How to create a better culture by cutting ties

By / January 12, 2018

Culture. It’s a buzzword that we hear all the time, and yet it means something different to everyone. The talking heads in business spend countless hours telling you about how new ideas, new products, new this, new that will improve your company culture.

Do this, be that, hire a Chief Empathy Officer. Buy a cappuccino machine. Go tour Google. Plant trees. Blah, blah, blah. Of course, some of it has merit, but sometimes you can create culture by letting something go rather than taking on something new.

Let me share with you a couple of examples of this that I have observed recently.

Story 1: Removal of an employee

I have a friend, Ted, who runs a traditional B2B sales organization with about 50 staff members. Ted has been around long enough to have an employee who was considered part of the family. The guy had worked with Ted for almost 25 years. But over the past few years, the employee had grown distant and disruptive. For two years Ted kept track of complaints that he received from both other staff members and customers. He documented the complaints and tried to work with the employee. After all, they were “like family.” Still, Ted had to finally let the employee go after 25 years of service.

Ted called me shortly after his toxic employee’s last day on the job. His voice articulated guilt and sorrow for what he had done. Anyone who has been in business long enough knows tough decisions go with the territory, but what Ted was feeling after firing a long-time staffer was the toughest side of doing business.

Three months went by and Ted and I got together for a drink after work. Ted’s mood had taken a 180-degree turn.

“My team is really gelling,” he told me. “People are picking up slack in different ways than ever before. I left the office and six people were wrapping up quotes and then headed to grab dinner together. That never happened when the crabby employee brought everyone’s mood down.”

Ted then told me about all of the things he had added to his organization in hopes of improving the culture. Training, team-building activities, a break room remodel, the list when on.

“It turns out that even though I thought I needed to improve culture by adding all these things, what I really needed to do was to remove the person who didn’t want to be a part of it.” This quote hit me hard, and reminded me to stop adding and to do an audit on what should be removed.

Story 2: Removal of a client

Recently I was presented with a project opportunity with a prospect that my company has wanted to do business with for a long time. The project was a nice piece of business for us, but the big upside was the possibility of a longterm agreement with this prestigious company. The project went well and the scope of work was dramatically expanded. Unfortunately, we experienced some requests and issues in working together that negatively impacted our company’s culture.

Before agreeing to the new terms of work with this client, I made the very challenging decision to send over a pointed list on how our company would work with this client moving forward.

“Here is what we will do/accept.”

“Here is what we will not do/accept.”

This document was extremely reasonable in my mind, but I had no way of knowing for sure how it would be interpreted at the client’s office.

Honestly, I probably killed the opportunity of us working further with the client, and that’s ok. My people and the culture we created here are more valuable than a good chunk of money from the wrong client.

We’re not a huge company and my accountant would probably kill me if he knew the amount of gross margin dollars this decision might leave on the table. On the other hand, how am I supposed to maintain and grow the great culture we’ve created by putting our team in front of the wrong clients?

My point in telling you this is that sometimes the decisions we make to preserve or improve our culture hurts the pocketbook. Although tough to swallow, turning away this business is an investment in my team.

Ted and I aren’t the only ones to discover that sometimes improving company culture comes down to an addition- by-subtraction equation. Ted, I’m sure, will miss his long-time employee with whom he talked football for over two decades. Selfishly, I will miss the business revenue that the mismatched client would have brought to our company. But with that said, an uptick in culture can happen in your organization by simply removing the blockade, and getting what’s holding you back out of the way.

Isaac Oswalt

Isaac Oswalt is an entrepreneur, investor, author, speaker and marketer. He owns 21 Handshake, a sales and marketing agency in Ada, Mich., working across multiple industries to help businesses succeed. Reach him at 517-899-0123 or [email protected]