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Real Issues. Real Answers: Establishing company culture

Today’s uncomfortably tight labor market is forcing many LBM dealers to focus more than ever before on effectively marketing and selling career opportunities to prospective team members. That challenge has brought the importance of a company’s culture front and center, and is the main theme behind this month’s Real Issues. Real Answers survey.

An Oklahoma lumber dealer contacted LBM Journal recently, looking for guidance from members of the LBM community as they work to establish and define their company’s culture. As we do each issue, we shared the concern with our readers and asked for input. Thanks to the more than 200 readers who responded to this month’s question about…

Establishing Company Culture

First, we asked readers to weigh in on whether they feel as though their company has a well-established company culture. Overwhelmingly, LBM Journal readers as a whole said yes—to the tune of 89.6%. However, if we split out just the lumberyards, building material dealers, and specialty dealers and distributors, the positive response grew to 91.9%. Of the wholesale distributors, manufacturers, and service providers surveyed, the 81.1% said that their business has a well-established company culture.

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Next, we asked respondents to list the top three words that describe their company’s culture. Overall, three words (or variations thereof) described LBM companies: honesty, integrity, and family. The word cloud shown on the opposite page represents 100 of the top words mentioned in the responses. The words with the most mentions are the largest.

Finally, we asked readers to weigh in on the Oklahoma dealer’s question on establishing a company culture: “We are wrestling with establishing a solid company culture (core values, mission statement, strategic plan, etc.) after being in business for 70 years. Our employees are not all on the same page, and we know that a strong, well-defined company culture is critical for the long-term health of our company. How do others define and establish their company culture?”

Responses from lumberyards, building material dealers, and specialty dealers/distributors

“Establish real relationships with each of your employees. By spending real time with your team, they will understand what your culture is. Employees should feel the management team are their coworkers.”

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“After Zuern Building Products’ presentation at the LBM Strategies Conference, we made it a priority to put more focus on defining our company culture as well training our team. This is an easier task with our newbies. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of our seasoned veterans.”

“Put company and employees first, so that they can serve the customers the best way possible. Listen to the employees who have hands-on experience with equipment needs and not what management thinks they need. Be positive. Offer the best pay and benefits for a job well done and you will attract the best.”

“Often the employee’s age is what separates them. There are different generational understandings of what the responsibility to the ‘job’ might be…this is the source of a lot of friction.”

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“I can’t help much. We’ve been here 47 years and have the same problem.”

“It is always a work in progress. Remember to be flexible as all are not the same or work the same.”

“Culture is not something you can establish with policy alone; it’s something that is lived by employees and experienced by customers every day. My simple 30-second advice is this: top-down commitment to caring for each other, professionalism (know your job and be a resource for your customers), and be diligent in all you do.”

“You can have all the written mission statements and strategic plans you want, but it all comes down to your actions. You must show your employees that they are valued for what they do for the company and your customers, and then reward them accordingly.”\

“The employees define who we are. It’s constantly shifting and changing as new hires change who we are.”

“Strong communication and operational transparency.”

“You’re asking who we are, where are we going, and how do we get there. Be authentic and vulnerable in the executive team when answering these questions. Culture comes from the heart and must be simple. Lastly, the pyramid is flipped with the CEO/ president at the bottom humbly working the culture up and through the organization. When the leader explains his/her heart, people rally around it or move on…both are wins.”

“We struggle with that also. Management is the key, but they need to accept empowering everyone in the company. Too many management teams or owners themselves want to be ‘The Guy!’ Great leadership leads by servicing their employees, who in turn will service the industry—customers and vendors alike. Most employees want to participate in creating and doing the right things. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t be there.”

“We are an ESOP—employee owned. It starts at the top, when your employees see that you are looking out for their best interests, they become engaged. Make it fun when possible. That way it is not a job.”

“Choose two or three words as themes to share, focus on, train, and challenge others to use.”

“Culture starts with leadership. It’s one thing to publish core values, mission statements and strategic plans, and it’s something completely different to put them in action and live them out. This is difficult, but it starts at the top and leadership has to own (and model) the culture they want the company to live within.”

“It needs to start from the top down. Your employees need to see it and feel it every day. Your leadership group needs to be all swimming in the same direction. You may all not agree on everything, but you must all work together for one common goal: the success of the company. Don’t ever hire someone who doesn’t fit your beliefs and culture!”

“Working to inspire your employees to achieve a specific mission can be difficult. This should start with a collective mission statement. The best way to create such an inclusive direction is to have multiple employees invested, ranging from the most senior to the newest.”

“Set up a company outing and establish your criteria with employees at that time. You spend more time at work with them than your family. Empower them!”

“Culture starts at the top. The owners need to establish what they want the company to stand for and then communicate throughout.”

“Discuss as an owner with the core team leaders to determine what your goals are and how to achieve them, and which values you have to help achieve these goals.”

“Stop trying to work so hard on a mission statement, and start managing by walking around to see your people. Let your people get to know who you are as a leader. They will see what is important to you and will start to uphold the values you exhibit.”

“The leaders of the company have to generate the culture around the team. Have your values and mission statement in every place in the facility that the team will see. Include the team in the building of the culture. The team also has to hold everyone accountable to the culture that you’re building.”

“You must first begin by truly identifying and establishing the company’s core values, mission statement, and strategic planning. Then you must vocalize it to the entire team and continuously implement reinforcement of these essential managing points.”

“It starts with leadership at the top. Provide clear objectives, goals, and values that people understand, trust, and can follow.”

“Take an assessment of your current culture from your employees, because what leadership perceives may be entirely different than what the employees see. Then, form a clear vision of where you’d like to be. Communicate that new vision every chance you get. Make decisions with that vision in mind and hire people who align more with where you’d like your culture to be rather than where you are. Culture changes take a considerable amount of time to develop so don’t look at it as a project—look at culture as a guiding force for the future.”

“Ask your team members to describe what they think the culture is now, then tell them what you want your culture to be and make a plan how to get there.”

“Involve them in planning, decision making, and include the key people in the success of the yard either by a bonus plan, or recognition. Review what you’re trying to do with the whole yard. Show them a P&L, and how to read one.”

“You have a culture whether you think you do or not. In 70 years it may have changed several times, but it’s there. Trying to take control and pull things together is a new change, not an establishment of something that never existed. Look for existing aspects of the culture that you like and build off those. If there are aspects you want to leave behind, that will take education, involvement, and perhaps a personal commitment to make sure those unwanted traits disappear.”

“Create a vision of what you want your company to look like. For example, I want my company to have character that a customer can feel when they first walk in the door. Let all your employees know about the vision and discuss ways to bring it about.”

“Education, training, leadership, management, and constant oversight.”

“It often begins with a process called ‘values blueprinting,’ which involves a candid conversation with leaders from across the organization. Once the culture is framed, an organization may establish a values committee that has a direct link to leadership. This group makes sure the desired culture is alive and well.”

“We encourage all employees to work as a team. Incentives are given when a group works together to make a sale or solve a customer’s problem. Even our yard employees have incentives for working together to avoid shrinkage in product by checking each other on loading customers and deliveries.”

“You must first start with getting your Board of Directors, executive management, and store management all on the same page so that they can sell it to the others.”

“Clearly define the message you wish for your customers to hear and believe about your company. Evaluate each team member and make sure they are capable and willing to deliver that message. Build a best place to work in your community.”

“As an owner, you have to walk in their shoes, get into the trenches with them. Accommodate their needs, make them important. Then lead by example.”

“2022 marks 97 years for my family-owned business! Engagement. Education. Change. Constant communication. Owners/ managers working closely with all members of our team—from sales, to yard staff, to drivers. Transparency in what we are doing and why. Let your team know that you appreciate and value the role they play. I like to compare my team to football…everyone on needs to know the plays to be effective and win the game. Lastly, invest in your company. Be current with technology and equipment.”

“The process must be well thought out and carefully and slowly implemented. It took us roughly three years to make needed changes and people often self-select out if the new, better culture is not a fit for them.”

“Company standards need to be adhered to and employees need to appreciate the employer’s values.”

“Our industry, more than most, will always rely on people as the cornerstone. Whether it’s dealing with vendors, customers, or coworkers, the quality of your relationships will determine the strength and success of the company. Employ the Golden Rule, honesty, and a strong work ethic. If not, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Bring others into the company who consist of this fabric and your company will be a leader and one to emulate.”

“Lots of meetings led by ownership who have to lead, own problems, and bring in help if needed. Get ownership on same page first!”

“Integrity, trust, and transparency in the direction and goals of a company as a whole. Everybody is important to the overall success of any company. People need to understand and believe in that. Otherwise, chips are flying but no wood is being cut.”

“Depending on the size of your company, you could ask that all employees, or at least managers, write down their thoughts and ideas. Also, you could ask your higher profile/higher volume customers how they view your company and why they use you. After you have done these things, you and your fellow executives can sit down and discuss your findings and transform those into your company’s culture.”

“We do not have a formal process. We strongly believe that all of our actions support our strong culture. Those actions begin the first minute a new team member starts employment. We focus our efforts on reinforcing our family feel, not just to the team members but also our customers.”

“Involve employees at all levels of the operation and over-communicate to receive buy-in from all your employees.”

“Have your employees learn and memorize mission statements. Have them on display and start your meetings off with them. Get buy-in from your employees on what has kept you in business for this long.”

“Leadership must walk the walk. I my experience culture is driven by management. If you do not have strong leaders willing to lead then nothing will change.”

“Culture is modeled and shaped from the top down. Reducing culture to defining statements is an iterative process that never ends, only continually refines.”

“Providing effective and open communication with your team. Listen to their ideas and give them room to explore and implement those ideas. While talking about culture is important, it’s the actions that will actually create it. Pizza parties only go so far. Things like ease of time off, flexibility with requests, clothing giveaways, and willingness to actually work alongside your employees and not always direct from above. Those are things that will help create a culture your team wants to be a part of.”

“Ours pretty much fell into place when we practiced the Golden Rule.”

“Focus on the why. Why does that mission statement apply? Why does the business exist? Why do employees and customers alike spend their time and money with this business instead of others? At our monthly safety meetings, we ensure that any event highlighting our core values is mentioned. This allows employees to see our mission statement in daily practice instead of just on a piece of paper.”

“It is stated and established from day one of employment and constantly reinforced that our quality of service comes first.”

“It starts by defining what it is that you want, modeling those behaviors, and addressing any behaviors that are not on point.”

“Our very general view is that if, at the executive level, we focus on making sure our employees are happy, challenged, and well paid for what they do, our company’s performance metrics will take care of themselves.”

“We are working on this constantly, but as a nonprofit the one thing we all share is a desire to serve our members. Even when we disagree about how, it is nice to have that one value to come back to.”

Responses from wholesale distributors, manufacturers, and service providers

“I would enlist the services of a third party that specializes in helping companies develop a strategic plan and mission statement.”

“I think all businesses are dealing with same issues as younger employees begin to take management roles and view the company different than long-timers.”

“Through example, meetings, discussions, one-on-one coaching.”

“Your people always come first. Without your team, you are not able to deliver value into the channel. Establish your ‘why’—Why does your business exist? Why do you come to work each day? Who do you serve? How do you add value for your customer? Once you establish your ‘why’, then you can begin to focus on setting the ‘Where are we going.’ Once you have a vision—short term, mid-term, and long-term, and you have your ‘why we exist,’ your people will be able to follow.”

“The example is set by the owners. The values, decisions, and methods of the owners will direct the company culture.”

“Measurable business goals, i.e., compounded earnings growth objectives with a prioritized list of strategies to achieve these goals. Agreed-to personal growth goals for all company personnel.”

“I left a company recently that worked hard to develop their company culture but once I did not feel the ownership believed in the company culture, or me, I left. You must hold meetings with different people in different positions so that everyone has the chance and input to come up with company culture. I recently joined a company where the company culture comes down to basic core things, ‘respect (our company, employees, and each other), community (give back to your community and to your employees), commitment (to your company, coworkers, and customers), opportunity (everyone has opportunity to contribute and grow the business), reputation (true to core values), improvement (learn from mistakes), caring for others (always at the core), and it’s our company (everyone takes ownership) not just the owners.’ Taking the time to know what your company culture is will help you to always win when others count you out.”

“How often do you survey your team? Do you know what they value, what concerns them, and what they think is needed? Start there.”

“We are a very small company, but I admire larger firms that train their employees, hire the best, and pay them for performance better than competitors. It may cost more in time and money, but hiring and retraining costs more.”

“It is called servant leadership. Employees need to know that each of them are valued members of a team.”

“Establish a meeting to ensure all employees hear the same message at the same time to avoid confusion or miscommunication. Express the importance of having a great company culture that will overall help everyone continue to do their jobs to the best of their ability. The team players who are not on board may need to be replaced.”

“From inception our company has grounded its business practices in treating its customers, suppliers, and employees with honesty and dignity. Our goals are to be a respected and valued business partner, and a good place to work.”

“Leadership starts at the top. Is that vision given to supervisors and management team? Are the owners engaging the employees?”

“Culture is established with consistency. Consistency of purpose, consistency of long-term goals, consistency of management. Consistency leads to trust.”

“Determine core values for the site and the company as a whole. Live by those values and start to evaluate employees based on whether they possess those values.”

“No young professional is looking to work with old-style leadership— youth, optimism, and passion will drive a better culture.”

“I think we can all define a culture, but it doesn’t become established unless we live it out daily, at all levels. Strive to have your actions and words align, otherwise any messaging feels empty.”

“Trying to make an abrupt total change will more than likely be looked upon with skepticism. My suggestion is to be diligent and put the time and effort into what is honestly the culture that you envision. Be sure that when you ask yourself the tough questions that arise that your answers align fully with your core values.”

“Consistently reiterate the message in verbal communication and written communication to both employees and customers and then most importantly back it up in actions.”

“The easiest way is to identify a handful of employees that epitomize the culture, then pull together a list of words that describe them (their personalities, the way they deal with other associates, customers and vendors, their work ethic, approaches to their job responsibilities, etc. Before long, you will have defined the foundation of your culture.”

“The culture of a company doesn’t change over night. It takes time, and you must be prepared to lose people who don’t believe in the direction you want to go.”

“We created a strategy team and met monthly. In those meetings we collectively came up with and agreed on core values, mission statements, etc. Then we branched out to next level team members and have them lead by example. Culture is catchy whether it is good or bad.”

“Put meaning and method behind what you say. Don’t just talk about your culture, but live it. Lead by doing what you say.”

Hundreds of readers share their insights for this every-issue feature. Have a Real Issue? Contact

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