Even gangs have a culture

Yes, you read that correctly. Even a gang has a culture. I learned that phrase from a book I read years ago called “Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Gregory Boyle. Father G, as he’s affectionately called, started a non-profit organisation in Los Angeles, California, called Homeboy Industries that has served thousands of former gang members over the years. It has become a go-to book for me when I need inspiration or just want to read about some incredible people. You might be wondering what gangs have to do with hardware?

Perhaps it was my naivety, but up until I read this book, I really thought “corporate culture” was always a positive thing. Father G’s wisdom made me wonder though – “How does an organisation grow a solid and healthy corporate culture?” I didn’t think of my small hardware business as something “corporate” so was this even necessary for us? And more importantly, who has time to think about it!

The response, I eventually learned, is careful and thoughtful planning. It does not matter how small your business is, nurturing a healthy workplace with a strong culture can only encourage active participation by your teammates which should in turn grow your bottom line.

Part I: Where do you start?

In 2005 we gathered a small group of our associates and young leaders together and asked them to share all of the things that were right with our company. For roughly twenty minutes the group shouted phrases like “We’re nice!”, “We give good service!”, “We’re convenient!”. I scribbled each phrase as fast as I could on a white board and tried to accurately capture the sentiment of each participant.

My role as the leader in this exercise was to write and listen. I very purposely didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to direct the conversation or intimidate a participant. I didn’t think this was a top-down exercise but one that needed buy in and creation from the bottom up and side to side.

Part II: Now what?

After we hit pause on the shouting, we debated each phrase, determined which words or phrases were more agreed upon and refined them into what ultimately became the nine core values we try to live by to this day.

Part III: Bring them to life!

Of course, shouting out and writing down what you want your values to be is the easy part. It is on-going and consistent usage that embeds them into your organisation until they have a life of their own. We don’t just hang posters with the values in our break rooms, we really try to make them part of the day-to-day.

To make ours stick we infused the values throughout our policies and procedures starting with our interview process. One of our values, Always Grow & Share, gives an applicant the opportunity to tell us about something he or she has learned and then taught to someone else. Even the youngest applicants such as a high school student can tell us about something they’ve learned and shared in school and therefore have a good interview.

Be a Good Neighbour gives even the most inexperienced applicants the ability to talk about a time they did something helpful for someone. We once hired a fourteen-year-old who had never worked a day in his life. His face lit up when asked this question because he had an elderly neighbour he helped out occasionally.

A smile equates to a great customer experience in many customers minds

Once on-boarded, a teammate may one day be provided with a coaching or counselling session because they aren’t performing up to the manager’s expectations. This provides another opportunity for the core values to sneak into their daily life. For example, a teammate providing poor customer service may have to do with them not communicating respectfully therefore giving the manager a guideline for this conversation.

Part IV: Encouraging feedback

Quarterly check-ins and annual employee engagement surveys have replaced our annual review process and these two exercises round out how we infuse our core values into daily life.

Teammates are always willing to help.

Several years ago, we added “Stay Interviews” to our roster of information gathering. Each quarter we ask the same two or three questions, to a different group of teammates with the hope of determining why they haven’t left us for other places of employment.

These written interviews are not anonymous. As CEO, I want to follow up with each respondent if a response leaves me with more questions or if I am concerned or am intrigued by a suggestion that was given. Big companies wait until someone leaves to ask them why they are leaving – an exit interview. I want to know why they are still here. In a few cases, I’ve learned that a teammate is afraid to leave – a lack of confidence or concern that a manager will be upset if they hear of future goals or dreams.

These are great conversation starters.

Part V: Culture = Growth

Hopefully all that sounds straightforward, and it certainly can be, especially when the team are all working in the same place. One tidy corner hardware store where the boss sees the whole team face-to-face every day is manageable. But our values really earned their weight when we took the leap and grew to thirteen locations in several cities. This happened quickly for us but because we had our value system documented, it didn’t matter if location number four was an hour’s drive away. We had a foundation of shared commonalities that allowed us to focus on what we do best – selling products and providing great customer service.

Teammates are engaged without constant supervision.

We began a practice of promoting from within from our very first expansion. A dedicated and enthusiastic cashier was tapped to manage our second location across town, and we sent her there with a playbook for success that included how to treat her new team and their customers.

It was fast and furious with lots of opportunity for promotions and mess ups. But our managers heading off to new addresses could create a new unique location with a strong footing underneath.

There is no doubt that a customer service job can be challenging, but we know that if we continue to support a strong and healthy culture, our customers will be able to feel it the minute they walk in the door. What we may lack in technical skills like plumbing or electrical, we can make up for with strong service skills, getting the customer to the solution they need through research, videos or asking others on our team. Be a Good Neighbour goes a long, long way.

Part VI: Playing to your core strengths helps build a positive customer experience

The bottom line is this, as business owners or managers we can’t leave our corporate culture development to chance. With thoughtfulness and planning it is possible to create the workplace we want – and one where people will happily come to work. And when the team is “happy”, the store feels happy. I don’t use that word “happy” lightly either. Customers know it and have a better shopping experience which in turn should put more money to your bottom line.

Gina Schaefer co-owner of A Few Cool Hardware Stores

Gina Schaefer is an ACE Retailer and co-owner of ‘A Few Cool Hardware Stores’ with her husband Marc and now her employees.

They currently have 14 locations that range from 4,000 to 13,000 square feet. They have expanded from Washington, DC into Baltimore, Silver Spring, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia. They have about 250 employees and will add 50-80 more over the summer. Of the 14 stores they purchased four and built the rest from scratch. Their revenue average is approximately $3.5 Million (€3.3 Million) per location. The company is currently transferring ownership of its stores to their employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Within the next couple of years the staff will have full ownership of the company.