• 800-232-LOWE (5693)
  • info@lowe.org
  • 58220 Decatur Road, Cassopolis, MI 49031

High-Flying Culture

“High-Flying Culture”

Airline CEO debunks three myths about company culture than can ground your growth.

Company culture: Manage it — or it will manage you, says Ryan Emerson, manager of people development at SkyWest Airlines in St. George, Utah.

Founded in 1972, SkyWest has more than 5,600 employees and has won numerous awards, including being named "regional airline of the year" in 2002 by Air Transport World magazine. It has also been recognized as one of the "best companies to work for" by Utah Business magazine.

During its first year, SkyWest flew 256 passengers — quite a contrast to the more than 8 million it carried in 2002. "We’re proud of that growth, and it’s an important part of our culture," Emerson says.

Indeed, culture has a considerable effect on growth. "If you have a company culture going with you and not against you, business initiatives can be met," Emerson says. And the reverse is true: Emerson refers to a recent study showing that 80% of companies that tried to instill quality circles failed. The reason? It went against their company culture. "Employees reported quality circles as being a nuisance, very unproductive and a joke," Emerson says.

At a TEI Presidents’ Forum, Emerson dispelled three myths about company culture and offered guidelines for creating a successful culture.

Myth 1: Company culture starts at the top. Company culture is the collective personalities of your employees and how they affect business procedures. "The power of your culture is in your people, not in you," says Emerson. Although a CEO can greatly influence company culture, he or she must realize that the employees must participate in building and maintaining the culture.

Myth 2: To change your culture, change your policies. Wrong, says Emerson: "We don’t change policies; we’ve got to change people. You hire the right ones and fire the wrong ones."

Although company culture isn’t altered through policies, employees can be influenced through policies. For example, if you want a culture where people take initiative and responsibility, don’t require them to fill out forms in triplicate for a $50 requisition.

Similarly, rewards must reinforce the desired culture. Good behavior that goes unrewarded will not be repeated, and bad behavior that goes unnoticed will be repeated. If you want people to act a certain way, reward them for it.

Myth 3: People resist change. Not true — otherwise why would people get married, change jobs or buy new homes? Those are all major changes in our lives, but we get excited about them.

"Yet people do resist change that they perceive to be personally negative," Emerson says. "People would eagerly accept change and even promote change if they were sufficiently rewarded."

The trick is, you have to know what’s important to employees. That could be money — or it could simply be free pizza or a T-shirt. "There are a number of ways to motivate your people that aren’t financially based," Emerson points out.

Creating the right culture

First things first: Have a clear vision. Consider which type of culture will hurt your business and which will help. Don’t forget to document your vision of company culture — it’s a step many leaders overlook. Then:

Evaluate prospective employees carefully. If candidates don’t align with company culture, then don’t bring them in. It’s simply not worth it, Emerson says: "You can teach the abilities. You can’t teach personality."

Because it’s tough to know whether a person is a good match from an hour-long interview, Emerson likes internships. They serve as extended interviews, both for the employer and the prospective employee: "It only takes a week or two before you see people’s true colors come out."

Welcome referrals. Ask current employees for referrals, especially your top performers. "Birds of a cultural feather flock together," Emerson says.

Get rid of misfits. Don’t underestimate the havoc that an employee’s negative personality can wreak. The smaller the company, the greater the influence.

Counsel or terminate resisters to the desired culture. It’s OK to fire employees, Emerson stresses. Just be sure to use performance-based criteria. If an attitude problem exists, see how it relates to performance and document it. "At the heart of the issue it may be their attitude, but you’re able to dismiss people in America based on their performance," he says.

Creating the right company culture may be difficult at first, but over time it will build for you. Employees who embody your company culture will chase out those who don’t belong — and welcome those who do.

Then it’s easy to implement something new, such as a quality circle, says Emerson: "If you have motivated people and give them more authority to act on their own, it’s done. Of course, there’s some management in that, but you’re steering the change rather than trying to drive it upstream."

Writer: T.J. Becker