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Take Ownership of Your Culture

Take Ownership of Your Culture
Research shows that culture is critical to performance. Learn how two Vistage members created theirs.
By Joe Galvin,
Vistage Chief Research Officer

Executives understand the power of culture, but they often feel unsatisfied by their own. In Vistage’s report “Creating a Conscious Culture,” input from 1,518 CEOs and business leaders showed that 63% “strongly agree” that culture is critical to their company’s success. But only 11% of executives were satisfied with their company culture.

Why does this culture gap exist? Too many executives allow culture to develop organically, leaving it to the whim of strong personalities and office politics. But a good culture can’t be left to chance. Companies must hone their mission, vision, purpose and core values as foundational elements of culture. Employees must feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

A winning culture includes four fundamentals:

1. Fused by trust
2. Defined by elements such as behavior, rituals and communication
3. Bound by a mission and values
4. Powered by a shared purpose

Two Vistage members — Paul Esch and Julie Mueller — once left their company cultures to chance. They’ve since built engaging, value-based cultures powered by transparency and a shared mission. Here are their stories.

Case Study: Paul Esch
CEO of Concrete Value Corp.,
Sacramento, CA
Culture Pays Off for All

Paul Esch created his company’s mission and value statements and then made them easy and lucrative for employees to follow.

In 2005, Paul Esch surveyed his employees, vendors and customers. He was concerned by the results. Too many people cited his name rather than the company’s, making Esch worry that people saw Concrete Value Corp. (CVC) as a oneman show. For CVC to thrive, people would have to trust the company, not just him.

With the help of a Vistage speaker, Esch created CVC’s mission and value statements, both of which fit neatly on the back of every employee’s business card. They started with the C-V-C in CVC Holdings, crafting a simple vision statement: “Creating Value for Customers.” From there, the mission statement was created: “Identify and provide concrete values that are critical to the success of our customers.” The last step was to form the value statement, which is represented by the acronym VALUES:

Verify the ideal outcome
Analyze the design and scope to maximize value
Leverage our knowledge
Utilize our resources
Exceed our customers’ expectations
Safety and training employees on processes

2019 Vistage Lifetime Award winner Paul Esch presents at an annual event where employee bonuses were distributed.

Esch says that he has seen vast cultural improvements since making these changes. “This company became incredibly easy to run,” he says. “People that work for us look out for each other because they’re only successful together.”

Coming out of the recession, Esch implemented an incentive program driven by the idea that success comes through collaboration. CVC’s Save the Waste program gives equal cash bonuses to managers and laborers as a reward for reducing worksite waste. During the first year of the program, CVC saved enough to give each employee a $500 bonus. At the end of last year, each of CVC’s 870 employees received a bonus check for over $4,000. The program has also paid off for CVC’s business. Esch says that CVC’s market share in Northern California grew from 13% to between 22% and 25%.

The incentive program, as well as CVC’s culture, can still grow along with the business. But Esch is in no rush. He knows that culture is built slowly, brick by brick, starting at the top of the company and becoming truly successful only when it reaches frontline employees. This will continue to happen over time, he believes.

“Our culture and our incentive programs affirm our values,” Esch says. “It isn’t that money in itself drives people. It’s really a question of whether they have something to work toward. If the company does better, they’re going to do better. It creates a win for everybody.”

Case Study: Julie Mueller
CEO of Custom Design Benefits,
Cincinnati, OH
An Intentional Change in Culture

To set her company apart, Julie Mueller created a culture dedicated to extraordinary client service.

Despite receiving top workplace awards over the years, Julie Mueller noticed something was off with the culture at Custom Design Benefits. She detected a growing us-versus-them mentality that was driving employee disengagement at some levels.

The path forward became clear when Mueller saw David Friedman, CEO of High Performing Culture, speak at a Vistage meeting. After listening to Friedman’s presentation, she realized she needed to define her company’s culture to reflect her values.

Mueller brought in Friedman to help her redefine her company’s culture and steer it back to one built on open communication, trust and clear expectations. After months of work, she implemented 23 behaviors for employees, naming them “The Custom Way.” The fundamentals include honoring commitments, listening generously and speaking openly. The Custom Way also describes what Custom Design Benefits is, how employees do their work, and how they treat clients, partners and each other. In late 2018, Mueller held company-wide meetings with employees over 2 1/2 days, to help them adopt The Custom Way.

Custom Design Benefits employees celebrate Wear Red Day for the American Heart Association.

Mueller has seen a more trusting and positive culture emerge, a culture she has intentionally created. Each week, the company focuses on one fundamental behavior and promotes how it drives success. Employees commend each other when they see these behaviors, while management evaluates and recognizes employees each quarter on these areas. It paid off: One of the 23 fundamentals is “own it,” and Mueller has noticed more people taking on tasks that aren’t necessarily their own. She hears employees say, “Let me take care of that.”

Mueller says that she leads and builds trust through transparency. She shares the results of both employee and client satisfaction surveys with her team so they know where the company stands. Business leaders use The Custom Way to provide feedback and recognition. And while employees live the culture, Mueller knows that she has to be deliberate in how she sets the tone. “It has to be from the CEO,” she says.

In this year’s “Best Places to Work Survey,” five months after The Custom Way was implemented, Mueller was excited by how many employees gave engaged, laudatory responses about the new culture in the survey results. This led to Custom Design Benefits being once again named one of Cincinnati’s Top Workplaces.

“Our employees are owning the culture,” Mueller says. “It’s got to come from the top, but now it’s living and breathing in all of our employees. And that is the ultimate goal.”

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A Research Perspective