What is the culture of your organization?

One of my favorite parts of my “day job” is working with a group of volunteer leaders and trade association staff people on the now seven-year old business-to-business conference known as HDAW, or Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week.

For HDAW, my association - HDMA - and 13 other industry organizations work together for several months on this annual meeting of all of these groups’ members. The meeting takes place in late January or early February, traditionally in Las Vegas at The Mirage.

Each year, a planning group meets in-person and via conference calls to set up the overall theme and prepare the content for the meeting.

The theme of the HDAW 2011 was on the importance of leadership in all organizations. Seminar sessions were set up around the theme, “Leadership: Strategies for Tomorrow,” and focused on how distributor management could be more effective in their leadership.

To follow up on that theme, for the upcoming HDAW - set for January 23-26, 2012, at The Mirage in Las Vegas, the entire conference program will center on the corporate culture of organizations and how to go from good to great, or great to even greater. The theme is: “Corporate Culture: The Foundation for Success.”

Details on HDAW 2012 can be found by visiting www.HDAW.org.

Corporate Culture

You have all been involved with or worked for companies that have a distinct culture - some good, some not so good. In working with the planning group, I have learned a great deal more than I thought possible on the intricacies of corporate culture.

Searching the term on Google, Yahoo and Bing, one finds hundreds of pages of writings on corporate culture. I think it is best defined as: the blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths that all companies develop over time. This all emanates from the leadership of the organization, whether it is a small shop, a large corporation or even a family unit.

If mom leaves laundry or food lying on the floor, so will dad and the kids. If the boss is very nice, or terribly rude to people, others will act in kind.

Diverse Cultures

Culture in a company is an interesting thing. I have experienced hundreds of different examples within companies that I have been involved with over the years.

One example is a large distributor and service provider in the Midwest. When you visit one of their many spotlessly clean locations, the striking impression you have is that they treat everyone - people, customers, vendors and co-workers - with the same friendly “there is nothing I won’t do to help you” attitude.

Funny enough, the top executive of the company is exactly like that, and he personally hired most of the people that work there.

People do business with this company because they feel the tremendous respect the organization has for them. One hundred percent of that comes from the top of the organization.

In another example - this one at the other end of the spectrum, I regularly visited a large company on the East Coast where the general feeling was one of great tension.

Dealing with the purchasing people was always a problem because it seemed they were incapable of action without involving the owner, even on the most minor issues. The salespeople were not willing to commit to fieldwork unless the boss was standing right there agreeing with them. The walk-up customers were ignored until they nearly left the building and even then, many did.

The two or three times I met with the owner he was cold, rude and inconsiderate and always angling for a better deal. That was years ago, and I am not sure if the business even exists anymore, although I would be surprised if it did.

The Midwest location that I mentioned is still in business and thriving. All of the employees make it their business to stay up-to-date on the latest developments affecting their company and their customers and suppliers. They maintain their refreshing “can do” attitude and are well known by all as consummate problem solvers.

Job Approach

I am sure many of you are working in organizational cultures that are highly positive and that bring out the best in every situation. This is not something that happens by accident. If you are the owner or the business leader, such organizational cultures have their origins with you and your approach to your job.

If you are an employee of a company with an outstanding culture, consider yourself very lucky. Most companies do not fall into that category, although many have a healthy culture, just not outstanding.

Going from good to great is a difficult plateau to reach. The hard part is recognizing that no matter how great you think your organization is, there is always a competitor trying to knock you out of your position.

One major Chicago-based retailer from the 1920s through the 1970s was recognized as being unbeatable by its competitors. In the end, it still exists today, but in a diminished position in the marketplace.

An analysis of this company after it fell from its prominent position was quite simply put by a business strategy consultant: “They stood at the top of the hill and admired the view.”

Continual Improvement

No matter how great your company is at serving its customers, there is always room for improvement.

By paying close attention to the culture in your company you will remain successful.

All business cultures should be focused on three things: profitability, customer service and continuous improvement. That is pattern of all long-term successful organizations.

Tim Kraus is the president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA). Prior to joining HDMA, he served in various executive positions with heavy duty industry parts manufacturers. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association exclusively serves as the industry voice of the commercial vehicle product manufacturers. It is a market segment affiliate of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA).