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How to Create a Purpose-Driven Culture

A carefully crafted company culture can make or break what you do.


The culture at South Valley Drywall in Colorado—its focus, especially, on integrity—is tested with every mistake.



In a recent tenant improvement, for example, the firm tried out a new layout tool. The technology saved time but failed to detect a building core 12 inches off center. South Valley crews had erected two floors of cold-formed steel framing. Then, they tore it down and started over.



“We had to man-up and redo it at no cost to our client,” says Duane Haynie, commercial division manager at South Valley Drywall. “It was our mistake. We trusted the technology quicker than we should have.”

    

The decision cost the company $35,000. But Haynie says making good over the error was worth it. The GC is now sold on South Valley’s commitment to keep its projects on track.

    

And Haynie? Did he chew out the foreman and superintendent for failing to work carefully? No. He treated them with dignity, as is the South Valley way.

    

“We don’t scream and yell around here,” he says. “If I yell at you, you will yell back. I will yell louder. You will yell louder. We’ll get mad, and nothing will get accomplished.”

    

Yes, it was a costly mistake. Yes, it tested everyone’s nerves. But honesty, integrity and positivity carried the day.



The Power of Higher Purpose

If you think the subject of culture is touchy-feely fluff, think again. Culture-focused companies realize higher financial returns, achieve better customer satisfaction scores, boost their employee retention and achieve greater innovation in the marketplace, experts say.

    

Firms with high levels of employee engagement have lower absenteeism and turnover, says John Baldoni in the 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Employee Engagement Does More than Boost Productivity.” Such firms, he says, have fewer safety incidents and fewer defects in their work. The workers are more vigilant and take interest in their workmates, he says.

    

Culture harnesses “the power of higher organizational purpose,” say authors Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor in the 2018 HBR article, “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization.”

    

“A higher purpose is not about economic exchanges,” Quinn and Thakor say. “It reflects something more aspirational. It explains how the people involved with an organization are making a difference, gives them a sense of meaning, and draws their support.”

    

A strong culture helps employees “break free of old, tired behaviors” and bring “their smarts and creativity to their jobs,” Quinn and Thakor say. But this happens only when a purpose-driven leader steps in “to connect the people to their purpose,” they add.

    

Whether you admit it or not, your organization has a culture. Culture is always at work in the background operating as a baseline system.

    

“You put people together and let them do what they do, and that creates a culture,” says Dina Cipollaro-Beck, a trainer with Fundamental Training Solutions in Phoenix. “Executives who don’t worry about culture, or don’t think they have one, probably have a poor culture at work.”

    

It comes down to the leaders. Company values derive from the actions and behaviors of the leaders. So, what kind of leader are you? A strict, rule-oriented and domineering type? Or something else? Find out what you are, and don’t be afraid in this instance of a little fluff.

    

“Joyful leaders,” says the book “Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear,” are “authentic, humble, loving, optimistic, visionary, grounded in reality.”



“Wired to Contribute”

But how do you instill this kind of leadership in others and affect a culture for the good? Specifically, how do you build a culture of integrity on top of a corporate system focused on the bottom line?

    

“Value your employees,” says Cipollaro-Beck. “Employees want to feel cared for. Achieve that and everything else will unfold in a beautiful way.”

    

Unfortunately, firms often fail to make culture initiatives a part of their strategy. They leave culture formulation as something to do later, or they scribble out a few token thoughts on the subject. This is a mistake.

    

“Purpose-driven culture doesn’t follow from an impeccably crafted 12-word purpose statement painted on office walls or delivered in a 90-second video of happy people frolicking in the mountain air,” says Nell Derick Debevoise in “How Not to Build a Purpose-Driven Culture” on Forbes.com.

    

Employers who build intriguing places to work take advantage of human nature. People, Debevoise says, are “wired to contribute to the success of our communities.”

    

“Making this investment and trusting their employees to build purpose from the ground up is what increasingly differentiates the employers of choice,” he adds.

    

Instead of thinking of culture as a set of controls—rules that apply to this situation or that—purpose-driven leaders focus on outcomes. They align people’s interests with business interests. They empower employees to make decisions. The result is employees “try new things, move into deep learning, take risks, and make surprising contributions,” Quinn and Thakor say.

    

“Transformational leadership is about helping people see and embrace a specific vision. Then, helping each individual understand how their particular role is fundamental in the creation of that vision,” says Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “Leadership is about removing complexity and ambiguity.”

    

Here’s how it works in the industry.



We Are Family

“We treat everyone like family,” says Adam Navratil, CFO at J&B Acoustical, Inc. in Ohio and an AWCI board member.

    

J&B Acoustical, a family-owned business founded in 1957, has 90 employees with 65 working in the field. The firm’s culture-driven managers know everybody by name. They visit job sites often. They host events to show their appreciation—a bowling outing, golf outing, skeet shoots and breakfasts. Some events are companywide, others are by division.

    

J&B likes to keep things simple. The firm, Navratil says, has not published a formal set of values. Company executives don’t have time to compose value statements as larger companies do, Navratil says. Instead, J&B managers discuss at weekly meetings ways to maintain a fulfilling work life for employees.

    

“The inherent values we want are already here,” Navratil says. “We’re a rural company with little turnover. We don’t hire cut-throat people.”

    

That is, the firm won’t hire candidates who expect special treatment or who might cross the company line of integrity just to complete a sale.

    

“We don’t do ‘side deals.’ We don’t have stipends or kickbacks—no cutting corners to get work,” Navratil says. “No one is rewarded on their own performance.”

    

The right candidates are willing to work shoulder to shoulder with others. They’ll take on tasks outside their scope from time to time. These types of people tend to be lifers and explain why J&B’s turnover rate is low. And finding such people to hire has not been a problem for the firm.

    

“In all the time I’ve worked here, we’ve asked only one person to leave,” Navratil says.



The Fun Factor

Chip McAlpin, president of the Jackson, Miss., division of F.L. Crane & Sons and also an AWCI executive committee member, says the key to achieving a family work atmosphere comes from the top.

    

“It’s a family-oriented company, even though we have grown so much since I first started here,” McAlpin says. F.L. Crane has 600 employees and 13 divisions. The Jackson division has 60 employees. Managers strive for one-on-one contact with everyone in the company. This bolsters the work ethic of all. The result is people work harder and for longer hours, McAlpin says. The interest shown on the part of managers is genuine and personal.

    

“Some managers know their employees’ kids’ names. They’re busy with their days, but they still find time to attend their employees’ kids’ Little League games.”

    

"We’ve never been coached to learn everyone’s names,” McAlpin adds. “It’s probably just something we do in the south.”

    

F.L. Crane management meeting agendas often include the topic of employee morale. How do they measure results in this area? McAlpin says it’s by the sound of laughter they note in the hallways, out in the yards and on the job sites.

    

“Early in the morning here in the warehouse, it’s just a fun time,” McAlpin says. “Of course, we start the day talking about business, but everyone is just having fun.”



Relationships Are Key

One AWCI member contractor, who prefers to remain anonymous, says his managers view culture as a work in progress.

    

“We continually evaluate what jobs to bid based on scope, who the contractor or owner is and our experience with them and more specifically the project manager, the proximity of the job to our office and workers, and the amount of work we have for a given period of time,” he says. “We are probably never the low-price bidder since we do the best quality work, keep the same crew on the job throughout its duration, work safely and train our people in safety, do some of the customer’s and architect’s work and actually finish everything we start, even if we’re losing money.”

    

Success is a function of having strong customer relationships, he says. That’s how you get jobs, he says, and why relationships must be preserved at all costs.

    

“Certainly we deal with some real jerks,” he says, “but we need to rise above that level and be courteous and professional.”

    

Thus, the cultural norm propagating throughout this firm is one of responsibility: Be a loyal company ambassador 24/7.

    

“One screw-up can lose our good reputation,” he teaches his employees. “Each of us is a salesperson for the company.”



When a Project Cannot Fail

“We’re in a relationship-based business no matter what anybody says, and we’re not a low-bid contractor,” says South Valley’s Haynie. “We have to have a good understanding of our clients’ needs and perform on their projects so that they want to use us. When they have a project that cannot fail, we want to be the only firm they think of.”

    

Some companies work as opportunists. They look for holes in the construction plans when bidding. After the job is underway, they pile on a mountain of change orders to garner more revenue.

    

South Valley Drywall is different, Haynie says. His company culture focuses on putting customer interests ahead of its own and not taking advantage of poor plans. This way, South Valley provides a complete scope of work, and the customer will appreciate it in the long run.

    

“When they go with a guy who is 15 percent lower, but at the end of the job is 20 percent over budget, they realize what we were trying to do,” Haynie says. “Sometimes they learn the lesson the hard way.”



Speak Up or Else …

Cipollaro-Beck tells the story of a friend who works for a drywall firm. Her friend loves his job and the company. Management has always been there to support him—until now.

    

Management sent Cipollaro-Beck’s friend to fix a problematic job 74 miles from company headquarters. After three weeks, they delivered an ultimatum: Make the job profitable, or hand in your resignation. Cipollaro-Beck’s friend asked the company to provide local lodging. The company denied the request. Company policy. The job site was less than 90 miles away. He could lose his job. But they wouldn’t budge on 16 miles.

    

“I’m 16 miles short of getting a room near the job site,” the project manager said. “I’m expected to hit a deadline, but do I really have their backing?”

    

No, he does not. Nor does anyone else in the company at this point. The company culture is unraveling. A new culture—“We don’t care about you; we care about the bottom line”—is now spreading among the personnel. The outrageous decision to let 16 miles interfere with a key employee feeling valued is downgrading the value all employees feel. One person can mess up everything.

    

“I call that negative person a skunk,” Cipollaro-Beck says. “Skunks spray on others, and pretty soon everyone is irritated. Somebody has to have the guts to walk up to that person and let them know that everything they say and do is taking the culture in the wrong direction.”

    

But what if the problem person is the owner’s son? Speak up, or else look for a new job, Cipollaro-Beck says.

    

“Millennials and Gen Z are looking for the right culture,” Cipollaro-Beck says. “They will job search to find the right culture. They will leave a job if it does not have the right fit.”

    

Today, construction cultures need to be collaborative. That’s necessary to engage young workers, which is why company leaders need to pursue culture as an important strategy in acquiring and retaining talent.

    

“It’s matter of self-reflection,” Cipollaro-Beck says. “Sit. Evaluate. Look at your team and ask the question, ‘What do I need to do to create more desirable action and behavior?’ Sometimes the answer is to let go of a bad apple.”



Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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