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Strong business cultures require strong leaders

May 1st, 2021 / By: / Business

By Clint Halladay

Four years ago, the fabric of our organization, SewLong Custom Covers, was held together by cheap cotton thread. Our company was growing and doing well financially, but our culture was in crisis. Our leadership was fractured and distracted, employees were frustrated, some were leaving. As the “second-in-command,” I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was beginning to believe that the thriving transformational culture I read about in motivational business books like EntreLeadership and Great by Choice was nothing but a fairytale. 

The truth is your company is only as good as its culture, and our culture was bad. You can build the best widget in the world, but your business won’t succeed if your employees are only there to punch their time cards.

Frankly, we were in our position due to ineffective leadership—both mine and that of our owner, Justin Jones.  

I will tell you honestly that our partnership hasn’t always been easy, and Justin’s leadership hasn’t always been effective. I understand that the pressures on each of us are different: I have gotten stressed about not making payroll, but never to the same extent as him. And while I care deeply about customers’ experiences with our organization, it’s not at the same level that he cares.

Four years ago, as his leadership faltered, my own sense of helplessness as a leader spread throughout the organization like wildfire. 

Happy accidents don’t last

When I started at SewLong nearly 11 years ago, we enjoyed a healthy culture—but it was good by accident. Back then, we had a small group of people who just clicked. There were no intentional meetings, no hard conversations and no morning waterski sessions. We were riding the highs of our innovative craftsmanship. Justin was (and still is) leading our industry with the project management software he developed. SewLong was experiencing great success as an organization. This led to new opportunities outside our company, which led Justin to split his time among many ventures.

At first, we handled this fine—or so it seemed. Over the next three years, our reputation outside the state grew, and we began shipping products across the country. But as Justin continued to drift in various directions, his focus was pulled farther from the shop and as a company, we started to lose our bearings. We added team members to keep up with the increased demand, but we neglected to consider how this growth affected our culture. And so, bit by bit, our culture declined. Our core values and mission statement became hollow and hypocritical. As a team, we were growing and putting out more work, but we were not happy. Yes, we loved our customers and the industry, but we started to resent the company and each other. 

Hard conversations are hard

When things didn’t seem like they could get any worse and we’d had enough, I gathered our small team together for a meeting with Justin. It was an intervention of sorts, and we leveled with him, expressing our frustrations and demanding change. 

Looking back on it, this meeting was very one-sided, and the fact that he managed to sit there and eat every bit of it is a testament to Justin’s character. It wasn’t a positive intervention. We called him out on every mistake and issue that we had with him. We didn’t take any ownership of our own mistakes. Still, even with all its flaws, this meeting was the first stage of our cultural upswing, and it worked because of the way Justin accepted this brutal feedback.

Real change takes soul

Change isn’t easy and it often moves more slowly than you want. I’d hoped the intervention would immediately turn things around, but it didn’t. We lost more team members before we course-corrected and saw things improve. Over the following year, we spent time addressing our issues and cleaning up unresolved drama. Justin gradually began dedicating more time to our team again. We got intentional about our culture, and we started doing the work we had only been paying lip service to before. 

We already had the mission statement, the core values, the company trips to the cabin, the morning meetings and the vision of where we wanted to go. While these critical elements were in place, they had no soul. We were only going through the motions. 

Now, we managed to find our soul hiding in one of our core values: “People Matter.” It became the focus of all our decisions, conversations and actions. In our morning meetings, we took time for team members to be grateful and recognize each other and themselves. We put our money where our mouth was. Every Monday and Wednesday, for five to 10 minutes, we stood and shared gratitude for each other. Who doesn’t want to be a part of an organization that is grateful to have them, to notice when they pick up garbage or take extra time with a customer?

Strong leadership takes vulnerability

It took about nine months of constant and deliberate effort on the part of leadership before the team accepted our new culture as real. We added several other things, one at a time. Some things stuck; others didn’t, but our focus on people certainly stuck and has had a significant impact on our culture. 

The most critical change of all was Justin. He was back, he was motivated, and he was vulnerable. He had listened to the team when they told him things needed to change. I remember how he was always repeating business guru Dave Ramsey’s quote: “The bad news: It’s all your fault. The good news: You’re also the solution.” I think it had finally sunk in.

Justin took accountability for past mistakes and continues to do so today. Many people fear being vulnerable and admitting mistakes—especially in front of their employees. I would argue that this has been his superpower over the past few years. His willingness to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that he believes we’ll figure it out together, has made us more than just a team. We are a family.

Leadership creates safe space for growth

Justin and I still have days when we are at odds with each other. We are both driven, passionate and motivated people. We argue and disagree, but we both know that we strive for the same thing. We challenge each other because we know nine of the 10 ideas we have each day are bad at best. This mentality is now spreading in the shop. Disagreements happen; teammates face challenges, and we endure because Justin has shown us this is a safe space in which to grow. 

When it comes to your company and its culture, the buck stops with you for everything. When employees show up late and leave early, it’s your fault. When customers are unhappy with a product, it’s your fault. It’s always your fault. There are no bad teams, just bad leaders. Leadership is not for the weak or thin-skinned. It takes backbone to sit in front of your team and listen to all the things you are doing wrong. 

Can people who are lower on the totem pole affect your culture? Yes, of course! The decline in our culture was as much my fault as anyone else’s. Even if you are not the boss, you still have the power to affect the 15 feet around you. Culture starts with leadership, and, as I tell my son, “You don’t need permission to lead.” If you are in a place that doesn’t appreciate your efforts, then you should find one that will. 

Contrary to stories from Silicon Valley, culture isn’t just Ping-Pong tables and free lunch. It’s how you treat people. Do they feel safe? Are they valued? 

I enjoy coaching youth sports, and I once heard a coach tell other coaches, “If all you know is tactics and techniques, then you don’t know soccer.” The same goes for business. If all you know is how to build a widget, then you don’t understand business. 

“People Matter.” 

Clint Halladay is a team leader at SewLong Custom Covers. Over the past 10-plus years, he has served under the tutelage of Justin Jones, and Mark and Deb Hood. More recently, he has been focusing on leadership and personal development with JP Nerbun of Thrive On Challenge.