Culture


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.

Though I am not in the habit of offering required reading lists to our staff, I am happy to share my appreciation of authors such as Simon Sinek, Stephen Covey, Dan Pink and Jim Collins. These writers share some common ideologies about business, work and management.

Our industry is competitive which means we must always be getting better in order to stay ahead of the curve. True leaders must be continual learners, searching every day for innovative improvements.

If new employees asked me for reading suggestions, I would pose three topics for consideration: innovation, leadership and organizational culture. These are the tenets of leaders and the basis for building a better work environment.

What have you read on these topics that made an impression on you? What topics would you suggest new employees explore?

I’m posting an excerpt from one of my articles that was published in the March 2014 issue of South Carolina Business magazine. The article covered three changes we made at Elliott Davis Decosimo. If you want to read the whole piece, feel free to check it out — “Battlefields & Boardrooms: Three Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company.”

 

We needed to change the way we communicate.

Perhaps no American leader is as revered for his various “addresses” — addresses to Congress, addresses to his troops, addresses to his officers, his extensive letters — as George Washington. His language was formal and his phrasing complex. But behind the language was intense feeling — feeling that some of us, aspiring leaders in the 21st century — might do well to express a bit more often.

Washington, for all of his scrupulous honor, his sense of tradition, his formality, and his dignity had a way of bonding with those who worked under and with him. One of the more well-described scenes during his farewell tour after retiring as General of the Continental Army was his goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. He filled a glass, held it up, and stated simply: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” And then, Washington wept. As each man came forward in silence across the long tavern room, Washington embraced him, tears flowing.

One does not often see such a display in corporate America. We live, it seems, with a bit more distance and reserve and what some call “ironic detachment.” It’s much easier to be sarcastic and witty, then easily touched or passionate.

However I do know one thing. It’s much more difficult to connect with those who live like the former, and much easier to love those who live like the latter.

Elliott Davis leaders have not taken to weeping; but we have changed the way we communicate.

For one thing, we discovered that we simply weren’t communicating frequently enough — not face-to-face nor in writing.

We also weren’t gathering enough input from everyone. So not only were we not giving information; we weren’t receiving it either.

We recognized that we needed to share information at all levels, not simply the “management level.” And we needed to be open and candid. We needed to discuss the right things with everyone.

Finally, we needed to talk more as a group, in front of one another, in order to exchange and process information together, rather than in small groups alone.

The communication channels we opened up at Elliott Davis allowed us to connect with one another more broadly and more deeply. Consequently, people at all levels understood more about what we were trying to change, and more importantly, why.

The accounting industry has long been ingrained with the notion of focusing on “the greatest return for the least expenditure.” We continually ask ourselves, “What service can I perform that will result in the greatest return on investment for my clients and my firm?”

In the culture building world, one component is easily identifiable in achieving the best ROI. It is called appreciation.

It takes but a minute of our busy day to compose an email, make a phone call or personally visit someone to say “Thank you” or “Keep sending us those great ideas”. This is such a simple way to promote mutual respect.

The “cost” in time compared to the benefit reaped is barely measurable. There is a huge reward for very little expenditure. If you’re looking for a “quick return” in corporate culture, expressing appreciation is one of the simplest ways to achieve it. An added bonus is that practicing the art of expressing appreciation oftentimes reminds us to be grateful. When we appreciate something, we realize what we have and we remember to be thankful for it.

Whom have you thanked today for his or her contribution?