I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some great contractors over the years. I shared what I had learned along the way at my own company, and I brought those insights and systems to their companies to help them grow and succeed.

But I knew right from the start that this interaction with my clients was always a two-way  — and never a one-way — street of knowledge.

I got better through the years because of the great contractors I worked with. I learned from the great questions they would ask me, which caused me to reflect on what worked for me at my company. It also forced me to seek out more knowledge by reaching out to my respected colleagues who I had met (and admired) along the way. And of course, I got smarter the more I was out there in the world helping fellow contractors.

That said: One of the greatest lessons I learned came along very early in my consulting career. I was very fortunate to work with the great Steve Lowry of Lowry Services in Pennsylvania.

Steve shared with me one day that other companies he competed against could copy everything he does from his truck design, his marketing and a whole lot more, but they could never copy his company’s culture.

He was not bragging. That is not who Steve was and is to this day. He was merely stating a fact. And he was absolutely right. No matter what staff member I met with in private one-to-one meetings, they all freely spoke of how much they loved working at Lowry because of how they worked and respected one another and, in particular, their relationship with the whole management team but especially the owner, Steve.


Cultivate company culture

Steve told me one day as we were wrapping up work on one of the staffing programs, “Al, the better I treat my employees, the better they treat my customers and the more successful I have become. When they make customers incredibly happy and feel like they are treated well, they are all in with doing business with my company for life.”

He was absolutely right, as he is still right about almost everything. Even today, when I check in annually to see how much the company continues to grow and prosper, Steve always is most proud of his team and that the culture is still unmatchable.

Yes, Steve has great people who are well compensated, as they should be, but it’s way more than that.

What I know is company culture has to be cultivated in every transaction and interaction. It’s either getting better or it’s getting worse. There is no standing still. It takes work and that work is always ongoing.

Here are just five ways to get you started on a better path based upon the great company cultures I’ve seen and helped make better:

1. Trust your people but verify. Nothing destroys company culture more than employees feeling they’re not trusted or worse yet spied upon. Does that mean you never check in on what they’re up to? No. It means you let them know that you trust them but to protect customers, the company and fellow employees there are safeguards in place but they’re not in place because you don’t trust them.

2. Have a clear mission statement. I’m not talking about a mission statement you copied off the Internet or stole from some other company you might have visited along the way. Or, even the mission statement your Affinity Group provided you with.

A mission statement is best when it’s short and sweet so everyone at your company knows it by heart, and they come to believe in it when you run the company according to it. A great goal for a mission statement is telling prospective customers what they can expect from you and it also must tell your team what you’ve promised customers and must deliver upon.

3. Always speak highly of your employees in public and criticize only in private. We all know this. But, when we get really ticked off or in a hurry, how many of us take the time to do this right? The answer is not many. When you criticize your staff in public, it tends to make them hide more stuff from you. If you are coaching, there must be a defined objective you’re coaching them on and not you just basing it on subjective things.

4. Be fair to all. Employees despise double standards just as much as siblings despise it in a family. Remember, your business, no matter how big or small, is a family, so what type of family is it going to be? My suggestion is it be a loving, supportive family with clear rules that are known and all who violate them are treated to the same corrective action. It doesn’t matter if you’re a superstar tech or an average tech.

Even promotions at your company are deemed to be arbitrary because no one knows how they can advance, so they assume you pick those you like or those who they deem cozy up to you. It may be a wrong assumption, but perception is reality.

The way to address this is to have policies and procedures in writing. Use the steps of correction when they’re violated. Have an organization chart that explains to them which box they’re in today, where they can go tomorrow and how you will help them get there.

5. Owners lead by example. If your truck is a mess; don’t judge their truck. If your desk is a mess; don’t judge their desk. If you show up late; don’t be surprised when they show up late. If you lie, cheat or steal when it comes to how you deal with customers and staff or elsewhere, don’t be surprised when they mirror that behavior too. Just like a dad or mom in a family, the kids tend to mirror the parents’ behavior. As an example, if your dad is telling you that you’ve got to quit smoking because it’s going to kill you, but the ashes are falling off his lit cigarette while he’s doing it, you know it’s more than worthless.

Hey, you’re the creator of the culture. Yes, you, the owner. If you don’t like it, you can change it, but you may need help to learn how to do it. Get one-to-one coaching, join a peer group, read the wisdom of great businesspeople and leaders who espouse the virtue and value of a great company culture and act accordingly.