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The Ambassadors of Culture (A Research Perspective)

By Joe Galvin,
Vistage Chief Research Officer

Managers are the unofficial ambassadors of culture. A CEO sets the vision for culture, but a manager models the behaviors that bring it to life. Their job is to get teams on board with culture and keep them aligned with it.

It’s a big responsibility, and most managers need certain tools and training to do it well. Fortunately, many CEOs are presumably meeting this need: Three-quarters (75%) of leaders are investing in development specifically for managers, according to our survey of 1,584 CEOs of small and midsize businesses. Importantly, many CEOs are also implementing processes and tools to help managers put these skills into practice.

But how, exactly, are CEOs equipping their managers to drive culture? We spoke with 2 Vistage members to find out.

Dave Sweet, photo courtesy of MECCO
Engraving The Culture Through Ritual, Story And Commitment
Dave Sweet | President, MECCO

For the last 10 years, employees at MECCO, a laser-marking company based in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, have met twice a month for donuts and a work meeting.

While donuts are the draw, the real focus is to review the company’s core values and celebrate employees who are exemplifying MECCO’s cultural values. Every manager in the company is asked to nominate employees for a recognition called “Cheers,” and two are selected to tell the story behind their nomination.

Frontline leaders set
the stage for day-to-day work.

“I always ask them, ‘What happened here? Why are we cheering?’” says Dave Sweet, president of MECCO and a 2022 Member Excellence award winner. “It gives folks an opportunity to show appreciation. And it’s a great way for people to get recognized for being a good employee and teammate.”

Getting managers to engage in storytelling goes back to one of the company’s fundamental beliefs: Culture is only effective when people can articulate it, commit to it and put it into practice. It’s also why MECCO decorates its office with signs for “Align with Nine” — a set of nine core behaviors that represent the company’s culture and values.

Much like the Working Together Management System Practices and Principles that former CEO Alan Mulally championed during his time at Boeing and Ford, these values set the foundation for how MECCO operates. By repeatedly communicating and ritualizing these core behaviors, says Sweet, the company helps ensure its managers truly live them every day. “Frontline leaders set the stage for day-to-day work,” he says. “It’s critical for them to have the right attitude and the right behaviors.” He offers this example: MECCO recently received an unusual request from an automotive manufacturer. The manufacturer asked if MECCO, which specializes in laser marking, was capable of laser welding two pieces of plastic together.

The short answer was no. But because of the company’s values — namely, providing innovative solutions, responding with urgency and designing for success — the team didn’t want to turn the manufacturer away. “We said to them, ‘We have no idea if we can do this, but we’ll spend half a day with you or longer and try to figure it out,’” Sweet explains. In the end, an application manager and two engineers came up with a viable solution. Today, the auto manufacturer is MECCO’s biggest customer.

Beyond communicating culture, MECCO uses a tool to quantify it. Through a software platform called Rhabit, the company monitors the performance of managers and their impact on culture. Once a week, Rhabit sends MECCO employees a few questions about their manager, which they can quickly answer on their phone by swiping left or right. That feedback then feeds into each manager’s profile, which Sweet can use as a guide for coaching and discussions during one-to-one meetings.

“If a manager is not living up to the culture, we can use this tool to pick up on it,” explains Sweet. “I’m always open to other viewpoints. But our core values and behaviors are non-negotiable. You’ve got to adhere to those.”

Taking Care Of Each Other, Authentically
Ellen Wood | President & CEO, vcfo

For many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to culture. But not vcfo, a professional services firm that provides solutions in finance, recruiting and HR.

“I would say, if anything, the pandemic strengthened it,” explains Ellen Wood, President & CEO of vcfo. She has the retention numbers to prove it. Wood gives credit to the company’s frontline managers in particular for afeguarding culture during the toughest moments of the crisis.

The managers “routinely checked on every single employee to make sure they and their families were OK,” she says. “We wanted to know if there was something the company could do for them. For example, if they were sick, we could give them additional time off. If they didn’t have enough work, we could figure out a way to make sure they weren’t losing money.” vcfo managers also took the initiative to launch “Lunch and Learns” over Zoom, organizing lunch deliveries to the homes of every employee. That’s no small feat, given that vcfo has consultants dispersed across Austin, Dallas, Denver and Houston. But taking care of people is integral to the company’s culture, Wood explains. It’s fully embraced by managers from day one because vcfo embeds culture into the hiring process. Candidates undergo a rigorous process to screen for cultural fit.

Ellen Wood, photo courtesy of vcfo

“We don’t just look if they can do the job,” says Wood. “We look at whether they demonstrate each of our values as they go through their work experience with us. And we ask questions targeted at finding out how a candidate feels about what we consider to be critical values.”

Once on board, managers have several tools at their disposal for modeling those values and keeping people accountable for them. For example, they’re taught to use the “Kudos” channel on Slack to give compliments to their colleagues, clients and partners when they do something that reinforces culture. Since 2018, the company has also used the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) to continually communicate its vision and purpose. The system has a feature that allows colleagues to share conversations about culture that take place in department meetings across its four locations.

Our leaders are very aligned on what our culture is, how to model it and what we will and will not tolerate.

“It has been a fabulous enhancement for our company-wide communication, which is critical — especially for a dispersed workforce like ours — in messaging culture,” says Wood. “Our leaders are very aligned on what our culture is, how to model it and what we will and will not tolerate.”

The strength of that commitment was especially clear last year when vcfo marked its 25th anniversary. The milestone was a cause for celebration. But instead of blowing money on a big party, vcfo used those funds (and more) to donate $100,000 to charitable endeavors.

The reason? Their culture of “doing the right thing.”

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A Research Perspective