Company Culture – What It Is? How You Get IT and Why You Should Care

Auto Rental News October 2004

– Company culture is the bedrock of your business.
– If your company culture recognizes and rewards employee efforts and results, employees will be more involved and invigorated.
– A culture that’s allowed to develop on its own, without management’s guidance, indicates a failure of leadership.
– To transform your culture into a more positive one, you must involve many others in the company and encourage teamwork.

Thinking about company culture makes me remember something I learned in school. Way back in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with definitions of obscenity. Justice Potter Stewart, in a case called Jacobellis v. Ohio, noted that obscenity was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”

Company culture is equally difficult to define. To the insider or employee, the culture of a company can be described as the personality, quirks, attitudes and idiosyncrasies of the organization. To an outsider like a customer, company culture can mean the difference between buying from you or not.

You can see examples of this while you travel. You might stop at a McDonald’s in Memphis and be amazed at the speed of service, level of cleanliness, enthusiasm of the crew, and other qualities that make your purchase of that same old burger just delightful.

But travel up the road to Minneapolis, and you might find the same sign, same burger and same price — but a completely different feel for the place. Your experience is distasteful, radically different from that place in Memphis. As a result, you make a mental note: “Memphis, OK.Minneapolis, find another place to eat!”

The culture of your company matters. Cars and facilities aren’t the bedrock foundation of your business; your company culture is.

‘Why Should I Care?’
Of course, the basics of running a car rental business are crucial to your success — having the right amount and type of fleet, counter systems that run well, a business management department that gets the bills out on time, and all the other things that make a rental business work. But once you have a handle on all those, your company culture is the difference between a successful business and one that is stagnant or failing.

Have you made developing a company culture a priority, or have you allowed the culture to develop on its own?

Company culture rears its head in many ways. Consider some negative examples first: Is there a sales culture inside your company, or are sales calls and driving more business to the counter considered “somebody else’s job”? Are daily business reports completed inaccurately and carelessly because “somebody back in the business department will fix it”? Are cars checked in improperly, allowing damage to go unnoticed (and unpaid for) because “I’m the counter person and it’s not my job to do that”?

Now, let’s consider some positive examples: A smiling, involved employee can overcome mishaps at the counter with a positive attitude and a quick recovery. Employees involved and invigorated by their job will stay late or come in early to prep cars or do weekend deals if the company culture recognizes and rewards effort and results.

New employees will learn faster and more effectively if the culture of the company suggests: “It’s not OK to be ignorant of what’s going on around here. You must participate in your own training.”You should care about your company culture because it can earn you, or cost you, money.

‘What’s the Wrong Way to Define My Business’ Culture?’
First and foremost, a culture that’s allowed to define itself, without guidance from ownership or management, indicates a failure of leadership. When you fail to define the image you hope to achieve and portray to your customers, all the things you do are affected.

Allowing poor cultural attributes to fester is even worse. Nobody wants to be associated with, much less own, a company that’s viewed as shoddy, dirty, untrustworthy or inefficient. But some are, and it happens right under the owners’ noses. As Justice Stewart said, “…I know it when I see it.” Open your eyes to the telltale signs of a company culture that’s out of whack: high turnover, employees that drag themselves to work, poor profit performance, dirty buildings, dirty cars, listless phone skills, inaccurate billings, high customer complaints, and the like. You may not like what you see, but the first step to recovery is to use your eyes and your experience to recognize what’s around you.

Fixing a broken culture is hard. And it cannot be done in one day, or with a simple memo to all your employees. A wise person (who also happens to be my mother) once told me (in the context of raising children): “People will listen to what you say, but they really watch — and act on — what you do. When you lead by example, your people will imitate you — for better or worse. So watch what you do!” Truer words were never spoken, but it’s hard to change what you’ve been doing, maybe sometimes for years. It can be done, however.

Just realizing you have issues and resolving to do something about them is a good start. Then, if you build on these successes, day by day, a transformation can begin.

‘What’s the Right Way to Define My Business’ Culture?’
First, perform a little exercise. What words would you like customers and employees to use to describe your business?

Sharp and clean? Profitable and organized? Focused on the future? Trustworthy? A great place to work? A great place to spend money? The list can go on for a while.

Then, being blunt with yourself, use some adjectives that describe the reality of your business. In the past, when I’ve done this with prospects, the list of negative attributes sometimes far outweighs the positives. And there’s a sense sometimes that “it’s somebody else’s fault.” This might be true if you’ve purchased a company, but if it’s happened on your watch, please step in front of a mirror.

The 10% Solution and “WIIFM”
As I’ve already mentioned, a positive company culture forms the foundation for success in any business. The road to transforming your culture should not be a lonely road. You can shorten the journey if you involve others. The industry we’ve chosen to make our own is, like it or not, dependent on teamwork, and teams are made up of people.

You must involve many others, and possibly everyone in your company. It might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but getting your people to help you, or at least not fight you, is key. Remember, your people listen to what you say, but they really watch, and imitate, what you do. If you move toward change, and you’ve hired your team members correctly, they’ll move with you.

The next step is to start talking about what your company is, and what it could or should be. Yes, talking about the current condition of your company culture might make you uncomfortable at first, but your culture is your bedrock foundation. Try a little exercise. Describe what you want your business to be, and how you want your customer base to view it. Does it differ from your reality? If so, you have a problem. The problem is probably based on performance; your performance, with rare exception, is based on people.

Your culture defines how your people attack their jobs. With a questionable culture, you get poor performance. Without a solid cultural foundation, your company’s growth and success will be limited. But the good news is that if you and your team have a defined goal of what you want, and how to make it happen, good things will result.

Next, strive for the “10% solution.” By this I mean breaking your business down into little pieces and striving for modest, but measurable, gains in all you do. Bad debt is at 2.5% of revenues? Try to drive it down by 10%, and celebrate when you do. Fleet size at the Third Street branch is hovering around 150 units in October? Try to get it to 165 — and celebrate. Utility at the Main Street office is 72%? What will it take to get to 82%? And when you do, celebrate! Every business can be broken down into small parts. Strive for, and achieve, incremental improvements in every part of your business, and greater success will be yours.

WIIFM? “What’s in it for me?” Being on the road to greater success, no matter where you start from, is exciting. Successes tend to come in bunches — and tend to build on themselves. Aside from the “feel good” that comes from greater success and meeting goals, it’s a general rule in business that with greater success comes greater profitability.

That’s something that the rental business can use. And, if you can accomplish that goal while strengthening your bedrock foundation, what’s not to like about that?

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