When Jon Hoerauf joined Herschel Supply Co. as CEO in early 2021, he saw a young brand with a lot of drive, energy and grit. Brothers Lyndon and Jamie Cormack founded the company in 2009 with a goal of reimagining the boring backpack. It’s now a global accessories powerhouse with 9,000 retail outlets in 90 countries and a loyal customer base. Though the company has grown far beyond backpacks, in many urban centres, it’s the go-to travel accessory for young, creative explorers and trendsetters. Design-driven, detail-oriented and innovative, the brand has collaborated with some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Apple, Disney, Coca-Cola and the NBA.
Headquartered in Vancouver, BC, Herschel attracts top talent. Employees are smart, engaged creatives who are passionate about both the work they do and its impact on the world. Within his first 100 days, Jon met one-on-one with employees and quickly learned that they deeply loved the brand but longed for a shared voice and a game plan they could stand behind.
The company’s existing purpose and values no longer spoke to what Herschel had grown into. Fresh from his role as President at Arc'teryx, a company that had embarked on its own purpose journey, Jon had first-hand experience in the power of organizational purpose and values. He believed it could deliver the clarity and alignment employees were looking for and he was certain of the approach he wanted to take.
“I wanted to co-design Herschel’s purpose, values and vision with the participation of employees,” says Jon. “Having worked with Habanero before, I knew that their approach was evidence-based. They engage employees across the organization in a way that produces validated results and builds internal stewardship.”
The power of co-creation
The process began with a series of workshops, facilitated by Habanero consultants Mallory O’Connor, Barbara Richards and Laura Nugent, designed to unearth the core themes that inspire Herschel employees and motivate them towards common goals. As Barb explains, “Co-creative facilitation is a balancing act. It involves parsing out the differences in what you’re hearing, noticing where there's alignment and where there isn’t, and determining what that lack of alignment means and how to address it.”
This kind of evidence-based employee research relies on creating an environment of safety and trust, so employees can honestly share their experiences. As Director of Retail Marketing Jaelem Sangara recalls, “The facilitation that was done by the Habanero team created an opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard.”
“The Hab team created space where everyone could be vulnerable,” says Renée Williams, Herschel’s retail marketing manager. “Everyone, including our senior leadership and founders, have changed in a positive way. This process brought people together in a different way than any of us knew how to do.”
The workshops and interviews gave employees an opportunity to share stories that exemplify what Herschel means to them. This discovery process produced clear themes for the project team to dig into and explore deeply in additional sessions guided by Barb, Laura and Mallory.
Working with an external team helped bring an objective lens to the work. “The benefit of having someone like Habanero facilitate these conversations is that they can ask difficult questions to make us think and reflect,” says Susan Vann, senior vice-president of people and talent. “They kept us on track, but also let us get a little messy in some areas so we could explore new possibilities. I really enjoyed the fact that it wasn't as linear as some previous experiences I’ve had with other consultants. I don't think you get to the best ideas with a straight line.”
Crafting purpose, values and vision statements
Hab consultants worked with the Herschel project teams to zero in on the concepts that resonated the most across the organization as a foundation for crafting the purpose, values and vision statements.
“We started to realize that we have so many great ideas,” Susan recalls. “We can't do everything. So what can we do? This work rallied us all together to understand what we wanted to focus on.”
Barb likens it to moving from a broad funnel to a narrow set of ideas that serves as a sandbox for discussion, which finally leads to written artefacts. As the project team narrowed in on language and tone, they made sure to centre discussions around their validated findings.
Purpose is an organization’s reason for being – the why. For Herschel, defining their purpose brought everyone together to create a north star to guide their goals, strategies and decision making.
For Herschel, the idea behind their purpose was clear early on, but getting the right language proved challenging. The statement needed to be short and punchy, but clearly express what the company is all about, acknowledging what made it successful while opening the door to the future.
“The test of a good purpose statement is independent of how it makes you feel in the first few seconds,” explains Barb. “You need to sit with it to make sure that it has depth and it’s enduring. It should be an idea that has energy, so it can continue to grow over time.”
Herschel’s values describe their guiding principles, which reflect the organization’s commitment to diversity, sustainability, teamwork and design. The statements are written to be clear, memorable and “sound like Herschel,” so they’re easy for employees to internalize.
In it together – We do our best work together and have fun when everyone feels empowered to share their individual voices and experiences.
Act with intent – We know we leave a footprint in this world, so we make responsible ecological and social choices to care for individuals, our communities and the environment.
Design every moment – We think like designers. We bring a creative mindset to every experience, designing intentional, purposeful solutions that make life easier and more enjoyable.
Future forward – Together we are here to win. We take the risks that lead to deeper understanding and shape our future success.
The process of defining the organization’s values sparked rich discussion within the project team that will continue as they become embedded more broadly across the organization. Values are an opportunity for all employees to co-create what it means to them to design experiences, to win or to make responsible choices. “These values will no doubt fuel ongoing conversations,” says Barb. “The ways that the values show up may change over time; employees can keep talking about them to decide together how to bring them to life.”
“Internalizing these statements is a process,” says Rick Kohn, executive vice-president of corporate operations. “It’s through real life examples that people start to understand what they mean. That’s when the values start to gather momentum and they can become a strong catalyst for change and growth.”
Herschel’s vision is their purpose coming to life over time in a way that they choose to achieve together. The vision team was made up of strategic thinkers across the organization, including people from different roles and tenures, to ensure diverse perspectives. Together they engaged in creative exercises to research and think deeply about the future of Herschel. In one letter-writing exercise, participants crafted a story of their vision for the company that exemplified the passion and drive of the company’s employees.
The resulting vision statement is actionable and anchors the company’s 10-year game plan. Since its implementation, objectives across each department ladder up to the vision to ensure everyone is focused on their shared goal.
“It’s exciting,” says Rick. “I like it when businesses identify a reason for being that’s connected with how individuals define themselves, rather than just putting out a product. I think that’s what we’ve done, and so I’m excited about developing that relationship and creating that clarity with our markets.”
Bringing everyone along on the journey
In late 2021, Herschel held a Team Summit to launch their new purpose, values and vision. Over two full days, employees explored the new statements individually and collectively through roundtable discussions, breakout sessions, a collaborative art workshop and even an Amazing Race-style team competition. The summit capped off with a big party that gave everyone the opportunity to reconnect and celebrate in-person.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “That was probably the best two days that I've ever had working at Herschel,” says Jaelem. “People felt a renewed sense of purpose. It confirmed for us that this is the work we want to be doing and these are the people we want to work with. There was a palpable feeling in the room that I had never experienced at another organization before.”
To keep the momentum going, the members of the project team – now purpose, values and vision champions – have been working hard to embed the ideas and language throughout the organization.
The values are printed on large display boards placed throughout the office, while the language is making its way into newsletters, handbooks and even shout-outs and slack channels. “It brought us closer together and reinforced that we have something special as an organization,” says Renée.
For Susan, Herschel’s purpose, values and vision are showing up in big and small ways – from the way they design their recognition program to everyday conversations. “I was interviewing someone for a senior position recently,” she says, “and I was able to clearly share who we are and what we represent and why, because of the work we’ve done around purpose, values and vision. It’s tremendously helpful in ensuring we’re able to attract and retain talent aligned with who we are and where we’re headed.”
“I’m seeing them show up in coaching conversations often,” says Jaelem. “Before these ideas were a little nebulous. Now, we have a shared language that’s weaving its way into the conversations that we have on a daily basis. It’s changed the way we relate to one another. There’s a sense of consistency and togetherness that exists now that did not exist before.”
Looking to the future
From a strategic standpoint, Herschel’s new purpose, values and vision have helped free the company from core product categories into journeys, allowing for more exploration and expansion. As Rick explains, “This work has elevated our journey from the ordinary to something extraordinary.”
“We landed in a place that I consider to be profound and meaningful,” he says. “These statements contain enough specificity to create a clear point on the horizon for us to move towards. Prior to doing this work, that point on the horizon felt like it was always moving. Now, it feels like it’s more firmly affixed.”
Purpose, values and vision work can feel like a huge investment of time and focus of employees across the organization, but the payoff is worth it. “It’s important to highlight the investment that Herschel made in this work on behalf of the organization and on behalf of every individual,” says Jaelem. “It’s reinvigorated our excitement about being at Herschel, which is invaluable.”
Jon is a passionate advocate for this work. “It’s not a fad,” he says. “I’ll never work for a company that doesn’t have a strong purpose and values embedded in the organization. If it doesn’t exist, it’s one of the first things I’d do.”