Culture

Coffey-Rigby Livery Stable, Manning, SC, from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

As a child, our family’s yearly Thanksgiving meals took place in Manning, SC — population 3000, complete with the Manning Cafe, McCabe’s Barbecue, Brogdon’s Store, and a public library built in 1910. Manning was built near the headwaters of Wyboo Creek in South Carolina lake country, and home to the annual Striped Bass Festival. Manning hosted our entire family for the Thanksgiving meal — and I grew up in a very large family.

My mother was one of nine children, and my 20 cousins, 16 aunts and uncles, various other family friends, and of course my brothers and I would show up for the feast, all sitting at different-sized tables spread throughout my aunt’s home. As one grew older, one could be graduated to the Big Table, the table where all the Grown People — the adults — sat for the Thanksgiving feast, conversing about wise things, and catching up on all the family stories and news.

Courthouse in Manning, SC from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

The funny thing is that, though I inevitably grew older, I never grew old enough to have a seat at the Big Table. I was one of the youngest, and there was always too little room, and too many family members for the limited seats at the main table.

Of course, you can never have too many family members. Not really. And my cousins and I had our own fun, and probably got away with more mischief since we weren’t under the eye of the adults. And family meals always prepare you for taking your seat at the Big Table, in time.

Today, in many ways and in a variety of contexts, I am finally sitting at the Big Table and I’ve received more than I ever dreamed I would. Perhaps a part of growing older is realizing how much you have been given, and how unexpectedly it has been provided.

This week will be filled with abundance. The Wednesday before this Thanksgiving’s feast, I will be engaging in one of my favorite past-times — cooking. Later on I’ll head out to where some family members have been gathering together, preparing for the big meal and enjoying the outdoors.

Cooking and the outdoors pale in significance to the family and friends I’ve been given, both the old friends who have been with me for a lifetime, and the new ones who have traveled a shorter journey with me.

I am thankful for my health. I don’t take it for granted — so many are not given such a blessing, and I’m conscious of it more every year.

I have experienced a relentless pace of blessings over the years and I am grateful.

Those blessings in my personal life have clearly been a part of allowing me to have blessings in other areas, the biggest part of which has been my work. The most obvious place where I’ve taken a seat at the Big Table is at Elliott Davis — truly a grand and spectacular feast of people, some 750 and more, spread through nine offices in nine communities, all of them different, but in some ways, just like Manning. Each of our communities has its cafes and barbecue places, its historic library, its particular geographic setting that shaped its formation, its big annual celebrations to recognize what is near and dear to each of them. It is a very big table — and Elliott Davis employees, including me, all get to have a seat at that table.

For all of this and more, I am truly grateful.

But I’m also grateful for this insight, one that applies to our workplaces, our families, our hobbies, our communities: it’s not so much where you sit at the table but with whom you are enjoying the meal.

Yes, there are many people at the table, and it is large and grand, and there will always be room for others. It is the company we keep that is the real blessing.

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?


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 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”.

In my last 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. I’ll post Part II on Tuesday.

At the time of the interview, Shealy Electrical Wholesalers, Inc., established in 1945, was a $225 million supplier of electrical products and services to customers in the construction, industrial MRO and OEM, utility, retail national account and international contracting segments. Shealy was a closely held S-corp with 18 locations throughout the Carolinas and 340 full time employees. (Shealy is now with Border States Electric, an ESOP company in North Dakota, and Doug is Executive Vice President there.)

What strengths does your company have — what does it do well?

We have developed a culture that manages rapid changes well – we are able to identify a new opportunity (customer segment, product segment, customer, product, etc.) in the marketplace and have the ability to quickly engage, make a decision and execute a plan to take advantage of that opportunity. We are not afraid of taking a risk or trying something new.

We have a well communicated strategic/shareholder vision supported by specific, achievable long and short term initiatives. The organization, from top to bottom, has embraced the vision and strategy.

We have a strong, well-respected brand in our market, and long lasting relationships with some of the most coveted customers and suppliers in the industry.

What weaknesses does your company have — what might it do better?

We, at times, have a tendency to be more opportunistic than strategic with sales – we will shoot at anything we see rather than act intentionally with our strategy and selectively with our efforts.

What one or two major instances of culture change has your company experienced?

We’ve grown from 3 to 18 locations in the past 12 years and have built a matrixed sales organization that requires the leadership to trust one another and to work collaboratively. We expect the organization to act as “one Shealy” and not 18 independently managed business units. The combination of rapid, intense growth and the different structure has involved significant culture shift.

As we’ve grown we have developed more managers and a larger leadership team. These managers had a wider range of responsibility when they worked in smaller organizations — they pursued a wide variety of activities. One challenge for those managers at Shealy is to learn to work with a more limited range of responsibility.

What were the primary challenges of that culture change?

A matrixed organization requires trust and collaboration – leaders must be selfless and put the interests of the customer, supplier, and fellow associate in front of their own.

Trust takes time to develop, particularly when you’re an acquisitive organization that is continually bringing into the company new leaders and ideas with each acquisition.