For 25 years, my construction company has built structures that grace the metro Atlanta skyline, from office buildings to schools to sports facilities. Yet no matter how well we do our job, the one thing we cannot seem to build turns out to be the most important element in our clients’ setting: their culture.
The word culture became so popular in 2014 that Merriam-Webster Dictionary chose it as its No. 1 Word of the Year, based on the number of times it was searched. I find that to be ironic, as culture is a word that’s almost as hard to define as it is to build. You can’t see it or touch it, but in many organizations, you can feel it.
Young people report a company’s culture is more important than compensation in choosing where to work. In October, Apple and Facebook – already known for extravagant benefits – announced a new perk: paying for female employees to freeze their eggs. As Atlanta attracts more technology and entertainment firms, we’ll begin to see Silicon Valley benefits such as slides between floors, beer kegs in lobbies and free food in cafeterias.
I agree that company benefits are important, but the real foundation to a company’s culture is the quality of individuals you hire, relationships you foster between management and employees, and values you establish and instill.
I remember early in our firm’s history, when we were hiring new team members who had already been offered positions by competitors. We told them to take their time making the decision, but to keep in mind that at our company, they would never be asked to do anything during the day that would make them lose sleep at night. A company’s values should be evident from the very beginning as it will attract and retain the people that best fit your firm.
Our values were the first thing I established and committed to when founding the company, and they are still the driver for each decision we make today. To maintain your culture, you must continually reinforce values and relationships. This can be as simple as celebrating wins with your team, as we do with each new project award. It may be celebrating with an ice-cream gathering or an event after work. Whatever it is, we ensure our team knows they are appreciated.
Another tenet in building a culture is establishing clear and authentic communication with your team. In our training, we emphasize what we call “Grandma’s Rule,” which is, “Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, and do it right the first time.” When leaders model such genuine interactions to front-line employees, the team will, in turn, foster trustworthy relationships and create long-lasting bonds with clients.
Culture is also about integrity. When we were awarded a project by one of our industrial developer clients, we told him that if we could save money in the construction process, we’d let him have the savings, even though we were under a lump-sum contract. A year later, when we finished the project under budget, we went over to present our client with the savings realized from our ability to find ways to be more efficient and save money on the project. He had forgotten our commitment to return these savings and was shocked we had followed through on our promise. The result of this integrity is a lifelong client for whom we have constructed many projects.
As hard to define as it is, culture is one of the most important building blocks of any organization. Our company values have been the foundation of our culture, and the additional perks have been just that – perks. Culture isn’t about the Silicon Valley benefits we so often read in the headlines. It’s about your people.
Doug Davidson is founder and president of New South Construction Co.