Everyone talks about the culture of their business. Sometimes they tout the strengths of that culture as the key to their success. Sometimes they’re in the press defending how they’re finally going to address cultural issues that have landed them in hot water. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, we all know it’s hard to build and sustain a company’s culture, particularly as it undergoes major changes.
“Culture” suggests a uniform way a group of people think about themselves and act in relation to each other and their community. In the case of a corporate culture, that “community” involves colleagues, customers and the broader business community. As a company matures, the culture evolves, and long-term employees are already on board with the core ethos of the business. But what if the company grows through acquisition? How do you bring an entire team of new colleagues into the mix when they come from a culture that may differ from yours?
Convergint Technologies, LLC., is dedicated to keeping people safe. With, 4,700 people in 116 locations across the globe, they manage the security, fire and broad safety processes and equipment at major manufacturing and industrial sites. CEO Ken Lochiatto has led the billion-dollar company through 29 acquisitions in the last five and a half years. That’s a new acquisition every two months. He has clear ideas on how to bring new teams into the family and make it work.
1. The head of the company owns culture as a job function.
Lochiatto joined Convergint in January of 2014. Although his title is CEO, he feels he was hired to be “Chief Culture Officer.” “Culture isn’t something you delegate to HR or someone else at the firm. The CEO is the primary person responsible for maintaining culture,” he says.
Lochiatto started his career at GE, another company with a strong culture and long history of success. He knew the power of the message when it came from the firm’s leaders. Lochiatto has brought that same approach to Convergint. “All of the businesses we acquire are local. My job is to help them appreciate that they’re now part of a global company with access to global markets and resources they didn’t have before.” Since he’s the most consistent face they see and voice they hear from the company’s leadership, he knows it’s his responsibility to keep the discussion of the company’s values front and center for all. “Just showing up is a big part of the message,” he says.
But you can’t be everywhere. You have to bring in leadership that is attracted to a values-based company who want to be part of that culture. “Then, you have to develop processes that allow you to communicate that culture,” Lochiatto says.
2. Talk about culture all the time.
At Convergint, every internal meeting starts with comments on the firm’s values and culture. It’s not belabored; it’s simply imbued in how they interact with each other.
“When I meet for the first time with a new team at an acquisition, almost the entire conversation is about our firm’s culture and how we work together deal with each other. It’s far more important than numbers or roles or new processes. It’s how you get to know each other,” Lochiatto says.
According to Lochiatto, giving people time to get comfortable with the change is important during a merger. “You walk around and talk to people and understand how they feel about the values, what the values mean to them and how they would see those values expressed in their work environment.
“Once the shock wave of being under a new company wears off, the employees see the upside. They know they can perform better because of the scale and resources a larger company provides,” he says.
He even starts conversations with clients with a discussion of Convergint’s culture. “They need to know that we’re going to put our values to work for them and be true to our values throughout our relationship with them,” he added.
But you can’t just talk about the culture; you have to live it. One of the company’s acquisitions in the last few years had a benefits plan that didn’t match the value of Convergint’s. It was a small company with 50 employees and EBITDA of roughly $1 million. Transitioning all the employees to Convergint’s plan immediately would cost $300,000, lowering the value of the deal by 30% in the short term. Switching them to the better plan immediately was more in line with the firm’s culture and was simply the right thing to do. The increased value to the new colleagues was tremendous. The increased value to the company is the long-term benefit of having everyone understand and appreciate the company’s commitment to doing the right thing.
Lochiatto says, “When you face a challenge of how to deal with an issue and you’re unsure of the direction to go, if you view the issue through the prism of your values, the right solution usually surfaces.”
3. Keep listening – to learn and to leverage.
Culture is organic. It comes from how the team has developed over the years. Your job as a leader is to listen to it, foster it and allow it to thrive. “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. You need to know who the smartest person is and act on their ideas,” says Lochiatto.
A few years ago, Convergint suffered a huge loss when Ken LaChance, a regional leader, died suddenly from a stroke at 53. After his passing, it became apparent through the stories shared about him that he was incredibly generous to his colleagues when they needed help, providing small loans or gifts as needed. The firm started the “Ken LaChance Colleague Emergency Fund” that employees can contribute to from their own paychecks through automatic withdrawals. Although the company makes a small contribution, most comes from employees. An employee in a crisis can apply for a grant of up to $4,000. At this point, nearly $700,000 has been donated to the fund. Companies don’t create that kind of generosity, people who feel part of a community do. The company’s leaders are responsible for listening to that spirit and enabling it.
“If you listen to your customers, colleagues and shareholders, you’ll succeed,” says Lochiatto.
So, in sum, to allow your culture to drive your success, particularly during a merger:
1. Own it; don’t delegate it.
2. Talk about it all the time.
3. Keep listening.
Originally published on Forbes.com.