January is the perfect time to start thinking about your workplace culture. A positive one produces happy, engaged employees who give their best efforts, challenge themselves to grow, and consistently meet goals and delight customers. A toxic one creates miserable, unmotivated clock-watchers and job-board checkers. Deb Boelkes says shoring up your culture — making sure your company is a place where the best and brightest can thrive — is probably the single most important thing you can focus on this year.
“In a strong economy like ours, people have their pick of good jobs,” says Boelkes, author of “The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture.” “If your culture is one of disengagement and toxicity, your most talented workers will be looking to leave. You’ll be left with mediocre and low performers who have little incentive to do more than the bare minimum.”
The bad news is that leaders often aren’t aware their culture isn’t what it should be. The good news is that they can change that. When leaders consistently motivate and inspire employees, fill them with purpose, challenge them, and make them feel safe and supported, what Boelkes calls the “WOW factor” manifests, grows, and permeates the entire culture.
Any type of company can create a “Best Place to Work” culture—also known as a WOW factor workplace—when leaders commit to being role models who train and inspire employees to create extraordinary products and deliver impeccable service at a great value (regardless of the price). This creates an unparalleled experience for both employees and customers, making both groups feel special, appreciated, and respected.
To start creating a culture of WOW in 2020, follow this advice.
Stop allowing a**holes and idiots to thrive. (Hire slow and fire fast.) When your company is made up of talented, enthusiastic, hardworking people, employees won’t want to leave. That’s why you should hire only people who will fit in with the culture you’re creating—and get rid of bullies and others who create a toxic culture. You may be reluctant to fire someone you yourself hired, but don’t wait till they do maximum damage. Fire him or her now.
“I love the simple yet effective mantra of Todd Wilcox, chairman of Patriot Defense: ‘No assholes, no idiots,'” says Boelkes. “These no-nonsense standards guarantee that everyone supports each other, has the right attitude, and wants to do what’s best for the company.”
Make adjustments and break things to make WOW happen. Adjustments are made all the time in WOW factor workplaces to make things even better than they already are. The adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is NOT the way WOW factor workplaces become WOW factor workplaces. Sometimes you must break things intentionally to make continuous dramatic improvements that enable WOW to happen.
“You may have to move an employee from one position to another, for example,” says Boelkes. “If someone isn’t thriving, you owe it to him or her and to the company to make a change.”
Encourage your employees to interview elsewhere…really! Boelkes is a strong believer in a piece of advice she learned early in her career: Always be interviewing. While this applies to managers seeking the best possible job candidates, she says it also applies to employees. Everyone should interview elsewhere from time to time. This is one way to ensure neither the employee nor the business gets complacent. It’s crucial for employees to know their value to the outside world.
“Likewise, organizations should be made aware if they are not keeping up with competitive marketplace opportunities,” says Boelkes. “You certainly don’t want to wait until your best team members have accepted another position elsewhere to finally offer them a raise or a promotion. By then, their hearts and minds are out the door.”
Start mentoring in the moment. Mentoring should happen every single day, not just a few times a year during performance reviews. That’s why Todd Wilcox recommends that leaders should have a smaller number of direct reports—more like five or six instead of fifteen or twenty. With a smaller group, leaders can talk to their mentees every single day.
“There are limited resources,” says Wilcox. “You don’t have enough time to talk to more than four or five or six people in a single day. If you’re not talking to people every single day, then I would argue you’re not effectively communicating, managing, mentoring, and developing them.”
Set high expectations and hold your people to them. WOW factor workplaces have a well-documented set of behavioral standards and performance expectations. When someone isn’t meeting these expectations, leaders will collaborate with him or her to develop an improvement plan that spells out SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Time-bound). Each party is responsible for holding the other accountable to his or her end of the bargain. The underperformer must either get his or her act together or move on to something else.
“I have had to look dear friends in the eye and tell them they couldn’t keep a job because of something they’d done,” says Colleen Barrett, president emeritus and corporate secretary of Southwest Airlines. “Or I couldn’t recommend them for another, and I still retained the friendship. You know, that’s hard. But if you’re just honest with people, I think the worst disservice you can do is NOT tell somebody when they are not making the grade. That’s just ridiculous.”
Refuse to tolerate excuses (from yourself and from others). Some people hold themselves back. They may think they aren’t as good as others or as prepared as others to assume a leadership role. Maybe they haven’t had as much education or they’re from a low-income family or any of a whole variety of reasons. Don’t let this happen. Tell employees they don’t need to have had a model upbringing or have earned a PhD to live up to their potential. They can do their best work with what they have right now. No excuses. They’ll be amazed at what they can achieve with their talent and wherewithal alone.
“We were dirt-poor,” says Patriot Defense’s Todd Wilcox. “My mother qualified for food stamps and aid for dependent children, but she was adamant she would not do that. She put us to work as kids. I started working when I was thirteen years old as a dishwasher, and I’ve been working my entire life ever since. It was self-determination. Take charge. Provide for yourself. Be accountable for the decisions you make. Those were things she taught us along the way.”
Help employees connect to purpose and meaning. Britt Berrett, former president of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas (named one of the “Top 50 Best Places to Work in the State of Texas”), explains the value of purpose in healthcare: “When I get exhausted, I’ll go to the lobby. I’ll watch the patients walk in and out. They are scared. They’re going to be entering a new environment. We’ll poke and prod them all night long. If I, as a leader, can understand my role in blessing their lives, if it can give me purpose and meaning, then I’ll be much more purposeful in my efforts. That’s invigorating.”
Nudge people out of their comfort zones. Strong leaders look for the potential in employees and push them out of their comfort zones. They show employees that they have faith in them. They mentor them along the way. When you do this, employees are inspired to make the best use of their talents and push past their perceived limitations.
“When I was a senior systems engineer at AT&T Information Systems, I was supporting the top sales rep, Phil,” says Boelkes. “My job was to make sure what Phil sold performed as expected. When he quit, his sales manager, Betty, offered me the job. When I said I wasn’t cut out for sales, she replied, ‘You obviously don’t know why Phil was so successful. It’s all because of you. You can still be you, only better, as a sales rep.’ Betty’s vision and persistent encouragement changed the trajectory of my career. Never again was I afraid to take on challenges.”
Make them feel like they belong. Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, talks about fostering belonging. He says, “People feel like they belong here because we are doing things every day to help them be better. We help educate them. We help them deal with their stresses of life. Just last Friday, we had a lunch-and-learn. We had someone giving people a two-hour session on stress management. We had massage therapists in here during that time. We want people to be feeling good about themselves in many ways, not just emotionally but physically. I think what’s great is in our last employee opinion survey—with a 99 percent positive response globally—the number-one measure was: ‘At WD-40 Company, I’m treated with respect and dignity.'”
Urge employees to go beyond the expected to delight customers. Donald Stamets, general manager for Solage, an Auberge resort in Calistoga, CA, allows employees to take the lead in this area with his Expected, Requested, and Delighted philosophy. He encourages staff to go above and beyond what the customer expects and try to delight them at every turn. For instance, if a guest is sick, employees can bring them tissues and chicken soup without asking a manager.
Boelkes says she experienced Stamets’ “beyond the expected” philosophy when he was the general manager for an Omni resort and she selected them to host her dad’s birthday. They were prepared with a tray of Bloody Marys (her dad’s favorite drink), and the breakfast chef (Miss Donnie) led him into the kitchen and made him a special omelet. “It was as though we were the only guests in the place, and Miss Donnie had nothing more important to do than ensure my dad had the birthday celebration of a lifetime,” she reflects.
“You can always improve if your culture isn’t yet where you want it to be,” concludes Boelkes. “The year 2020 is a fresh start. Commit to start moving in a positive direction and build a culture that will make you and everyone on your team feel lucky to work for such a great organization.”