I want to return in this month’s column to a topic I used to talk about a lot but haven’t in a long time: culture. Culture is a word that is getting thrown around a lot these days—and for good reason! I think we are discovering the truth of what Peter Drucker said long ago, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you have the secret sauce of a great culture, the strategy will take care of itself.
Another reason culture is so important is the talent pool of workers seems to be shrinking. Perhaps that’s a generational thing. Or maybe it’s because so many people got a life reset when COVID hit. I’m sure there are many reasons. I’m also sure this situation is way more complex than any one thing or some simple explanation. But the reality remains: the talent pool is shrinking. And this is hitting our industry especially hard. Many of us have been fighting for years to find and keep enough workers to do the work that was coming at us. But what is it that draws and then keeps people engaged with a shop? In a word, culture.
Fewer people are willing to just work a job for a paycheck. They want the environment they work in to be fulfilling, fun even. They want their job to have meaning and be tied to a higher purpose than simply making the owners more money! And they want to be productive. They really do! People aren’t wired for meaningless work where they sit around and just do the minimum to collect a check. If that’s your view of people then you are the problem. Deep down people want to be productive but they need the tools, the opportunity, the affirmation, and the environment to support that. So, if our plan is simply to just “pay more and expect more” we are going to lose in the end. No matter how much marketing and sales we do, if we don’t have talent to get the work out it won’t matter. We’ll just have the same issue: more opportunity than capacity.
We have to get culture right. Our shop’s long-term survival depends on it. But how? How do we get culture right?
Only two things are needed:
- Understand what culture is
- Understand how to influence it
First, what is culture? Every shop has values. Sometimes these values are not stated. Other times they are declared but not adhered to. But in the best shops, they are both clear and reinforced regularly throughout the organization. That is culture: Living out the values and scaling them throughout the whole shop. Things like quality craftsmanship, caring for customers with empathy, being generous to the communities we work in, and offering opportunities for our team to get training and advance in their careers. These are all examples of values. And these values get communicated in the way we hire, fire, review and retain talent. They get expressed by good boundaries—like what we will or will not tolerate. And keep in mind, values are not aspirational (that’s vision) Values are more discovered than made. You already have them. Now it’s time to see if they really represent who you are and will help you build the kind of team and business the world needs more of. And one that will attract and retain talent.
So, how do we influence it?
Here’s my very simple perspective on influencing culture.
All businesses have leaders. Call them founders, owners, managers—it doesn’t matter. There is someone influencing others in the organization at scale. Let’s say a shop has 12 people working in it from front to back. Someone’s job touches all 12 of those people and that person is calling the shots. On any team there are players and there are coaches. The coaches define the culture.
Culture starts with a leader. And for the record, if you’re reading this, that’s likely you. In some capacity, you are leading others. And people are watching you and listening to you for cues on how to work—what to do next, how things get done, what you will tolerate, what you won’t etc. And leaders have both character and tasks. It’s the combo of who they are and what they do. Both of these influence the culture. Are you casting a vision more significant than “let’s just make it to Friday so we can play on the weekends!” Are you cutting corners on repairs to get it out the door or are you reinforcing high-quality through rigorous quality control checks all along the way as vehicles move from one department to the next?
Your shop has a culture and it’s made up of your values. Your values determine what you will and will not tolerate, what you expect, how the work gets done, and why it gets done in the way it does. These are all things under your direct control. And these are the very things that make up your culture.