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Why Corporate Culture Matters to the Entrepreneur: A Tale of One Company

by Lisa Jackson in General and Miscellaneous

As a busy executive with results to deliver … actively working on your corporate culture may seem like fluffy soft stuff or too big and mysterious.

That is, unless you think of your culture as the soil of your business, which directly determines the quality and quantity of your harvest (profits).

Lisa’s gardener said recently “The most important success factor in growing great plants is the preparation of the soil.” (Good advice from someone whose neighbors ask him why his plants are so amazing, while theirs struggle or die).

Nobody knows this better than Brandon Berumen and Lenee Koch – a brother-sister team who founded and run LEI Companies, a highly respected electrical contracting company in Denver.

Brandon and Lenee grew LEI from a start-up family enterprise to one of the most respected commercial electrical contractors in Denver, currently employing 46 people. They have received numerous awards, including  “Minority Business of the Year” by the Denver Chamber in 2008, “Construction Firm of the Year” for Minority Enterprise and Educational Development Week in 2009, and as a Top 100 fastest growing companies in the National Inner City Top 100 in 2010.

In the midst of a downturn in their industry (while competitors are laying off), LEI has added several positions.  Their current strategy is hiring top players (some of whom became available during the recession) to strengthen field operational excellence – so that when the industry grows, they are ahead of the competition on their ability to deliver above and beyond contractor’s expectations.

LEI’s strategy to leverage their corporate culture is based on awareness that in challenging times, everyone needs to take ownership to help the company win.  Building a strong culture is how you get out of the trap of “doing it all” as the owner. And creating an environment of shared leadership and decision making has directly translated to more business.

Here is their story:

When LEI started, we were a core group of family and people who had already been working together. Our culture just naturally “existed” and it was good.

But after a significant growth in staff, we realized we have to work at this corporate culture thing, because not everyone knows what’s important to us as leaders. Lenee and I don’t have time to personally connect and touch every person on the team any more. That was eye-opening, and stimulated us to more formally establish our vision, mission and values.  This was an essential link to creating a performance-based culture.  The key was not having it be “fuzzy” or subject to interpretation – but to define specific desired behaviors that represented our values.  For example, “respect” is a value on almost any leader’s list, but we say exactly what it means at LEI.  Our “Values” document has become an everyday part of how we reward people, correct performance, train, make decisions, and resolve conflict.  As a result, problems are less personality-based.

And now we are confident that when a new player comes on the team, we can spend an hour talking about the corporate culture and the values and what their role is in our mission of “Elevating What’s Expected” – and that means something to them.  When that person goes into the field, he’s going to know what we expect right out of the gate.

And, we need this kind of clarity if we want to compete. Like every other industry, construction is undergoing major transformation, with greater sophistication of management and use of technology in construction, engineering, and architecture.  We’re expected to be players on the digital front.  Now, our top performers have to be good with clients, good at leading a team, good collaborators, as well as having great technical and technological skills. This is not an easy combination to cultivate. In a small business, every manager has to wear all hats. Our culture and values are a common ground that every person can use to operate from a common message and spirit, and ensure that permeates out to our customers.

And it’s paying off: Making corporate culture a visible aspect of how we manage our business has created a more aware environment. Instead of being flat-footed, now we’re always on our toes. The fact we’re all on the same page means we can seize new opportunities and take advantage of them more quickly.

And there’s another reason too: If you don’t want to burn through staff, you have to get people connected to one another, in a way that they have each other’s backs. If a person is going to spend 1/3 of their life somewhere, it had better be a good place. We want to create the kind of place where everyone wants to come to work every day. A place where people don’t just fulfill tasks but the act of working together fulfills a human void.”

Brandon and Lenee know that by attending to the “hidden, unseen” element of their company’s infrastructure – the culture - it is not being left to chance.  But what does that mean in action?

Defining corporate culture. Culture is the actual ways people work together that either helps or hinders commitment and achievement of key strategies and goals.   Corporate culture is not morale, although a healthy culture has positive morale. Culture is not simply the values of the owner, although those are fertilizer for good soil.  Corporate culture is the cumulative day-to-day behaviors that ensure people execute the company’s projects and plans – or don’t.  Corporate culture is the chemistry that produces happy soil, which produces great plants.

How does corporate culture show up in your business?  The most tangible ways corporate culture can be seen is in the processes for how:

  • People are hired, promoted, developed, and let go;

  • Decisions are made (who makes them and how fast);

  • Teams and projects are launched and gain traction (or wither from lack of leadership);

  • Consistent customer experiences are built, adopted and evolved.

To cultivate a great corporate culture, employees need to be encouraged and shown specific behaviors that will help make your business better and stronger.  Often, leaders unintentionally fuel confusion, apathy, or lack of accountability by:

  • Making key decisions with little or no input from those who will implement.

  • Hiring approaches that overly sell a candidate on the job, versus the other way around.

  • Whipsaw change that doesn’t link to a cohesive theme or vision, resulting in confused priorities.

  • Setting direction that leaves troops to guess and mind-read what to do differently.

  • Making speeches about “meeting numbers” that have no benefit or relevance to employees. 

  • Rewarding behaviors and keeping employees who are counter-productive and violate the stated values of the leader or company.

One good “PH” test of a company with a great cultural soil: When people leave the company, do they vocally wish they hadn’t?  Do they tell others “That company was the best place I ever worked”?  If you want a quick way to take a good soil sample of your corporate culture, poll your employees (through Survey Monkey or some other anonymous method) by asking three open-ended questions:

  • Why specifically do you like to work here?

  • How would you describe our vision and strategy?

  • What is the unique distinction we offer to our customers and market?

This simple analysis is not a full diagnosis of your corporate culture, but it will tell you a lot about the degree of alignment and consistency you have within and across your team or organization.

Heed the advice of entrepreneurs who know: If you want emerge from tough times with a rich harvest, break out your gardening hat and start tilling your soil.

Lisa Jackson is an author, speaker, and expert in corporate culture and its impact on business performance. Her new book “Small Change: Natural Truths for Transforming Corporate Culture” is forthcoming this Fall. Visit her on the web at

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