People Power: Build a culture, not a company - Apr 2019

By Sam Allman

In our industry’s struggle to find qualified individuals to fill its depleting ranks of workers in labor, sales and management, we have held symposiums, workshops and conferences, hoping to find solutions. What makes matters worse is a thriving economy with low unemployment, increasing competition from other consumer-based businesses, and pressure to limit illegal immigration. In addition, recent increases to the minimum wage in some states have the potential to negatively impact the struggle, giving many entry-level workers the ability to find comparable paying jobs elsewhere. Suggested solutions are often either too theoretical or too hard to implement. Meanwhile, many flooring companies continue to do business as usual hoping that things will change.

My father, owner of Allman’s Carpet and Drapery, complained for years about the industry’s problem of finding and keeping good people, whether they be installers, support help or salespeople, but he never did much about it. The problem, of course, was that he was so busy “doing business” that he didn’t have time to work on his business. He had many good employees and installers work for him that came and went. He never voiced it, but I do believe he felt badly when good people left. I am sure he wondered why they were not more loyal.

My father grew up in the Depression; having work and working hard were important to him. In his day, getting a job and earning the gold watch at retirement was the norm. But things have changed since then; there are more choices. My generation didn’t want to be stuck in jobs that they didn’t like or ones that they didn’t find meaningful.

In my father’s youth, businesses would sacrifice people for profits. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal cite, in their book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, what I believe to be the philosophy of that time, “…the people, they’re nothing; they’re just a number. You move ’em in and out. If they don’t do the job, you fire ’em. If they get hurt, or complain about safety, you put a ‘bulls-eye’ on them. They are not gonna have a job in the near future.”

We have since learned that loyalty cannot be demanded. It can only be granted.

One key reason that employees are not loyal is that traditional management principles produce conflict between people and the organizations they work for. Task specialization produces narrow, boring jobs that require few skills, which makes each job as mindless as the next. That creates monotony. Also, traditional management is directive, handing out and giving directions, which makes workers dependent and feel like children.

We have to remember that if we want to attract and keep good people, organizations must exist to serve human needs. People and organizations need each other. When the fit between the individual and the organization’s system is poor, one or both suffer. A good fit benefits both by producing the results required for the organization to perpetuate and flourish, creating an environment that engages, motivates and taps into the passion of its human assets.

Workers in an engaging environment will find their work important and meaningful; feel recognized and valued for what they do; learn, grow and improve their skills; feel the freedom to take initiative and responsibility when required; and enjoy being part of and connected to a group of like-minded people with a common purpose.

When one considers creating an organizational environment that will be conducive to employee engagement, the task appears to be daunting, even overwhelming. It can’t be done by holding a company meeting or retreat, issuing an edict to your organization, or following a consultant’s checklist. That’s why not much has changed in our industry since we have been seeking solutions to the problem. Face it, the “status quo” challenges any possible solution or significant change. Most just keep doing business the way they always have, hoping someone will change things for them.

This industry can change, but it will happen only one business, company or organization at a time. Floor Focus publisher Kemp Harr told me about his meeting with John Finch of the Legacy Group in Seattle, Washington, and what he and his cohorts are doing to create an organization where people are engaged and productive.

They have solved a significant part of their installation problem by making their flooring mechanics employees. It’s the first step in building loyalty. They treat their installation crews like the assets that they are and do not treat them as outsiders or as independent contractors. They are part of the team.

This reminds me of Margaret Mead’s quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It takes a major relentless, never-ending commitment on the part of anyone trying to do that. If you want that type of organization, you will have to be proactive and do it yourself.

The Legacy Group understands that organizational structure and finding the right people are important but not sufficient. While most companies are focused on strategy, finance, sales and production, the Legacy Group is focused on building a culture of engagement and performance. Many companies assume that culture is a facade to show you care, but that it is a waste of time and money. Finch understands they are not building a company; they are building a culture.

As, Peter Drucker, the top management thinker of the 20th century, said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The reality is that you don’t run your organization, your organization’s culture does.

Culture has a profound effect on people. It’s basically the rules of behavior. We each have membership in multiple cultures (i.e., family, church, age cohort, gender, work, etc.). Whether we are aware or not, culture has a controlling effect on us when we participate in it. Culture is created by example, not edict. It is both a product and process. It must be continually renewed and recreated as newcomers learn its ways and eventually become teachers. What is needed to create a strong corporate culture that inspires intrinsically motivated, passionate, loyal and dedicated people?

Vision and Mission: People need to be able to articulate the company’s vision clearly and succinctly. Being able to do that helps recruit customers and others to join in.

Company Values: Whether articulated or not, people know what and who is important and valued in any culture. Saying something is valued with no concurrent action is nothing but an empty wind and a wasted gesture. The best cultures value people, customers and employees; treat people with respect and courtesy; and value achievement, productivity and profitability. In addition, people want to be surrounded by co-workers who share their values. That’s why hiring the right people is critical. Their personal values must fit with those of the culture.

Recognition: People want to be celebrated for their successes and valued for their ideas and opinions. It makes them feel important and gives them meaning. Routine ceremonies tell stories of how members perform and celebrate their accomplishments.

Achievement: People want to be part of an organization with clear goals that accomplish hard things.

Purpose: People want to be part of a company that delivers a “double bottom line.” Besides being profitable, people want to work for companies that give back to their communities. The Legacy Group supports its community through donations of time, goods and services. They help the homeless, fix up homes of the elderly and less fortunate-among other things. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with a company like that?

Soul: The essence of high performance is spirit. Banishing play and ceremony would destroy teamwork, not create it. Team building, at its heart, is a spiritual undertaking; peak performance emerges as a team discovers its soul. I’m not sure precisely how it’s attained, but clearly there is evidence of its existence.

Culture holds the power to inspire employees to perform at higher levels, to reach and accomplish difficult goals while benefiting themselves, the company and the community. With great products and the right people, culture seems to be the most sustainable and defensible competitive advantage of them all. We can wait for the industry to change, or we can make it happen for ourselves by building cultures, not companies.

Copyright 2019 Floor Focus