Listening From Within: The Best Cultures Start With a Good Dose of It

By John Sewall

Five years ago, The Detering Co. embarked on a growth strategy that had been the vision of our ownership for some time. Part of that vision includes growing in a way that embraces the company’s 90-plus-year history, while maintaining a sense of family with associates. Like any strategy, we set goals, including for how we might improve culture, and metrics to track our progress, with the goal for attracting top talent and being known as one of the best places to work in our market.

As business began to grow, our focus on adding high-performing talent centered on what each potential associate could bring to the table, both as an individual and a team member. In the process, we focused far less on what we thought they could produce from a volume standpoint. That helped to ensure we would end up with the right mix of people when times were tough or exceptionally busy. To help us measure how successful we were in our hiring practices, we started down the path of trying to get rated for The Houston Chronicle’s annual ranking of Top Places to Work. The basis behind the ranking is on employee feedback and engagement on a variety of categories. We felt this would be the best barometer to test our success with the changes we were trying to make from a culture standpoint.

Gathering the Hard Truth

Over the first few years we hadn’t made enough progress. We were falling short in key areas, such as communication, associates feeling valued, leadership and employees that feel like they make a difference. With that in mind, we made a shift that has been paying dividends for three years now. We started conducting town hall meetings with every associate, in small, group settings, multiple times per year. Meetings include ownership, our HR manager and the CEO. At no time is any participant’s direct supervisor in the room. We wanted to create a safe environment where associates can speak their mind about things that could make the company better. We also take the opportunity to report to the group from ownership and the CEO, so associates can hear the message directly from us. It took a few meetings to get the flow of meetings correct, and to earn the trust of associates who feel free to say whatever needs to be said, but once we did, the ideas that have come from these meetings have made the company stronger and a better work environment.

One key piece of the puzzle includes documenting every anonymous comment and having the management team review and systematically work through them. Obviously not every idea can be implemented all at once but keeping a working and published list allows associates to know which suggestions will come to fruition and when. That feedback is critical for associates to know we’re listening.

The final change came with empowering our mid-level supervisors to make decisions for their group that best serve associates and customers. As group leaders took ownership, decisions were made quickly and with precise knowledge of their team’s needs. This has improved everything from capacity utilization and cost reductions to employee engagement.

Regardless of how you go about it, the quickest way to change work culture is through the voice of associates. I highly recommend creating a platform for them to hear the vision of top leadership, and for their ideas to be heard and acted upon. When an associate has access to those two channels of communication, and sees the direct change that results, they will feel tied to the company in a way that stretches far beyond paychecks.

John Sewall is WMA chairperson and CEO for The Detering Co. and South Texas Brick & Stone.

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DWM Magazine

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