ATLANTA — The word “culture” often comes up when talking about what can make a business stand out from competitors, both from a customer service standpoint and from the perspective of keeping good employees. But how does a business owner help to foster a positive work culture? While there are many voices in business coaching circles offering methods of quickly creating such an atmosphere, the real answer is that it takes hard work.
This was the message of Sean Abbas during “Best Culture Wins,” an educational session at the 2022 Clean Show. Abbas, president of Threads, Inc., a software company he co-founded to help organizations review employees on culture, warned his audience that his presentation was not for those who are looking for the easy path to success.
“Not everybody digs my message, because my message is a little confrontational,” he says. “It’s going to challenge what most people say in the area of culture.”
Why Culture is Important
The goal of generating a great work culture is an important one, Abbas says, both for leadership and for the employees.
“I never go to a place where somebody says, ‘Our culture doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really serve me,’” he says. “And here’s why: It can help you grow. It can help you keep the peace. It can help prevent turnover. It can help you hire people. It can help people satisfy an objective by going to an organization where the culture and engagement of their employees is valued.”
Abbas feels there are other, more business-centric reason to foster a positive atmosphere.
“The other thing that’s important to remember is this: It’s OK to want a good culture to help your company grow its profits,” he says. “What I know about small businesses is a little different from what most people know about small businesses, and that’s this: You care about your employees. You’re portrayed as people who don’t care about employees, and who basically load up the money at the end of the day and put it in the trunk of your car and drive to the bank to deposit. That’s what we all do, right? In fact, we don’t do those things. We take a lot of the money that we make, and we reinvest it back into people we hire, because it’s OK to say that we actually care about them and love them.”
The Best Path to a Positive Culture
Abbas believes that there are no shortcuts to building a great culture. Instead, it takes hard work, clear objectives, selflessness, honesty, humility, and time. “Culture is not something that you can go out and purchase, no matter how many times you’ve been told that you can go buy the favor of your employees,” he says. “You simply can’t do it, and here’s the truth. Quite frankly, most people are unwilling to give the time and effort necessary to do this.”
He illustrated the shortcut mindset that surrounds building culture by searching “workplace culture” on Google and displayed the “feel-good” stock photography images of people getting along.
“The most trusted sources — like Forbes and Inc. Magazine — are putting out this kind of information and convincing you that culture is something that it’s not. Most of you, your entire life, when it comes to culture, have been lied to about it. But deep in the back of your mind, you know what culture is.”
Those peddling quick-fix solutions, however, have found a source of income in the field, Abbas says: “There are a lot of people today who are interested in monetizing these ideas. So, once we understand that culture is for sale, and that it is actually big business, we start to understand some other things about it. When something becomes big business, we get people called thought leaders.”
Abbas says that listening to lectures about the HR programs huge companies — such as Zappos, Netflix and Southwest Airlines — undertake, along with watching slideshows and hearing famous quotes, isn’t going to move the needle appreciably at a small business, such as the ones most dry cleaners operate.
In the last decade in the United States, Abbas says, spending on cultures and engagement in business has increased by $24 billion. “I once took a survey, and it said my culture was rated at a 3.2,” he says, “but if I spent $10,000, with a consulting agency, we could move the culture to ‘world class,’ which is 3.6. At the end of the day, you can’t buy culture.”
Paying to bring in third parties to facilitate employer/employee relationships, Abbas says, usually isn’t necessary, either. “Your employees actually would like to talk to you and engage with you — if you’re willing to take the time and make the effort to do so.”
Come back Thursday for Part 2 of this series, where Abbas shares some of his personal work experience — and the moment when everything changed for him.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].