By Bridget McCrea
The six secrets behind a corporate culture turnaround that transformed a 54-year-old insurance firm into one of Chicago’s top places to work.
If there’s one thing that Steven Handmaker has learned during his years in business, it’s that motivated and engaged employees equal happy clients. It’s a formula that sounds simple enough in theory, but that can be difficult to achieve in a business setting where all eyes are on the company’s bottom line, where leaders and managers spend their days “putting out fires,” and where the word “fun” never comes up during the typical 8-5 workday.
Happy employees are also safety-conscious, they take fewer sick days, are more productive overall, and are more apt to refer other great employees to work for your distributorship, says Handmaker, chief marketing officer at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Assurance, an independent insurance brokerage. “The list of proven statistics around employee engagement is endless,” says Handmaker. “With issues like health and safety being major cost drivers, these factors are becoming increasingly important for most organizations.”
It’s All in the Culture
One effective way to infuse engagement in the workplace – even for a company that’s been operating on autopilot for years or even for decades – is by creating a corporate culture that truly makes people want to come to work for your distributorship for 8+ hours every day. Defined as the collective way “we do things around here,” corporate culture is basically a learned set of behaviors that all participants are aware of and follow.
Most business experts agree that culture is one of those things that can make or break a company. While some firms can skate along without a strong culture for a period of time, the key to longevity in business is frequently traced back to the way in which employees are treated, engaged, and interact with one another in the workplace. This, in turn, extends out into the business and touches important entities like customers, suppliers, business partners, and other third parties.
When Assurance’s current CEO and COO took the company reigns in 1998, the privately-owned firm – which was founded in 1961 – was at a crossroads. “Company financials were not sustainable for the long term,” Handmaker says, “and changes were needed in order to ensure long-term viability for the firm. These shifts included improving the company culture to focus on happiness and engagement.”
Here are six steps Assurance took to create a strong corporate culture that extends out to its nationwide customer base:
- Make human resources a marketing function. As a starting point, the company created a partnership arrangement between its human resources (HR) and marketing departments. In essence, both new and existing employees became “customers” in their own rights. “To get new business, we found ourselves marketing just as hard to our own employees as we did outside of our company,” says Handmaker. For example, employees were brought up to speed on all of the company’s products and services “so that they could explain them to customers,” he says. “We basically stopped leaving this up to HR and made it a marketing function.”
- Borrow a page from The Purple Cow. In Seth Godin’s popular management book, he asserts that the key to success is to “find a way to stand out – to be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.” For Assurance, that purple cow would be a great place to work in an environment that stood out from the typical insurance brokerage. For much like the electrical distribution segment, the insurance industry isn’t exactly known for being a “great, cool, sexy place to work,” says Handmaker. “It’s not necessarily a top destination for a professional or a college grad.” To offset this challenge, Assurance created a workplace that’s consistently ranked as one of the best places to work (most recently by Crain’s Chicago Business, which ranked it the #4 Best Place to Work in Chicago in 2014).
- Infuse fun into the workplace. “Good vibes abound at Assurance thanks to a combination of office celebrations, professional recognition and development, and a rich health benefits package,” states Crain’s Chicago Business in its annual ranking of top companies to work for. Pointing to events like happy hours five times a year in the office penthouse, a quarterly casino night where employees receive chances to win prizes, and the annual Assurance Olympics, Crain’s says Assurance encourages staffers to send digital high-fives to co-workers to recognize great work, and on their birthdays employees receive a gift and call from the [company president] thanking them for their contributions. “We’ve used these strategies to compete for great employees,” says Handmaker, “and what we’ve found is that now talent – both from our industry and from other sectors – are coming to work for us.”
- Do away with “business speak.” According to Handmaker, one of Assurance’s new leadership team’s first moves was to deep-six the business speak that many of its employees were expected to know, understand, and use. “Instead, we infused pop culture into our regular forms of communication,” says Handmaker. For example, to help articulate the firm’s goals for the year ahead, it would use 1980s songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and “Wang Chung Tonight” to motivate and educate employees. In the year following the national recession, for instance, the company used the Eye of the Tiger to get workers rallied together and on the same page. “We use amazing, unifying messages that everyone can grab onto,” says Handmaker, “and that really draw people together and working toward common goals.”
- Create a profit sharing program. Assurance instituted a profit sharing program called Shared Success, which gives employees (at all levels of the organization) the opportunity to earn about 2.5 percent of their salaries back in the form of a bonus. Using goals tied to its financial and cultural objectives, Assurance gets every employee onboard with the overall mission of contributing to the firm’s growth and success. One year, for example, the company asked all of its workers to participate in a 5K race (by running or walking). If 85 percent of employees participated, says Handmaker, then everyone across the firm would receive a bonus payment. “We wound up with a 93 percent participation rate,” he notes.
- Finally, don’t turn the break room into a profit center. In some cases, tweaking an organization’s culture involves complex, multifaceted undertakings. In others, a simple price reduction on a can of soda is enough to make employees feel happy, valued, and engaged. When Assurance was going through its cultural turnaround, Handmaker says the soda machine in the break room proved itself as a catalyst for change. “Employees were overwhelmingly frustrated with the fact that the company was charging $1.25 for a can of soda,” he explains. “It turns out, no one really knew why the price was that high in the first place.” The solution was simple enough: drop the price of soda down to 25 cents – a price point that hasn’t changed in the last 10 years. “That price will never change because, as it turns out, the employees are right,” says Handmaker. “Sometimes, creating a strong culture just takes some listening and fixing of the little things.”
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
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