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As many of you know, I have hosted my podcast, “Distribution Talk,” for the past three years — I recently celebrated my 100th episode. For a guy who squeaked his way into and out of college, this is a pretty big surprise. The reactions are funny when people from my past find out I have been a published author for the past 18 years and host a successful podcast.
People can change; you don’t have to be who others expect you to be. The same goes for multigenerational family businesses. The entity may have looked a certain way and conducted itself in a certain manner, but it doesn’t need to remain that way. I have heard this a lot from the guests I interview and the clients I serve — time to share it with you all.
About a year ago, I saw a post from a friend of mine, Jeff Peterson of Geneva Supply. Jeff is an inspirational leader with a keen eye on company culture and how to evolve as the company scales at a blistering pace. In this post, he said something to the effect of “company culture is not a ping-pong table in the break room.”
I don’t know why this struck me, but it got me thinking about creating deep cultural shifts in the organization versus surface-level window dressing. Sure, a ping-pong table or stocked break room might signal a fun environment, but it doesn’t address the deep-seated barriers to equity, inclusion and belonging in our organizations.
By the way, Jeff runs a great series on his LinkedIn profile tagged #BeforeIGoIn. He sits in his car before he goes into the office and talks about how to be a better leader through employee engagement and observation. Jeff grew up in some very male-dominated, stogy industries and has led his organization to be the company that most of us wish we could be. Do yourself a favor and check out his profile.
Culture Perceptions Out of Alignment
The first step to changing your culture is to identify where it is today. I recently interviewed Diane Dye Hansen of What Works Consultants. Her firm specializes in helping business leaders identify their current culture and create strategies to change.
During our conversation, she suggested that most leaders are out of alignment with the associates in their workforce. They perceive the culture to be a certain way, but the associates view it differently. This causes mistrust and resentment between the two sides and can slowly begin to affect performance.
Her suggestion was to spend time identifying what the associates think about the company’s direction. Although it may sound a little self-serving, she suggests that this information gathering should be performed by a third party to remove bias and promote a level of safety. Some of your associates are bold enough to tell you what’s really going on, but many fear passive retribution. Can you blame them?
Once you identify misalignment and truly desire to make a change, create a plan of action. What are you willing to do differently? How open are you to accepting suggestions for nonsenior associates? This may be a tough one to overcome. I have seen several next-generation leaders so mired in fear of sinking the entity that they are unwilling to embark on a cultural shift. It worked for the previous generation; why not now?
I have said it before and will say it again — you only coast one way. Look at some of the most successful companies in the distribution business. Do you think they run their entity the same way they did 20 years ago? Do the faces of leadership look the same?
The Language of Change
Education is key to changing culture. I am not asking you to bring in a guy like me or one of my colleagues, although it may help accelerate the program. What does a diversified workforce look like? How does it affect our decision-making and communication? As you can imagine, this type of education can be most challenging for your senior executives.
I am not talking about a generational label here. Millennials can still be senior members of your organization. And they can still be very stuck in some exclusive and legacy behaviors. They may need additional coaching.
Recently, I played golf with a 40-year executive in a distributor client. He has been struggling with some of the company training around diversity and inclusion. He doesn’t get the pronouns. If we can be honest here, most of us from a certain generation also struggle. What I loved about this guy is he is trying. He wants to be part of the change, to make the company a better place. I do not doubt that he will.
If there is a desire to change, it is within executives’ grasp.
Removing Bias from Recruiting, Promoting Practices
Once an evolving company has learned the language of change and is doing everything in its power to communicate this new direction, it needs to follow through. Talking a good game is worthless if actions don’t back it up. This is most evident in most companies’ recruiting and promotion practices.
Is the company still basing promotion on longevity? When looking for applicants, are we still more apt to interview candidates with a certain pronounceable name or Y chromosome? Bias in opportunity, even unintentional, has no place in the modern workforce. Our companies must learn to be intentional in their actions.
I recently interviewed Bill Condron of The Granite Group. He is the CEO of a multigenerational plumbing distributor. One of the more impactful things he talked about during our interview was that women make up a majority of the population. He said, “If we are an industry only attractive to 49 percent of the population, we are fighting with one arm tied behind our back.”
His company is doing everything it can to make women feel welcome. This isn’t only a gender strategy. If you want to be a diversified company, be intentional about hiring candidates from other cultures and backgrounds. I am not asking to revert back to the misunderstood days of affirmative action and reverse discrimination. I am simply asking you to intentionally remove bias from recruiting and promotion activities.
When building something great, we often refer to sweat equity in the process. The same can be said for changing the culture in a company. You are going to sweat. You are going to work hard at walking the walk. You will make mistakes and learn from them. Keep the end goal in mind.
Those companies finding ways to engage their associates in meaningful dialog about diversity, inclusion and culture will be the ones to thrive. If we are only shepherds of a company during our time in leadership, then we must do everything in our power to pass the entity on in better shape than we found it. Good luck, and know I am always here to help.