Tips on creating corporate culture from leaders in the middle market

September 19, 2014 Written by NetSphere Category: It Just Makes Good Business Sense
Tips on creating corporate culture from leaders in the middle market

Typically, business blogs and articles focus on specific strategies and tactics that can help a business owner support his or her bottom line. And many of those news pieces can be incredibly helpful.

However, without a strong corporate culture, the effort to boost sales and increase customer engagement ends up being more difficult than it should be. Growth can be stymied when employees are lacking enthusiasm and motivation. It can be further stymied when a business has to constantly train a revolving door of new employees.  

At the fifth-annual Crain’s Middle Market breakfast, an event aimed at providing real-world business counsel to owners and top executives at Chicago-area middle-market companies, panelists were asked to describe how they managed human capital and continued to strive toward establishing a solid corporate culture. Those panelists included Mike Brennan, the COO at Peapod; Alison Gutterman, the president of Jelmar LLC; Scott Miller, the CEO of Tampico Beverages; and Michael Small, the CEO and president of Gogo Inc.

Recruiting the dream team

Before the panelists dove into the issue of creating a healthy corporate culture, the moderator, Terri Lonier, PhD and executive director at the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul University, asked for insight in securing the “perfect dream team.”

“Talent is everything,” said Small about his company’s move from the suburbs to downtown Chicago. “You have to recruit the best and be prepared to make changes along the way. You have to view it the way a sports team does – trying to build a winning team.”

Peapod, too, migrated downtown to entice world-class developers to join its team. Brannan described the opening of the new offices as nothing short of a miracle in terms of recruiting the talent that Peapod was looking to hire.

For Gutterman, finding the right staff comes with an extra hurdle. With only 13 people in her office, staff qualifications go beyond skillsets. New hires also have to fit in culturally with the business, which she describes as a small family.

But when it comes to underperforming players, Miller cautioned attendees that waiting to make the tough decisions – like letting someone go – can be damaging to a business. “You don’t want it to become the Achilles heel of your business,” he said.

Motivation matters

To help reduce those difficult decisions, Small stressed the importance of keeping people motivated. When team members feel as though they’re contributing, there is a better chance of keeping those team members on board for the long term. “This is critical to attracting great players and keeping them on your team,” Small said.

He went on to say that for the A players, it’s important for them to be a part of something bigger. Although the right incentive plans matter, “everyone wants to be on a mission to change the world!”

Miller reiterated those comments by saying that team members want to drive positive change at their place of employment. “You have to create moments where their ideas are welcome,” he said.

When a business has built the perfect dream team, they have most likely done so by instilling their team members with a sense of importance – a sense of being an essential contributor to the business’s success. But this is just one aspect of creating a healthy company culture.

Small added that setting the right expectations can also help. If a business sets unrealistic goals that no one can hit, feelings of failure can permeate a workplace. Ensuring that employees can enjoy a certain quality of life is also important. Gutterman said that for her employees, some of which have been with her for more than 20 years, she makes a concerted effort to create a fun environment. She also doesn’t demand that they burn the midnight oil during the workweek just as she doesn’t expect that they work during the weekends.

Cultivating corporate culture – today and tomorrow

According to all four panelists at the Crain’s event, creating a healthy corporate culture is an ongoing task.

“You have to talk about it a lot,” said Miller. And as with most things in life, however, Miller also stressed that it’s more than just disseminating that culture through word of mouth. “You also have to evaluate it to see how you can get better.”

And that’s because things can change – especially for middle-market businesses that are sometimes on the cusp of huge growth.

“We’ve built a culture with growth opportunities,” Brennan said. “But now we’re getting big and it’s becoming a concern. How do we keep that passion and share it down the organization? We have to figure out how to do it and keep up that energy.”

GoGo is crossing over, too, explained Small in regard to his business that has grown from 300 employees to 800. “You have to invest in [corporate culture] like you invest in your brand. It will dissolve if you don’t formally define your values, and all of that has to be explicitly managed.”

Many of the challenges faced by middle-market businesses can be tough. But, when tackled by a team that is strongly united, the end results can be great – as proven by Crain’s esteemed panelists.   

During the middle-market event, which was held on Sept. 17, 2014, panelists were also asked specific questions about their growth strategies, financial management, market share, emerging threats, public policy, personal challenges and more. To learn more about Crain’s business networking events, head here.


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Abbe Miller is the marketing manager at NetSphere Strategies, located just outside Chicago. NetSphere Strategies is a boutique eCommerce company positioned to help businesses transform their online presence by providing a full complement of services that starts with our strategic consulting and creative design teams, then continues with building innovative solutions and providing ongoing post-project support.