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Identifying your business culture's strengths, weaknesses

Friday, April 21, 2017 - 07:00
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In our industry, we continue to see a growing awareness around the importance of business culture. This is an important step in any industry or business within it and especially for the leadership that guides it. If you are a business owner or manager, it is important that you recognize and understand the basics of business culture and your role in it. An increased awareness of culture in general, helps us better understand each other and ultimately appreciate the diversity and wisdom that exists in the world.

There are many attempts to define culture, but for our industry, I always refer to the following by Marcia Connor and James Clawson, “Culture can be defined as a pattern of learned assumptions that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to the problems of survival and integration.” Those who read articles I have written over the years on this topic, will see me refer to this definition of culture often, as I believe it helps define the accepted beliefs or learned assumptions that exist within businesses. Anyone that has worked in or done business in multiple repair businesses will experience different perspectives on how to approach it.

In the past, I have referenced studies I have been involved in, where repair businesses had similar square footage, number of employees and equipment, yet output and profitability where very different. As my personal awareness of culture increased, it became clear that the differences within these businesses came down to their culture. I have come to realize these learned assumptions that exist within a business dictates everything about it. Its productivity, employee retention, whether everyone is optimistic and positive or negative and the list goes on.

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Business culture begins with leadership. The perspective and attitude leadership embodies, becomes the framework from which the business’ culture lives. Over time these assumed beliefs evolve and become more entrenched. As it becomes more defined and established, it has a greater influence on those working within it. If leadership fails to expose itself to other viewpoints, the culture continues to become more inward focused and ultimately more narrow in its overall understanding of what is going on outside their small world. In this case, the real danger in an ever-changing industry, is the business’ ability to adapt decreases until those in it do not even recognize the change happening around them. I personally believe this has happened to the majority of repair businesses within our industry. Massive amounts of changes are happening every day, yet many continue to approach their business and their repairs the same, despite growing frustrations and shrinking margins. This group is culture-blind and can’t see the true reality of our industry, because they have a business culture and fixed personal mindset that has established a different reality that has them placing the blame outside themselves and their businesses. David Luehr, well-known industry coach and author of the new book, “Secrets of America’s Greatest Body Shops”, calls this the “victim zone”. It is sad and frustrating to watch, and if you are starting to realize you may be in this category, begin to overcome it by getting out and networking with other positive people within the industry. Attend seminars and training, and hire a coach, who can bring an outside perspective right into your business. Your awareness of how others are doing and thinking about many of the same things you are faced with will grow and so will you, your business and its bottom-line.

Take the concept of being culture-blind. Many small businesses completely overlook their own culture and its strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to do, as most have their “heads down” working hard every day in their businesses and feel they do not have the luxury of taking a step back and work on their business. To overcome culture blindness, one must be willing to take an honest assessment of themselves, their operation and their employees. Start by identifying what you say is important and compare it with your business’ operational actions. You may claim customer-service is important to you, but identify what you and your business are really doing to promote good consistent customer service, resulting in real customer loyalty. Here is an example, if you want your business to know what your customers really want, what steps have you taken to ensure you and your staff are listening to what they are telling you? Listening skills are one most important skills anyone can have, in fact it is often 60% of our daily activities, yet the International Journal for Listening, reported only 2% of adults have formal listening skills training. How would your business compare?

Long-term employees are a window into the company’s culture.  As you walk through the journey of seeing your business’ pattern of learned assumptions for what they really are, look at the staff that have been there the longest. Realizing they are likely comfortable with the culture and in fact align with it.  Are they positive or negative? Do they go above and beyond or do they do just enough to get by? Do they love to learn and share their knowledge or do they protect what they think they know and project themselves as knowing most everything? I have seen technicians who would leave training classes excited about what they have learned, only to down play it back at the shop, because to admit you learned something, in that business’ culture, would be admitting you did not know something. Compare that situation, with a repair business that has a learning culture. The learning culture promotes the need to always be learning and encourages employees to share what they know and learn and likewise be open to what others can share.  Training is seen as an opportunity to learn, not just an event one must complete to maintain good standing in a program that requires it. There are huge gains in the ROI of training and tools and equipment costs when the culture promotes learning and curiosity.

Identifying your business’ true culture, including its strengths and weaknesses is not easy, but well worth it. It requires honesty and sincerity. To change the culture and strengthen your business also requires honest, sincere and effective communications. The open conversation with staff requires exposing the realities of the industry outside the business and how the business must champion change and adaptation to be successful. It requires laying out a plan with a commitment to keep anchoring it every day with an obsessed focus on the outcome. You will lose employees who refuse to change, but building a strong business culture that values learning, sharing knowledge and the improving the lives of its staff and customers will always do well. The healthier your culture becomes and is then exposed during employee recruitment, the better the candidate you will see show up at your door, as they are attracted to the culture and naturally align with it.  As my friend, David Luehr says, “If cash is the life blood of a company, culture is its soul.”

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