You’ve read it – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

You’ve heard it – “Culture is everything.”

You’ve said it – “It’s all about the cultural fit.”

Firms and organizations are continually in search of team members, clients, people, and groups who are the perfect fit for their corporate culture. Cultural fit is discussed and analyzed and put through the strainer every day.

There is no doubt that a good fit with our corporate culture is a key ingredient for success when bringing on a new team member, when welcoming a new client, or when aligning ourselves with an organization or group. But does the fit truly have to be perfect or do we need to consider what other factors might make a good fit close to perfect?

When we are in the market for a new pair of shoes, we know the size we need and we can pick out a pair that appeals to us. It might be the color or the style that attracts us, but the determining factor in whether we make a purchase is whether or not they have our size in stock. And if they do, we try them on – we walk around the shoe department for a minute making sure there are no pinches or other red flags that warn us they might not be the perfect fit.

With people, however, we have to follow a gut instinct and hope for the best that they are, indeed, a perfect fit for our culture.

Or do we? Is the perfect fit always a necessity with people?

For a shoe purchase, we have to have the right fit, and we have to like the color and style. Why? Because those attributes are going to enhance our wardrobe. We need those shoes to match other items in our closet. We want them to add flavor to our attire.

Part of the process of interviewing potential team members or clients can parallel the process of shoe shopping. There may be something that interests or strikes us initially. It may be the way they dress, an interest or hobby of theirs, or their rhetoric during an interview. We make a connection and we try to determine if they will indeed be a fit for our culture. But unlike those shoes, we don’t get the opportunity to try them on before we make the offer or sign the contract.

We may indeed find out that although they are not a perfect fit for our culture, they have the ability to enhance it. Whether it is a unique skill set, credible experience, or innovative thinking, we find that their contributions make our culture shine a little brighter. Like that new pair of shoes, they are a quality addition that complements the other wardrobe items.

Perhaps when we are assessing people, whether a new team member or client, we need not ask if they will be a perfect fit for our culture, but rather if they will add something. Will they be an enhancement to something great that we have already developed? Will they bring their own brand of sparkle that improves our product?

If we have developed a good culture, we will always be looking for ways to make it better and stronger. So although someone might not be the perfect fit with today’s version of our culture, they just might be the enhancement that results in the new and improved version.

pioneers, American history, log cabin

First log cabin, Douglas County, Nevada, from the Historic American Buildings Survey

What images come to mind when you hear the word “pioneer”?

I was recently in Gunnison, CO on a trip with my sons when we stumbled upon Gunnison Pioneer Museum. It wasn’t on our exploration agenda, but we were staying across the street and made an impromptu decision to check it out.

As I expected, there were many artifacts from the 1800s. This was not a small, one-building museum. There were original houses and cabins filled with incredible displays of period clothing, weaponry, farm implements, arrowheads and mining equipment. There were numerous railroad exhibits. We saw items like school desks with inkwells, a milk wagon, an ox cart and farm tools. These are the images the word “pioneer” conjures when I hear it.

What was most surprising to me was that even though it was billed as a pioneer museum, there were artifacts and displays up to the present time. This included the introduction of cameras and electric trains and kitchen appliances – stuff that was invented in my lifetime. I took pictures of these items to share with my brothers – things like a stereo resembling the one my parents owned and the hand held beater that was a staple in my mom’s kitchen. It was a trip down memory lane.

The big “wow” factor to me was that all these items and inventions became a part of my life. I never thought about them being a part of history. They simply assimilated and became the norm. Seeing them now in a pioneer museum made me realize that future generations will see these artifacts and, most likely, will smile and shake their heads at their antiquity thinking that what they have now, in the present, is the best it will ever be.

History is being made every day. We live it, it evolves and it never sunsets. In our personal lives, something new comes along and we rush out to buy it. In our business, an innovative concept is introduced and we want to be the first to test it. At the time, we think it might be the ultimate, but it is only a matter of time before the “new and improved” version comes along and the prior one becomes “history.” And when we have the opportunity to look back, 30, 40, 50 years or more because we happen to stumble upon a pioneer museum, we understand the impact and that we were, indeed, a part of our own history in the making.

What items from your personal history have you not thought about lately, but recognize as pioneering?

Recently someone asked me for a favorite quote for business and my response was swift.

“There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor — and after that one more thing, and after that….”
— Lieutenant General Hal Moore

In the best or the worst of situations we can choose to focus not on our circumstances but on an unrelenting drive for improvement and action. In good times, we don’t need to sit back and admire our successes — we can continue to learn and grow. In dark times, we can recognize that there is always some additional step that we can take so that, inch by inch, we may move out of dire situations.

image of Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang, leadership in dark times

Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang

Lieutenant General Hal Moore had a long and distinguished career of service in the US Army. He was most noted for his military prowess in the Vietnam War, particularly in the Battle of la Drang, about which the movie We Were Soldiers Once was filmed. In that brutal and seemingly hopeless battle, Moore led 450 soldiers to an improbable victory over 2,000 Vietnamese troops.

Moore’s quote reminds me that, though some things are beyond our control in both the worst and best of times, at least some actions and decisions are in our own hands. We don’t need to feel powerless even in times of desperation — we only need to incrementally act, grow, and change, one step at a time.

What’s your favorite quote for business (and life)?

 


Our firm is gearing up to host our 7th annual Drive Business Downtown event. Subtitled “a celebration in the heart of Greenville”, we team up each year with our Class A minor league baseball team – the Greenville Drive. Through this event, we have perfected the art of combining a day game, a business leaders networking luncheon, a mentoring opportunity with young professionals, and giving back to our community.

Our downtown business community is a unique group. Collaboration and idea sharing is commonplace among our members. We support each other’s efforts and we celebrate each other’s achievements. This annual event is not only a time to celebrate our city, but it is a reminder that we have an obligation to preserve our asset. In order for our businesses to continue to thrive in our downtown, we need to ensure its sustainability.

Many of us chose to locate our business within the downtown area for a host of reasons. Here in Greenville, SC, our downtown is teaming with a variety of locally-owned restaurants, several community theatres, a symphony, a venue that hosts well-known musicians and Broadway shows, a burgeoning arts district flush with studios, a host of festivals happening year round, several live entertainment venues and a school for performing arts. These are housed along tree-lined, wide sidewalk streets culminating with a single-cantilever pedestrian bridge over our prized Reedy River waterfalls. Add in a zoo, a concert arena and lots of building projects that increase the array of affordable downtown housing. Clearly, Elliott Davis Decosimo is fortunate to be headquartered in downtown Greenville.

Our event is an annual reminder that as business leaders, we must not only preserve our assets, we must serve as role models to our young professionals who will someday take over the leadership reins. We have instilled a culture in our firm that includes financial and volunteer support of the arts and other non-profit organizations in our city. It is our job as leaders to ensure this culture is passed down to our young professionals. It is our responsibility to lead by example.

What leadership legacies will you leave behind for your city, state, and region?

In an earlier post (Smart Reading Topics) I mentioned one of the values I hold dear — the importance of reading widely both in one’s field as well as out of it. I particularly enjoy reading history and the expanded field of vision it provides of other people’s experiences. Reading provides insight into others’ achievements and failures which means I can glean tips on how to enhance my personal achievements and hopefully limit my failures.

A military career is one in which wisdom, competence and discernment assume life-and-death importance. An email composed by retired four-star General James Mattis in which he referenced the importance of learning from others went viral back in 2003.

“… The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Throughout his military career, Mattis marched into conflict situations armed with the experience of others he studied while reading books such as The Siege and From Beirut to Jerusalem. He drew upon lessons learned while reading about the life of Gertrude Bell in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He can cite specific lessons from his readings which he has applied in unique situations to make life and death decisions.

Although conference rooms, corporate offices and work stations do not have the immediate and mortal significance of battlefields, it is still important for business leaders to recognize the impact their knowledge, experience and decisions can have on the lives of others. In some small sense, we are responsible for the livelihoods and work satisfaction of many human beings. We have a duty to take that responsibility seriously, learning from others as best we can so we can limit costly mistakes.

What lessons have you learned from others? Are you using what you read to help you succeed?


In the midst of a horrendous storm in Washington, DC, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, laden with ice and snow, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport. I can remember being glued to the television, watching live coverage of the recovery efforts. Passengers were floating in the bone-chilling waters, struggling to survive.

Priscilla Tirado was one of those passengers and though a helicopter line was dropped to her, she couldn’t hold on as she succumbed to freezing waters. Lenny Skutnik, an employee in the Congressional Budget Office, routinely drove over that bridge every day. On this day, he stopped at the scene of the crash and watched in horror along with hundreds of other onlookers. When he saw Priscilla Tirado’s struggle, he impulsively dove into the ice-clogged river and pulled her to shore. He didn’t think about it, he just knew a human life was about to be lost and he was compelled to save it. It was the right thing to do.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Regan gave his State of the Union address to our nation. As always, first lady Nancy Reagan sat in the balcony, this time with Lenny Skutnik by her side. The President pointed everyone’s attention to the balcony and spoke about the heroic act. He used this as an example of what was right with America and that our best days were ahead. It was the beginning of a presidential tradition and every year since, during the State of the Union address, there is a “person in the balcony” who is singled out and recognized for their actions.

Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts every day. We see it here in our firm – team members putting others first because it is the right thing to do. It may be going above and beyond for a client, it may be an act of community service, or it may be mentoring younger staff to help them achieve their goals. As leaders, we need to have individuals in the balcony and to recognize them for doing the right thing. These individuals don’t do the right thing for glory or recognition, but because they share common values and are fostering a culture from which we all benefit. We need to let them know they are recognized and their acts are appreciated.

We should always seize the opportunity at every meeting, gathering or event to be pointing to someone in the balcony. Who will be sitting in your balcony the next time you have a meeting?

In a recent post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. Part I was posted on Monday; this is Part II.

How did you as a leader work through those challenges? What decisions did you make?

We are working through them now. Trust is built over time and through positive experiences.

As a group we defined roles, explicit responsibilities, and accompanying expectations for each position. I have communicated these throughout the organization and built an executive compensation plan to support the company objectives.

As a leader I look for opportunities for our leadership team to spend time together in teams creating strategy, developing innovative solutions to problems, and supporting customers.

Did the culture change your company experienced improve your company’s position?

It has improved our company’s position. Our challenge has always been to provide a unique, meaningful set of solutions and services to create a great customer experience. In earlier days our customers had a generalist from Shealy who tried to manage the entire customer relationship. While that generalist philosophy has its benefits it also has its risks.

The risk we tried to eliminate was of one person “owning” the customer relationship.

Today we have an account manager who acts as a quarterback and directs a team of specialists to engage with the customer at the appropriate place and time. The customer benefits by having product and application expertise more readily available. We benefit by having a deeper, broader relationship with the customer through an array of Shealy contacts which leads (we hope) to better customer retention, more share, and better margins.

If you were to do it all over again, what might you do differently?

I would try to push accountability deeper into the organization faster. As we grew I maintained too much responsibility for developing strategy, defining objectives, and managing outcomes. In order to identify and develop more leaders I needed to let them play the game and not over coach.

What one or two primary principles of managing culture change would you offer a CEO whose company is experiencing significant culture change?

Communicate frequently – be as transparent as possible with information. It’s better for people to know than to “guess” or “think” they know.

Communicate more than just the “what” or the “how” – spend time communicating the “why”. When implementing change or driving culture it’s helpful to have those affected by change (or who feel that they are having change imposed on them) to understand the “why”.