate, offering your strengths and encouraging the strengths of others.
  • You are generous with praise, affirming others early and often.
  • You celebrate the small wins.
  • You are gracious with those struggling.
  • You instinctively share the credit.

9. Show confident humility

  • You are the real-deal and known for your authenticity.
  • You expect more of yourself than you do of others or than Zeal does of you.
  • You serve others in your own unique way.
  • You welcome and embrace feedback, living out of a deeper place than ego.

10. Lead with empathy and compassion

  • You feel-with and suffer-with others, showing genuine care.
  • You listen well, seeking to understand.
  • You communicate with clarity, understanding how your words affect others.
  • You default to grace, treating everyone with unconditional positive regard.

11. Go after the one

  • You keep the care and experience of singular young people at the centre.
  • You aim for kinship – genuine relationships that affect and change you personally.
  • You are always looking for new ways to engage.
  • You welcome interruptions by young people.