Exploring the Muddy Waters and Blue Skies of Supporting Student Success

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting alongside Tricia Seifert at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services’ (CACUSS) Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba (June 19-22, 2016). The theme of the conference, Muddy Waters, Blue Skies, supported conversations on the many challenges encountered when aiming to support student success as well as the blue skies of opportunity and possibilities of what could be for students, staff, faculty, and community members. In our presentation titled Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations, we examined how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture are perceived as shaping the development of student-focused organizational approaches.

The current study was initially undertaken as part of a case study research methods course. Data from two institutions were analyzed as part of the class project; data from two additional institutions have since been analyzed to develop the broader set of findings presented at the CACUSS Conference. Data from an additional 1-2 institutions will be analyzed prior to presenting overall findings at an upcoming scholarly conference (to be determined). If you attended Tricia Seifert’s recent CACUSS presentation on publishing in student affairs, you likely recall her encouragement to “never let a good class paper go unpublished”. This blog post represents one of many ways to disseminate findings and concepts developed during course and work-related projects.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an overview of the study, current findings, and a working set of principles for creating student-focused postsecondary organizations derived from the findings. It will explore some of the “muddy waters” (challenges) of supporting student success as well as how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture can come together and create “blue skies” (opportunities and possibilities) for all students.

About the Current Study

The findings in this study were derived from an analysis of data collected during the first phase of the Supporting Student Success study. During this phase, qualitative interviews and focus groups were conducted with nearly 300 student affairs and services staff from 9 universities and 5 colleges across Ontario. The purpose of the original study was to develop a more complete description of how Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are formally and informally structured as well as how staff perceive these structures as supporting and/or creating challenges for their ability to support student success.

This research focused on the larger research-intensive universities included in the broader sample given the range of centralized to decentralized organizational structures within this subsample and the range of stakeholders groups within each of the institutions and complexity of relationships between the many constituents.

Several theoretical frameworks including resource dependency theory (eg. Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009; Leslie & Slaughter, 1997; Tolbert, 1985), organizational ecology (eg. Carroll, 1984), and institutional logics informed the current study (eg. Thornton & Ocasio, 2008; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). The current study tested propositions stemming from these frameworks as advanced by Pitcher, Cantwell, and Renn (2015).

Research Questions and Design

Central research question:

How do student affairs and services staff perceive their institution’s organizational structure and culture with respect to the development of a student-focused approach for program and service delivery?

Sub-questions:

  1. How are communication and resource allocation perceived as interacting with the development of student-focused organizational approaches?
  2. How do perceptions of communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture compare between more centralized and more decentralized organizational structures?

In terms of analysis, NVivo software was utilized to analyze interview and focus group transcripts as well as strategic planning documents. Open coding was utilized (Corbin & Strauss, 2014) followed by a theory-driven approach to collapse codes into categories. Themes within cases were identified by the researchers and then analyzed across cases. Pattern matching techniques (Yin, 2014) were utilized to examine if findings reflected perceived opportunities and challenges of centralized and decentralized organizational models as identified in the literature.

Institutions were placed along a continuum of organizational structures, ranging from more decentralized to more centralized, for the purposes of comparing findings across the institutions. Two of the institutions were categorized as highly centralized (Centralized University A and B) in which nearly all of the student affairs and service areas reported to the senior student affairs and services officer. An additional two institutions were identified as having a combination of centralized and decentralized features (Federated University A and B). Decentralized features may include units like career services that exist at both a university-wide and faculty-specific level. The number and nature of reporting lines as well as the distribution of student services determined degree of centralization.

Findings

Building Relationships and Communicating

At all of the institutions, participants perceived relationship building and communication as critical to one’s ability to support students. That being said, how informal networks developed varied in terms of:

Inward versus outward facing focus:

  • At the Centralized Universities and within centralized units at the Federated Universities, participants focused on internal communications with fellow centralized staff
  • At the Federated Universities, more examples were provided regarding relationship building and communication that was outward facing (eg. cross unit; with faculties)

Role of physical spaces and proximity of services:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities as well as participants working in centralized units at the Federated Universities spoke of the importance of physical placements of services and how location influenced the development of relationships

Strategies utilized to foster positive relationships:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities and Federated University A commented on the importance of forums, town halls, and socials
  • Participants at Federated University B described fewer campus-level initiatives, however, mentioned many meetings amongst staff working in the centralized unit

Interpreting the Relative Value of Resources

At all of the institutions, concerns were expressed regarding perceived declines in fiscal and human resources as well as subsequent impacts for students and staff.

Impact on relationship building and communication:

  • At Centralized University A and B as well as Federated University A, human resources were viewed as influencing the amount of available time for communicating with stakeholders and participating in socials

Impact of space and proximity of services on students and staff

  • At Centralized University A and Federated University A, participants discussed the appropriateness of types of spaces for programs/services offered, whether spaces were viewed as welcoming, and if proximity of locations supported informal relationship building

Viewing Students and the Role of Student Affairs and Services

At all of the institutions, providing the best possible support to students was considered a top priority. Yet, the focus of support varied. At Federated University B, students were often described as clients and customers and educating students regarding why and how to get involved was considered a strong emphasis of student affairs and services’ work. At Centralized University A and B and Federated University A, students were often described as co-facilitators and co-decision makers and students’ holistic development was prioritized.

Utilizing Strategic Planning to Offset Organizational Weaknesses

At Centralized University A, Federated University A, and Federated University B, strategic plans were described as providing clarity and direction regarding how the unit and institution would navigate critical issues. Strategic planning was also described as helping to mitigate tensions over resources by conveying priorities and creating fewer unknowns. At Centralized University B, participants referred less to strategic planning, however, staff members engaged in comparable levels of discussion related to departmental and institutional values as conveyed and fostered by senior leaders.

Implications

On that note, we have attempted to summarize our learning thus far in a working set of principles for student-focused postsecondary organizations.

Principles for Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

As a student affairs unit,

  1. Strive towards achieving “optimal” balances of inward versus outward facing communication
  2. Enable and empower stakeholders to develop ongoing communication and relationships that support student success… and themselves! Support stakeholders towards feeling comfortable and confident in reaching out to one another.
  3. Consider how current space allocations and proximity of services influence communication, organizational culture, and student success.
  4. Use strategic planning processes and outcomes to augment organizational strengths and offset organizational weaknesses or gaps. Unify stakeholders, create conversations, bring clarity to change and in doing so, reduce tension and competition.
  5. Work as a community to define and co-create the learning environment that you aspire to become.
  6. Invite, listen to, and engage with the perspectives of faculty, students, and other community members.
  7. Foster individual and organizational resilience so that “when the going gets tough”, student success and learning remain paramount as organizational values and overall objectives.

Navigating the Muddy Waters, Blue Skies of Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

Organizational shifts, not to mention organizational change, can be downright difficult. During the conference presentation, attendees discussed how to employ the principles outlined above in hypothetical case studies. When immersed in our own institutions, it may be challenging to see the possibility of the principles at work. Sometimes it is easier to think about organizational shift at a distance, which is precisely what case studies offer. We share the case studies, one situated at Centralized University and the other at Decentralized University here. With staff retreats just around the corner, we invite you to use these case studies with your staff. Having discussed the principles in the safety of a case study, it may open up the possibility to imagine applying these principles to your daily work and organization.

During the closing session of the conference, our Conference Weavers, Tricia Seifert and Neil Buddel provided an analysis of overall themes within conversations that unfolded during the week. Tricia and Neil encouraged conference participants to commit and take responsibility for creating change on our campuses and asked what we would commit ourselves to doing post-conference. In a similar spirit, I would like to close this blog post with a simple question:

What can you commit to doing to shift your postsecondary institution towards an increasingly student-focused approach?

One of my post-CACUSS commitments: writing this blog post with the hope that our findings will support colleagues in their efforts to support student success ☺. If you are willing, share your commitment(s) by “leaving a reply” in the space below or tweeting us @CdnStdntSuccess; we look forward to retweeting as many of these as possible!

Jacquie

 

References

Carroll, G. R. (1984). Organizational ecology. Annual Review of Sociology, 10(1), 71–93.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2014). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hillman, A. J., Withers, M. C., & Collins, B. J. (2009). Resource dependence theory: A review. Journal of Management, 35(6), 1404-1427.

Leslie, L. L., & Slaughter, S. A. (1997). The development and current status of market mechanisms in United States postsecondary education. Higher Education Policy, 10(3-4), 239-252.

Pitcher, E. N., Cantwell, B. J., & Renn, K. A. (2015, November). Inside access: Examining the promotion of student success through organizational perspectives. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Denver, CO.

Thornton, P. H., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional logics. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin-Andersson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism (pp. 99–129). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Thornton, P. H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012). The institutional logics perspective. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Tolbert, P. S. (1985). Institutional environments and resource dependence: Sources of administrative structure in institutions of higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1) 1-13.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

So You Think You Can Write?

So you think you can write? I never thought the title would attract such a CACUSS (@cacusstweets) crowd! If someone told me that 50+ people would attend the session, I would have thought they were telling tales out of school. A HUGE thank you to those who came to the session, shared their writing ideas with a partner, asked great questions, and tweeted about developing a CACUSS Community of Practice to support those who are committed to telling the story about our work.

Below is a link to the slides I used which were updated from the ones Carney Strange developed for our first CACUSS presentation on this topic several years ago. The interest in getting a hold of this slide deck was a clear indication to me that people are hungry to write. They feel a need to share what we do with others in the field, with students, with faculty, with parents and community members.

So You Think You Can Write?  – CACUSS 2016

I find writing is a difficult thing to do in isolation. It’s so much better to write as part of a community. So in that spirit of community, leave a reply sharing your writing idea. Leave a reply stating the support you need to move from “wanting to write” to actually writing. Leave a reply to celebrate actually putting word to page.

Let this be the time where writing intentions translate into written articles. Let us fill the upcoming Communiqué with the excellent work of this field. I’m sure that Mitchell Miller (@McGillMitchell) would love to hear from you. My hope is that in ten years, no one laments,

“We simply don’t have the research or literature on that topic from the Canadian context.”

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Are you on the bus? Examining perspectives of supporting student success

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In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uses the metaphor of the bus for discussing the importance of having committed people in order for a company to move from being “good” to “great.”

Recognizing that the people who work with students can be some of the most important assets of any college or university, it may be worth inquiring who’s on your institution’s bus? Are new staff members more optimistic than their colleagues in terms of how they perceive their area’s efforts to support student success? Does it matter in what functional area of student affairs and services a person works? How does your college or university go from being good to great?

The Supporting Student Success research team is excited to be part of the “Research in Student Affairs” webinar series being sponsored by CACUSS. Using data from staff members representing 24 institutions across Canada, we will examine these questions and discuss their implications for student affairs and services practice.

The webinar titled “An Investigation of Student Affairs Professionals’ Perceptions of their Department’s Undergraduate Student Retention Effort “will take place Monday, March 21 at 1:00 pm (EST). You can register for the webinar here. We hope you join us.

Great Times #CACUSS15

The Supporting Student Success research team had an amazing time connecting with old friends and making new ones this past week in Vancouver. A big thank you to SFU and the #CACUSS15 conference planning team for putting together such a tremendous professional development event. Looking out what is arguably the most beautiful window in Canada, it gave attendees place and space to reflect on how the whole campus can support the whole student.

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We were thrilled to share tips on survey design, findings from Phase 3 of the research study and opportunities to highlight innovative programs and initiatives on the Blueprints for Student Success website. In rooms that had people standing as well as sitting on the floor, conference attendees talked about developing better student surveys and improving outreach to faculty and other student affairs and services staff. Throughout the conference, folks stopped us in the hallways wanting to talk more and asking for our slides. We will post these in the coming week to the main portion of the blog as well as to the Publications/Presentations tab. So stay tuned!

If you came to one of our sessions and have suggestions on how we can better present the content, please “leave a reply.” We are putting together an infographic and would love to incorporate your thoughts and ideas.

Finally, we invite you to take a look at the awesome poster that Diliana Peregrina-Kretz and Kim Elias shared on how people feel encouraged to partner to support student success on their campus. CACUSS 2015 Poster Presentation_SSS

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It was a time of great celebration. Although some of our team members weren’t able to join us, they were definitely there in spirit. Thanks to all who made this such a special conference.

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Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.

Supporting Student Success Presentations at #CACUSS2014

CACUSS 2014 (#CACUSS2014) is less than a week away and the Supporting Student Success team is excited to present in a number of sessions. This post showcases the three sessions directly related to our ongoing research project as well as other presentations which involve members of the research team. For those who are not able to attend the conference in Halifax, we will post our presentation slides after the conference. Please check out the “Presentations and Publications” tab in late June.cacuss photo

Project-Related Presentations

301 – Blueprints for Student Success: Improving High School Students’ Awareness of Student Affairs And Services: Presented by: Christine Arnold and Kathleen Moore
Student affairs and services (SAS) have become integral components of Canadian colleges and universities. Increasing high school students’ awareness of service areas, programs and initiatives is imperative in order for students to make informed decisions regarding involvement, academics and health/wellness. This presentation will engage participants in our research-based Blueprints for Student Success website and mobile application developed to provide high school students with the knowledge and language necessary to navigate their transition to postsecondary education. Monday, June 9, 3:30-4:00 Session # 301, 200C2

602 – It’s All About What You Ask Them: Using Cognitive Interviews to Improve Student Assessment: Presented by Jeffrey Burrow, Diliana Peregrina-Kretz, and Tricia Seifert
The assessment of programs and services is a crucial step in improving and understanding student learning and development. Cognitive interviews can improve the quality of student affairs assessments by uncovering the cognitive processes participants use in responding to questions. This learning lab will introduce the theory and practice of CI’s and will highlight how they can improve assessment. Participants are asked to bring their own assessment examples so they can conduct mini-cognitive interviews during the session. Tuesday, June 10, 1:45 – 3:00, Session #602, Meeting Room #4

913 – How Do You Know? Why Do You Think So? Using Research to Inform Practice: Presented by: Tricia Seifert, Janet Morrison, David McMurray, and Karen Cornies
This panel presentation highlights the experiences of senior student affairs and services leaders in using research from the Supporting Student Success study. The panelists will share how they have used the findings from this research broadly, and in some cases their institution’s data specifically, to foster conversations with colleagues about the role of student affairs and services in supporting student success, re-organize and structure a division, and influence organizational culture. Wednesday, June 11, 9:30-10:45, Session #913, Suite 307

Members of the Supporting Student Success research team are also presenting in several other sessions. We invite you to check out their great work.

305 – Employer Perceptions of Co-Curricular Engagement and the Co-Curricular Record in the Hiring Process: Presented by Kimberly Elias
Universities and colleges promote the value of co-curricular engagement and the Co-Curricular Record (CCR) as a means to highlight transferable skills to employers. Listen to the results of a thesis study which examines the question: How are co-curricular experiences and the CCR perceived and valued by employers in the hiring process? This study explored current hiring processes, competencies and factors employers look for, and perceptions of the value of the CCR in the hiring process. Monday, June 9, 3:30-4:00, Session #305, Suite 306

411 – OPEN BOOK: Recent Literature in Student Affairs: Deanne Fisher, Rob Shea, Tricia Seifert, Ross McMillan, John Austin, Tamara Leary and Jeff Burrow
Each year, the Open Book session introduces participants to relevant and recent literature – good and bad – in student affairs and related fields. Our panel of readers present mini-reviews of books that have influenced our practice and the institutions in which we operate. This usually provokes a conversation about the big ideas that shape our work. Audience participation is encouraged! Monday, June 9, 4:15-5:30, Session # 411 Suite 205

90 Ideas in 90 Minutes: Research and Assessment section: Tricia Seifert and Jeff Burrow: Tuesday, June 10 | 8:45–10:30, 200C2

501 – Moving Forward – Transitioning Beyond the First Year: Presented by: Adina Burden, Diliana Peregrina-Kretz, and Lake Porter
The growing number of students with disabilities enrolling in post-secondary education requires that institutions provide comprehensive and tailored programs to meet their unique needs. Transition programs that introduce students to campus and student life are an integral component in supporting students with disabilities acclimate to the new environment. This session will provide participants with tools necessary to develop a successful transition program for students with disabilities including: planning, executing, and follow-up programming to support students. Tuesday, June 10, 11:15-12:30, Session #518, Meeting Room #4

518 – Understanding Icky: Making Difficult Ethical Decisions in Student Affairs: Presented by Chris McGrath and Tricia Seifert
We all make tough decisions under tough circumstances. But when the difficult choice results in a negative outcome for our students, our personal and professional ethics can easily collide. This is an opportunity to learn about models of moral and ethical decision making in professional practice, and to begin mapping our “moral languages” (Nash, 1996) towards a better understanding of how we make tough professional choices. Tuesday, June 10, 11:15-12:30, Session #518, Suite 202

605 – Navigating Transition Through Online Mentorship: Presented by: Leah McCormack-Smith and Steve Masse
In the spring of 2013, we rejuvenated our student transition program by pursuing a unique experiment with e-mentorship. Informed by current theories of student engagement and best practices emerging from our campus Student Communications Summit, we committed to matching our entire first-year class with successful upper-year e-mentors. During this session we will introduce you to the program, share our successes and challenges, as well as discuss our plans for the future! Tuesday, June 10, 1:45-3:00, Session #605, Suite 306

801 – Transfer Literacy: Assessing Informational Symmetries And Asymmetries: Presented by Christine Arnold
International researchers have voiced concerns regarding students’ understanding of credit transfer and the resulting impediments. An investigation of students’ clarity and confusion with credit transfer processes centers on the existent information system in place and its accessibility. In the Ontario context, this information system includes government/agencies, institutional administrators and students. This research seeks to examine the extent to which the college-to-university transfer information system is performing efficiently and identify (a)symmetries existent in stakeholders’ understanding of this process. Tuesday, June 10 4:15-4:45, Session #801, Room 200C2

1002 – Co-Curricular Record/Transcript: Establishing Standards and a Community of Support: Presented by Kimberly Elias and Chris Glove
The rapid adoption of the Co-Curricular Record/Transcript (CCR/T) program across Canada created a need for the CCR/T Professionals Network to form. This network recently met in May 2014 to develop a framework of recommendations on how CCR/T’s should be structured in Canada as it pertains to quality and standards. Participate in the ongoing discussion and share your thoughts and feedback on the recommendations developed at the Summit. No experience with CCR/T is needed to participate. Wednesday, June 11, 2014 11:15-12:30, Session #1002, Suite 202

We hope your conference is a great one, and that you are able to attend some of the eleven (11!) presentations we have featured here, as well as the dozens and dozens of other, amazing presentations scheduled for CACUSS 2014. See you in Halifax!

Research Findings Part 2: Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs

Last week we shared a presentation delivered at #csshe2013 on “What Defines Student Success? A Multiple Choice Question.” The slides can be viewed in our post and downloaded here.

Today, we share slides from presentations which focused on Faculty/Student Affairs interaction – a seemingly hot topic at the #acpa2013 and #cacuss2013 conferences. Our presentation is called “Faculty Perceptions of Student Affairs and Services.” It is based on interviews with faculty about their understanding of the work of student affairs and services. We share quotes, pictures and a video (uploaded later) that highlight how faculty (sometimes called the ‘other side of the house’) perceive and what they know about the work of student affairs and services. The slides and the full notes can be downloaded here  from the “Presentations and Publications” tab.

As always, we hope this blog can be used as a place for dialogue. We are curious to know where you have found success in educating faculty about the work that you do and how you have learned about faculty culture and rewards structure.

– Jeff Burrow