Industry blog

Above The Bar

Posted on: January 20, 2016

It’s almost impossible to open a business magazine, go to a conference or scan thousands of websites without running headfirst into a discussion about the importance of corporate culture.  In fact, it’s talked about so much that the term “corporate culture” has almost become a generic phrase that has lost its meaning.  Merriam Webster’s dictionary identified the word “culture” as the most popular word of 2014.  That makes it a pretty big deal.  So what’s all of the fuss and why should you, as the owner of a power system, wind farm builder or perhaps a large developer, even care?

I won’t spend a bunch of time defining what the much used phrase “corporate culture” really means, since you are a simple Google search away from letting academics who are likely a lot smarter than me, tell you their versions of the facts.  I will, however, tell you two things.  The first is that every company (and family and club and society and non-governmental organizations and sports team and…) has one.  They might have worked hard to intentionally create it, or it might have just happened, but culture is everywhere.  If you hang around a successful sports team you’ll probably get a feel for the fact that they like winning and do what it takes to keep the trophies and podium appearances coming their way.  Insert yourself into an airline maintenance group of employees and you’ll very likely find they place a very strong emphasis on safety (I sure hope that one is true since I’m on a plane as I am writing this!). Head over to Walmart corporate headquarters and I’d be surprised if you didn’t overhear plenty of conversations about keeping product costs low.

The second point that’s worth thinking about is – why should you care about the culture of a company you buy from, sports team you like, community service club you belong to or bank that you deal with?  I mean, should we really care about the internal workings of a place as long as they give us good service, win championships, or generate decent interest on our savings account?  Well, the simple answer is ….Yes.

A few weeks ago I was in a small town having lunch at a local diner.  I finished off my meal, paid my bill and headed out the door to my vehicle, thinking about the next meeting on the schedule.  I was driving out of the parking lot when the young woman who had served me came running across the asphalt, yelling for me to stop.  Thinking I had paid too little, I stopped and opened my window, only to have her arrive out of breath and announce that I had forgotten a small item at my table.  No big deal to me if I had left it behind, but to her it was important to stop what she was doing, sprint across a frozen icy parking lot and make sure I didn’t lose my item.  Pretty impressive.

So, a nice person?  Yes.  But it was more than that.  She knew that her supervisor would allow her to leave another customer for a short time to ensure my experience at the restaurant was top notch.  This was not a large chain, but a small local eatery.  The folks who owned it undoubtedly engrained into their staff to “do things right”.  Does this extend into the service, the food quality and general cleanliness?  That was indeed my experience, but when I saw that server running full tilt across the parking lot to make sure my day went just a little bit better, I knew that the culture of that local favourite was “customer first in everything we do”.  They might not say it that way, but their culture shone through.

On the other side of the ledger, culture can also breed negative feelings.  My family and I were recently travelling on vacation and our flight was delayed extensively.  Such is the way of travel these days (heavy sigh here) so we waited it out.  When we finally got on the plane one family member had to be moved to another seat away from the rest of us.  As he is  a nervous flier and there happened to be an empty seat beside him, I asked the flight attendant if it would be OK to sit beside him.  At that point I received a long lecture about sticking to the rules and how moving to the empty seat would cost me $129.  I was of course shocked and appalled.  The culture in that organization screamed of “shake every dime out of the customer”.  I suspect their future may well be similar to those of the other failed airlines who, with all of their corporate training courses and surveys, couldn’t seem to do what the owners of that small town diner had done so well.  I will be going back to the diner.  The airline?  Not if there are alternatives.

So, back to powerlines, cable and substations.  Does it matter if the contracting company you hire just gives you the cheapest price?  Keep in mind you are selecting someone to design and construct something that needs to last about 50 years, poses an extremely high risk to the public and the environment if it’s done poorly, and is being put into place to get power to your customers or run your profitable industrial operation. Can you afford screw-ups? What if it doesn’t work? Well, before you press go on hiring make sure you have checked into the company culture by checking into their results.  Talk to other customers.  Are they happy? What about your own experiences with them? Did the price go up or did the schedule get blown? In other words, do they care more about you or a quick cash grab?

Culture tells you a lot, and results over time tell you about a culture.

OK, I’m hungry after all of this writing,  I’m heading back to the diner.

Keith Sones

President, Allteck