Unlike manufactured goods production or business accounting details, corporate culture is more art than science, and, as the cliché goes, “it starts at the top,” with company presidents and CEOs “setting the tone” and creating environments where their employees operate. Corporate culture is, in fact, at the very heart of companies, motivating employees and extending into sales, marketing, and overall interactions with outside customers and vendors. Yet, while myriad business seminars and books offer advice regarding how to create a quality corporate culture, actually doing so is far more difficult than it might appear.
Jerry Hurwitz, executive vice president, human resources at Franklin Lakes-based BD, says, “A thousand Harvard professors and Columbia professors have been trying to figure out: How do you shape and change a [corporate] culture? Culture is essentially the culmination of behaviors that are reinforced over time, and therefore become normal parts of how people behave with each other, minus the behaviors that have not been reinforced – and are punished – and, therefore, go away. It sounds simple, but cultures develop slowly over time, and that’s also why they are very difficult to change. You don’t change culture by flipping a light switch, and you don’t change a culture just because your CEO puts a new mission statement on the wall.”
The Company’s ‘Fabric’
Experts generally concur that quality corporate cultures, again, emanate from business leaders and, in part, can be reinforced via hiring the correct employees, training them and ensuring they are genuinely “on board” with companies’ beliefs and psyches.
When Short Hills-based Investors Bank transitioned from a thrift institution to a more focused, commercial bank (it is now the largest bank headquartered in New Jersey, with nearly $20 billion in assets) President and CEO Kevin Cummings explains that “along the way, we realized that we had to change the way we approached the market, and we had to change the way we treated our people. In 2008, we developed our core value, mission and vision statements. Basically, we wanted to be a different bank that makes a difference, first and foremost, with its employees, because a lot of people say: ‘They are your most valuable asset.’ But, we really ‘walk the walk, and talk the talk,’ and we made significant investments in our culture and development area. We hired a chief culture officer in 2012, and that person’s job is to drive our culture change of continuous improvement, and create an entrepreneurial and a learning organization. It is a transformation of a strategy. The biggest challenge was the transformation of people, and the transformation of our culture – and doing it in a way that we respect people.”
By all accounts, Investors certainly does respect its employees: Of the 45 branch managers it had in 2008, only about seven or eight are still in their current positions; the bank provided the rest of these employees with opportunities to advance and flourish in other job positions.
More broadly, Investors Bank significantly focused not only on training its employees in banking products, economics, accounting and credit programs, but it additionally instituted a leadership program in which the top 50 executives throughout its retail system took a course titled “Face the Challenge.”
Akin to a college class, “Face the Challenge” includes 40 hours of classroom instruction and intensive coursework, featuring, among other things, Napoleon Hill’s seminal book, “Think and Grow Rich.”
Overall, Cummings says, “We tell our people: Leadership is all about service to others. We ask our managers and leaders in the company: ‘Are you a leader who serves, or a self-serving leader?’ Also, my job is to take away all the excuses that people have in the organization – of why they can’t do things – and motivate our people so that when they come in every day, they are here for a reason, to do their best, and to be the best version of themselves, day-in and day-out.
“We speak to our new employees when they join the bank: This past Monday, we had 40 new people, due to our current branch expansion. I met with them and said: ‘You have to be a giver; not a taker. If you are going to come here and this isn’t going to be your passion or your legacy to be a good team member, I will give you $1,000 to leave, and a letter of recommendation for you to go to another bank.
“‘You have to be a person who makes your teammates better. We want to be people who make a difference, are change-makers, who help their teammates, and who move from being successful and being self-centered, to being successful and significant. When you are significant, you create a purpose and a legacy of why you come to work every day.”
He adds, “I call it the Derek Jeter rule: Be like Derek Jeter, and not A-Rod.”
Goya Foods has a renowned corporate culture noted for its family-like atmosphere where employees often remain at the company for decades, and it also has a well-known sense of pride among workers, who in turn produce fine foods.
Director of Public Relations Rafael Toro succinctly states, “Happy employees translates to happy business. Good employees make good products – not the other way around. When you have happy employees, it affects your business; the products are better; the way you deal with your customers is better.”
Additionally, Goya encourages employees to “give back,” whether via volunteering during Superstorm Sandy or donating to charities. Goya also supports the health of its employees via weight-loss programs.
In terms of improving corporate culture, at the accounting firm WithumSmith+
Brown, Managing Partner and CEO William “Bill” R. Hagaman, says: “It comes from the top listening to its employee base, and understanding where changes need to be made. You can do that through roundtable discussions; an anonymous suggestion box; [and] by going out and visiting locations. You need to understand that, and get [employee] feedback. Our best ideas on culture come from our people. Our people say we should ‘do this’ or we should ‘do that.’ What I try to do is get out of their way, and not be the Baby Boomer making these decisions, and coming up with all the reasons why we don’t need it, can’t do it, or shouldn’t do it. I instead allow the staff to make the call. That has been successful for us, time after time, after time: It’s giving them the opportunity to change and grow.”
He says, “Culture is something like a flower: You need to water it, you need to prune it at times, and you need to take care of it. If you don’t, it is just going to wilt and go away. [Corporate culture] is not something of which you can say: ‘We’ve got a great culture, and all of a sudden I can sit back and just let it go.’ We need to be thinking about it every day, regarding how we can make it better.”
As companies reach out for expert assistance in creating, maintaining – or gradually changing their corporate cultures – some say that business leaders must recognize that if they desire special qualities in their employees, they must first possess those qualities themselves. Only then can they, again, “walk the walk,” and create organizations that are internally well-oiled, and able to convey their harmony to outsiders, ultimately boosting profits and building reputations as fine places to work – and with which to conduct business.