There are many parallels between sports and business. Rescue a CEO spoke with Brian Fielkow, business leader and author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Company Culture about the importance of establishing and maintaining a healthy company culture and how leaders must learn to take a stand based on organizational values.
What examples from the NFL can help business owners?
Recently, the NFL has experienced two interesting and seemingly unrelated events: an NFL-ordered report concluded that there was a pattern of harassment committed by at least three Miami Dolphin players (most notably Richie Incognito), and Michael Sam became the first openly gay college athlete to enter the NFL draft.
The stories have a common theme in that they center around locker room culture. In Miami, what conduct is accepted in the locker room and when does that conduct go too far? Was the conduct condoned (overtly or tactically) by coaches or executive management? In Sam’s case, is the locker room ready for an openly gay player? While the majority of the reaction is mostly positive, some NFL insiders have expressed doubt.
Our businesses may not operate under the bright lights and media spotlight of the NFL, but the challenges we face are parallel. How do we handle a technically competent employee whose behavior is not in line with our values? Do our leaders address the matter or look the other way? Is our workplace trained to embrace diversity? When new hires join our company with different backgrounds, does our environment adapt and grow?
The locker room is a workplace, no different from our offices, shops and floors. Our cultures are continuously evolving and are confronted with challenges internally and from the outside. Here are a few thoughts for managing change:
- There are times when a leader must take a firm stand based on the values of the organization. Clearly define what behaviors your organization will and will not accept.
- As those values and behaviors are defined, they must be over-communicated. Explain the “why.” Why is this change important to our culture? Understand that not all change will be immediately embraced. It is likely in any organization that certain members will adapt more quickly than others.
- As you drive change through your organization, anticipate the possible employee concerns. While the rationale for certain changes may seem obvious to some, they will not be clear to others. Recognize that change frightens some people, and express empathy. In the end, however, leaders must hold firm that change will occur.
- If all else fails, you need to dismiss technically competent employees if they are incurably out of line with your values. Your culture is defined in part by a set of non-negotiable values and behaviors. If an employee cannot align after good faith attempts, he or she becomes toxic to the culture.
What is your background and experience?
I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University School of Law. I spent six years as corporate attorney before I went to work for The Peltz Group, a privately owned recycling company with a national operation and market leadership position. After, the sale of Peltz to Waste Management in 2003, I relocated to Houston, Texas, and held the position of executive vice president of Recycle America Alliance (RAA), a $700 million subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc. In 2006, I purchased Houston-based Jetco Delivery.
Over the past seven years, I have focused on creating a healthy company culture and customizing services to exact customer requirements, which has allowed me to grow the business five-fold. By developing long term, fully engaged employees, Jetco is able to create an unparalleled customer experience.
Realizing that culture is a vital aspect to every company, I began speaking about its importance and offering advice to business owners and leaders about how to grow a healthy culture. After speaking to thousands across the country on the importance of workplace culture, I wrote Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Company Culture, which was published by Two Harbors Publishing in January. The book does not focus on the theory behind company culture, rather, it explores how a business, no matter the size, can achieve excellence and increase their bottom line through intense focus on the development and nurturing of its culture.
Why is it important to establish and maintain a healthy company?
I’ve learned that the most important aspect of growing a vibrant business is establishing a healthy culture. It is your foundation and what sets your company apart from the competition. It allows you to achieve sustained business excellence. Culture is a hard-core business proposition, and when done right, it is the catalyst for growing your company’s bottom line. It is also the best way to guarantee business success in the face of uncertainty.
When I worked in the recycling business, we sold bales of recycled paper and cardboard to paper mills for thirty percent more than our competitor down the street. Commodity pricing wasn’t a secret – prices were published daily. Yet, our customers were willing to pay significantly more. Why? Because we had built a reputation based on integrity and reliability. That’s where our growth came from. Our customers paid for peace of mind. If you want to grow on the outside, you must first grow on the inside.
How should leaders learn to take a firm stand based on values of an organization?
As leaders on the journey to cultural excellence, you must be aware that some team members are not going to want to jump onboard and may resist or refuse to see the value in the effort.
It is essential that your employees join the effort, but it is also true that there are times when you must force change because it is the right thing to do.
The most important thing is knowing the difference between values and priorities. Values define us and bind us together. They drive decisions in all of our interactions and never change. Priorities are tasks requiring action, must be managed daily and shift frequently based on a given situation. As a leader, you must ensure that broad-based understanding exists within your company, and that ― while your priorities my shift ― your values are never compromised. Your employees’ behavior must align with your company’s values. The hardest thing for leaders is to make the effort to distinguish between values and priorities, and this is never more difficult than when you’re asked to do something that is not in line with your company’s values.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and business owners on business culture and establishing positive cultural changes?
Building a culture can be a complex and never-ending process. That said, the following tips will be quite helpful as you build your organization’s culture.
- Understand the difference between values and priorities: priorities can and will change; values don’t change, and they define your company. If values shift, you will be unable to lay a solid cultural foundation.
- Building a vibrant culture requires leaders to manage behavior, philosophy and attitude. It’s not about handbooks, rules and regulations.
- People covet most that which they cannot buy. In a vibrant culture, employees know they are appreciated and their contributions are valued.
- Culturally healthy companies uphold the Three Ts: Treatment, Transparency and Trust.
- Create an internally recognized brand around culture. It is an expression of who you are and what you stand for.
- Develop a culture contract ― a simple, written affirmation whereby all employees commit to live the values of the organization. This will serve as a useful tool to counsel an employee where behavior is not in alignment with company culture.
- Ensure that compensation and advancement programs reward employees who are both productive and culturally aligned.
- Beware of culture killers ― complacency, teams working in isolated silos and a lack of accountability.
- Leadership must drive the culture and pull harder than anyone else. That said, you’ll know it’s working when culturally aligned behavior occurs organically and peer-to-peer.
- Employees who are incurably out of line with the culture must be terminated.
When these rules are implemented and followed with consistency, they are certain to guide your company to building a world-class cultural foundation.
Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Company Culture and owner of Jetco Delivery in Houston, Texas. He and has presented to thousands of people across the country on how to establish a healthy culture. To continue the conversation, contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org, and learn more at drivingtoperfection.com.