Decoding Culture

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Snow professionals dive deep into what makes a winning corporate culture, how it's established, and how to maintain it for the long term.

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April 22, 2021

Many business professionals espouse the virtues of company culture as the panacea for all things related to business. And without a doubt, culture is directly related to success in that you don’t see many profitable companies with toxic cultures, at least not for long.

The spotlight really shown on the concept of culture during the 1990s tech boom when dot-com millionaire executives showed off sprawling campuses and office spaces loaded with foosball tables, napping rooms, and all the breakfast cereal employees can eat. From these playgrounds young execs hailed their visions of culture as the modern way of doing businesses. However, as history would prove out, many of these overnight tech execs mistakenly interpreted this as the formula for a successful culture.

I’ve discussed with professionals in the snow and ice management industry the secrets to successful culture, and nearly all of them summed it up with one word: People. You see, while it’s the leaders who drive a company’s culture, it’s the employees who are expected to live and breath these concepts every day from the staging areas on to the job sites. Without good people who buy into the values established at the top, no culture can be successful.

I wanted to decode this even further and really get to the heart of what it means to drive a sustainable culture in the snow and ice management industry. For this article I choose a handful of snow professional whom I’ve gotten to know both personally and professional through the years and I’ve come to admire them for not only the cultures they preside over, but also for how they built success through their unique, people-centric cultures.

Troy Clogg. President and founder of Troy Clogg Landscape Associates based in Wixom, Mich. Troy, who’s been in the industry for the better part of three decades, is a frequent contributor to Snow Magazine as well as a recipient of our Leadership Award. Troy has built a culture around teamwork and family values, and many of his mantras are emblazoned on the walls of his headquarters.

Joshua Steven Gámez. As the CEO of East Coast Facilities, Joshua is a rising star in snow and ice, as well as the landscape services market. He is a strong advocate for investing in labor development and generating success through teamwork and culture. Joshua is proud of his employees and routinely celebrates their success via an active social media presence that resonates with positivity.

David Lammers. President and co-founder of Garden Grove Landscapes based in Waterdown, Ontario. David credits culture as the cornerstone to his company’s success in snow and ice management and landscape services. In recent years, his company has taken an academic approach to preparing their workforce for what’s expected from their unique culture. David is recent Leadership Award recipient.

I wanted to present their ideas as a free-flowing analysis on building and sustaining culture. Instead of a combined dialogue, I chose to interview each individual separately to avoid coloring or influencing each other’s responses. The real keys to unlocking their valuable insights are within their honest responses, each delving into what it truly means to have a successful culture.
There’s an old phrase: “Do what your parents want you to do even when they’re not watching.” It’s the same thing with your culture in the work world. When you perform according to your culture, then you behave that way even when no one is watching.”
— Troy Clogg

– Mike Zawacki, Editor

WHY IS CULTURE SO IMPORTANT TO A COMPANY’S SUCCESS?

LAMMERS: First and foremost, culture gets everyone rolling in the right direction and pulling the same line. It’s paramount because culture becomes the stuff you eat, drink and breath. Your culture forms your habits and from that you set the expectations.

I would say a company’s success is based on that because culture becomes the lifeblood of what we’re doing. When you have everyone rolling in the same direction – sleeping, eating and drinking the same things – then you’ve got success. Culture generates your momentum and forms these healthy habits.

CLOGG: I view culture as the master plan for how a company behaves, the results it gets and where it is going. So, you must lead the culture that you want. I like to use the analogy of remodeling a home. It all starts with a picture of what we want. That picture comes with so many more things than just the dimensions it takes to get built.

Any leader has to pay attention to the fact that without that [vision], no one knows what they’re building or what they’re working on. All they know is they’re carrying a 2x4 around and it needs to go somewhere.

GÁMEZ: Culture puts life into the body. It is the soul of the business.

You can have all of the essential moving parts for the body, but without the soul it’s not going to do you much good. Culture defines the character of that business. It individualizes the business and makes it unique.

IS CULTURE ORGANIC? OR IS THERE A FORMULA FOR ITS CREATION WITHIN AN ORGANIZATION?

GÁMEZ: There are principles that can be followed. But again, it goes back to how a business owner wants to build his organization.

Some business owners – in fact, many – are not interested in building a culture. They might be in lip service, but ultimately they’re not really interested. They’re either just running the business off the numbers game, or they’re so disorganized and challenged that they can’t even step out of the woods to see the trees.

CLOGG: Culture is the direct reflection of ownership/leadership. As a native Detroiter, I like to use the example of the Detroit Lions. They’ve been owned by the same family since the 1950s and they haven’t won the Super Bowl since. So, even though it makes money, they historically don’t win. So, it is a direct reflection of leadership for what you really want.

LAMMERS: There’s definitely a formula. I was just saying to my brother in a business meeting recently that if we don’t set the tone and we don’t set the direction for our culture then our staff will set the direction for it on their own and decide for themselves what they think the culture is.

Here’s a good real-life example. We hired a photographer to follow our crews around and photograph everything we do. Now everything we do is under the limelight. All of our habits, all the little things we do, all of our “-isms,” and how we do things will all be caught in those pictures. So, what if a team member isn’t wearing their safety glasses or their ear protection? What if they’re not wearing their branded uniform, or what if that uniform is really dirty? What if the safety pylons aren’t laid out correctly on the street? All of these things – the work ethic, the pride, the attention to safety and detail – they all reflect our culture.

CLOGG: Certainly, I looked at culture differently when I was in my 20s than I do now when I’m in my 50s. And it had to be brought to my attention that it is a direct reflection of who’s running the business. Then it builds from there. If the person running the company doesn’t want to follow the system, then it doesn’t work.

GÁMEZ: The first thing a business owner needs to do is determine what type of organization he wants to preside over. Is it a churn-and-burn organization? Is it what we call a people-first organization? Is it a profit-first organization? You’ve got to start there and answer that question first.

LAMMERS: Culture is not the company barbecue. That’s merely celebrating our culture.

MANY LEADERS AGREE THAT CULTURE IS A TOP-DOWN CONSTRUCT. SO, DOES CULTURE INFLUENCE ACCOUNTABILITY OR DOES ACCOUNTABILITY INFLUENCE CULTURE?

CLOGG: That’s a chicken-or-the-egg question. Which one really comes first?

We have a lot of discussions about accountability and when it exists and when it doesn’t, and which micro sections of the company behave differently than the others. So, I’m not sure I have an exact answer for which comes first, but if culture is not expected [by the leadership] then it certainly won’t happen on its own over the long term.

GÁMEZ: It depends on what an owner wants to build. A business owner needs to determine what type of business culture they want to build for their company, or how he wants to alter his company in order to improve. Then you need to consider the principles involved.

You can have bad cultures and you can have bad principles. For example, a bad principle would be win at all costs. A good principle would be win as a team. With both principles the goal is to win, but we’re just taking two different paths.

One principle for “win as a team” is you’ve got to have teamwork, integrity, honesty and transparency with your team. But if you’re “win at all costs,” then you’re going to have a whole different set of principles.

It’s assumed when you talk about business culture that it’s something positive, but that’s not necessarily the case. Culture is totally reliant on the business’ leadership and whether it’s going to be a positive business culture.

LAMMERS: I would say it’s both. When you’ve got a healthy culture, accountability is created within that culture on its own. When you have everyone – when they’re tugging the same line – they know when an individual isn’t doing their part. Now when the team sees the company way isn’t being followed, then that’s company culture at work. That’s the team holding itself accountable according to the culture you [as the leader] set.

Leadership has to be accountable to the same thing, too. If we have a policy that beyond a certain point it’s all hardhats and safety boots, then I – as the owner, as a manager and as a leader – will be adhering to that. And if not, then I expect to be called out for that.

GÁMEZ: I believe accountability is the result of culture. For instance, our business culture at East Coast Facilities includes discipline and structure. That discipline and structure inherently leads to accountability within the organization.

Here’s an example of the culture-discipline structure. We’re pretty well known for having a very structured exit in the morning where our teams line up in very structured formations and go through a very structured set of evolutions before they go out into the field. When the crews are there for the muster meetings, all of that leads to an element of accountability within the organization. As a result, it’s a lot easier conversation to have with those team members about an area that needs improvement because they’re already absorbed into the culture of discipline and accountability.

Accountability is the end result. Otherwise, it’s just lip service. A lot of people talk about accountability, but they don’t really run a tight ship that demonstrates accountability within their business organization.

CLOGG: I do believe the design of the culture creates the accountability. In my history, I’ve seen that people who are drawn to accountability, and therefore their own success, they stick around. And those who historically don’t like to be held accountable, well, they leave.

It’s assumed when you talk about business culture that it’s something positive, but that not necessarily the case. Culture is totally reliant on the business’ leadership and whether it’s going to be a positive business culture.”
— Joshua GÁMEZ

WHAT COMMON MISTAKES DO COMPANIES MAKE WHEN IT COMES TO ESTABLISHING CULTURE?

LAMMERS: They make the mistake that the culture is the company barbecue, or that the perks the company offers employees are a reflection of the culture. Culture isn’t one thing only. Culture has to come back to the things you do and who you’re doing them for.

Culture is not about just wearing branded uniforms. Culture is about having a philosophy for how you run your business and the principles that govern what you do. Culture is our quality management system and how we do our work and represent ourselves from the very beginning [to clients and the community].

GÁMEZ: Often, leaders manage their business cultures based on next week’s payroll. Many businesses are challenged financially because they’re not run with fiscal responsibility. This puts a lot of stress on the business. So, even if they look shiny on the outside many are not shiny.

[As a result], the business owner will divert attention and resources and focus on what I call the “Friday Football” – and corporate America calls this the “90-Day Football” – between the quarterly closes. It’s really important that a business owner understands that as long as they’re focused on the Friday Football and not on the business culture, then that Friday Football is never going to change. It’s a viscous cycle.

The common mistake is being caught up in survival and not on building. Instead, they’re trying to survive and trying to get through the next week or the next month. They’re not focused on investing and building because, when we’re talking culture, there’s a huge up-front investment required and you don’t see dividends on the front end, you see the dividends on the back end.

LAMMERS: And it comes right back to your hiring processes and your recruitment unit. We’re looking for snow professionals. We market our company [to perspective employees] like we market for sales. When people see we’re hiring for snow professionals we literally are saying “All snow, no fluff.” We have all of these key words in our marketing and branding statements that reflect who we are and it presents a culture that is very serious about the job we do. When we say that we’re snow pros we’re not only saying that we’re looking for the best, but we’re also highlighting our onboard and training process and that they’re expected to complete that before they get on a piece of equipment. This is just one thing, but it ties all together with everything else that makes up our culture.

Culture extends to everything we do and it’s why we do what we do.

CLOGG: A lot of people get into the industry, at least on the smaller scale, to make a buck. Either they think there’s a lot of money in it right out of the gate or it’s better than the job they had before. There’s so many of us in the service trades that just want to be accountable to ourselves and have a hard time fitting into a system and working for someone. All of these things go into who goes into business for themselves.

Some of the biggest mistakes are not knowing your costs and basing price on what competitors or contractors in other markets are charging for the same work. At the end of the day, too many people get focused on the wrong things and fail to see how instrumental good people are to their overall success.

A buddy of mine likes to say, “People before profit.” If you can’t build the right team then all of that other stuff is pretty insignificant.

AS THE LEADER, HOW DO YOU DIAGNOSE WHETHER YOUR CULTURE IS HEALTHY AND WORKING AS YOU INTENDED?

GÁMEZ: For diagnosing [culture], I’m using simple metrics. Basically, I’m looking at whether your retention rates are huge and [the tone] of exit interviews. We always try to conduct exit interviews, especially if it’s with a tenured employee. Another piece is performance reviews with every employee every year. For us, it’s a very formal process where the employee sits down with their managers and goes through a whole series of bedrock issues that measures their performance and issues them a score. This allows us the kind of feedback – along with our regular, structured meetings and open dialogue – that assesses our culture.

We’re employee-first, so it’s in our core competencies as an organization. So, we engaged our frontline with decision-making and dialogue. All of these things together give us a pretty accurate picture of our end goal as a culture.

CLOGG: Measurables are important against the vision or mission of the company.

Back to my earlier example of needing a blueprint for a remodel, that vision has to describe how things will look, feel and be measured. It has to outline what is the vision of success. We try to do our best to narrow these down in each job description and what makes those positions successful. All of that put together and measured against where you’re going indicates whether or not your culture is working.

[Leaders] make the mistake that the culture is the company barbecue, or that the perks the company offers employees are a reflection of the culture.
— David Lammers

I say this all of the time, but it’s true: “Beliefs and behaviors drive results.” And the results are the measurable stuff.

LAMMERS: It does show up, and often it shows up in little ways and not necessarily really big ways. Everything starts small before it gets big. When you see someone consistently coming in late to work that’s a small sign something isn’t right and this individual is out of alignment with our culture.

The values of your business are critical. If those values are not being lived and breathed by individuals, then you start to see it in little ways.

For instance, much of our culture is driven by the value of communication. So, when you have a team member who is not communicating – not showing up for meetings, not speaking in meetings, not providing feedback – then these are little tangible ways this person is no longer abiding by your culture.

Now, we can retrain an individual and reteach what is expected from them in the culture we’ve established. But if that proves not to work, then that person is demonstrating they no longer are buying into the culture, they don’t value the pillars you’ve established, and they no longer want to be there for the long term. And when we hire, we want people who align with our culture and are buying into what we’re doing for the long term.

As the leader, you have to watch for these symptoms because they will show up and they will begin to eat away at your culture and what you’re building.

HOW MUCH TIME AND EFFORT DOES A LEADER NEED TO COMMIT TO CULTURE?

GÁMEZ: This is a great question because it provokes a couple of thoughts about culture [as an evolving entity].

There are workflows, processes and procedures, policies and those can be mostly written or sometimes verbally established. I don’t necessarily believe culture can be written or verbally established. Culture comes down to the principles that are being driven down by the leader.

As a comparison, consider ethnic cultures. I’m Mexican-American, so the music we listen to and the foods we like to eat are very different to, let’s say someone who is Panamanian. They’re different cultures, right. The foods are different with different flavors, there are different dances specific to the cultures, and there are different dialects and so on. There is no written book that says, “This is what the Mexican culture is and that’s what the Panamanian culture is,” and for good reason. They’re just beautiful cultures.

So, I caution people who try to structure and define culture. Instead, I point them toward establishing the principles and values that they’re going to drive as the culture within their organizations.

LAMMERS: I would say a lot of time because it ties back to everything we do. We need to make sure we are spending a lot of time on our culture and everything that affects our culture.

Since culture is about your way of doing things and who you are, I would say we’re spending almost all of our time on those things that affect our culture. For example, review and structuring the weekly calendar to ensure we’re using our time wisely and we’re being more effective with the right people … doing that action to make sure you’re more efficient is culture. It’s ensuring everyone knows what they’re doing and what needs to be done so we’re all in alignment and moving forward together.

And then you need to reflect on whether you’re leading a positive or negative culture. Are we reinforcing the right culture, and do we demonstrate the vision in everything we’re doing? Are we encouraging our people or are we being negative and harping on everything, sowing the seeds of frustration?

CLOGG: I’m not sure how this is going to sound, but I’d have to say virtually 100 percent of your time should be focused on your culture. Every owner has a different role, but we all need to get up and walk around our businesses and see that culture in action for ourselves. There’s something to be said for visiting job sites or sitting in a truck with someone while they plow snow or walking the hallways or mechanical facilities as equipment is being worked on. All the while, you need to pay 100% attention to whether what you’re observing is the culture you’re looking for, is that the culture you designed, and is it the culture we expect from one another.

GÁMEZ: Always. Culture is part of the DNA of the business. It’s not a light switch in that you don’t turn it on and off.

So why [devote so much time to culture]? Well, culture creates a more fulfilling place to work and a better place for your team members and employees to thrive. Oh, and by the way, you can make a lot of money – but that’s the last piece. I think if you really care [about your culture] then the rest is going to all fall into place.

CLOGG: There’s an old phrase: “Do what your parents want you to do even when they’re not watching.” It’s the same thing with your culture in the work world. When you perform according to your culture, then you behave that way even when no one is watching.

Now, in saying that, I also believe that people in your organization need to be routinely reminded what your culture is and what defines your culture and how and why you do what you do. Continue to drive that and you’ll experience success with your culture.

So, yes. I believe culture is almost 100 percent of a leaders time. Once you let go of the culture you’re going to end up with a different culture.