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    Creating a Positive Company Culture That Lasts

    Steve Schwab wanted to set the cultural tone each day at his vacation rental management company. As founder and CEO of Casago, he liked being able to see and communicate with his employees daily, leading them in person. But as Casago hired more people and expanded into multiple offices, Schwab noticed that he was losing touch. The culture was suffering. “We started to grow and have an HR department, and they started hiring people,” Schwab says. “And I’m like, Who’s that? Where are they from? I’d run over, talk to them, and try to build relationships and trust. But I realized that I had to be able to lead beyond my physical presence.”

    Before his time in the vacation rental world, Schwab served as an Army Ranger and spent time in Special Operations. He fondly recalled reading the Ranger Creed to start each day—the Rangers used this creed to pass its principles to each man on the team. The creed held the teams together, even when leaders were far away. Schwab wondered: Could he have a similar creed with his employees, something that could help him form a positive culture even as the team grew?

    A Cultural Shift

    Since the pandemic, company culture has been on the mind of every company and employee. Many employees are now unsure of their company culture, as showcased in a report form Gartner. The report found that 52 percent of employees questioned the day-to-day purpose of their job, while another 50 percent have changed their expectations toward their employer. A study by coaching platform BetterUp found that employees also want to feel like they belong. Job performance increases by 56 percent when employees feel a sense of belonging at work, the study found. This makes it important for companies to pay attention to whether employees feel like they fit in and how they feel about their job.

    Companies should also tune into how employees feel about current workplace issues, such as remote work, flexible schedules, as well as diversity and inclusion. This current emphasis on culture may help explain why 50.5 million people quit their jobs in 2022, according to federal JOLTS data, breaking 2021’s previous record-high.

    But what makes for a positive company culture, one where people feel that they belong and believe in the day-to-day purpose of their job? The answer can be stated in many ways: cohesiveness, a sense of unity, and a sense a purpose felt by every employee. At Casago, Schwab decided to examine his values and form a company creed, discussing it each day across all offices. The creed, ORANGE, stands for Owner-centric, Renters, Anticipating needs of guests and owners, Nurturing relationships, Guiding each other, and Excellence.

    Like the Ranger Creed, Schwab says that the company’s creed has kept his teams on the same page, allowing him to lead multiple offices at once from afar. Everyone at Casago knows what’s expected of them, which makes for a cohesive culture. “If your policies are not in alignment with your principles and your culture, you’re going to have chaos and drama,” Schwab says. Like at Casago, the first step in building a solid company culture is for owners and executives to know the company values and put these values to work.

    Knowing Your Values

    While knowing the company values may sound obvious, it doesn’t come easily. Companies in the vacation rental management space often think that culture can be easily defined, according to Holly Stiel, president of Thank you Very Much Inc., who works with vacation rental companies. “Defining your culture is not just saying, ‘Let’s be a culture that is friendly,’” Stiel says. “There’s a foundation for a culture, and it goes all the way to the top. It has to be important to you to know the pillars of your values. There’s no hope involved in culture—this is actually a process.” Stiel says that managers can figure out the pillars of their values by asking themselves essential questions, such as “What’s important to us?” and “What are our values?”

    These answers may not come quickly, but they should feel right. If a company value is family, for example, Stiel says that companies can find the pillars by asking questions like “How do we support family?” and “How do we treat people?” Once a company knows the pillars of its values, Stiel says that they can create measurable standards, a way that the values can be interpreted into reality. If a company holds quality as a value, for example, the measurable standard might be: If something breaks at a home we manage, we work to fix it within 12 hours.

    With measurable standards in place, Stiel says that a company can better train its employees. By training everyone, company executives hold themselves, management, and employees accountable for meeting company standards. When employees are abiding by standards, they’re living by a company’s values and strengthening its culture. “This process helps employees to see their value and know how they can improve,” Stiel says. Stiel says that knowing a company’s values and standards also answers five common, but often unasked, employee questions. These questions are:

    • What do you want me to do?
    • Why do you want me to do that?
    • How do you want me to do it?
    • How will I know how I’m doing?
    • How are you going to help me improve?

    If a company wants, it can involve employees in creating or updating the company culture over time as part of the process, Stiel says. As a bonus, this may help heal any extant issues employees have with feeling connected to work and the company’s values. “It’s important to address, not ignore, these things,” Stiel says. Schwab suggests taking the necessary time through the process of knowing your values. Leaders may want to write out their own personal values to inspire their company values, which is what he did. These values won’t be the same, he says, but they also can’t be in conflict. Finding and putting values to work won’t be an overnight process—it will take time.

    But Schwab says that leaders who don’t build culture themselves often have it built for them by someone else. “Be really clear with yourself,” Schwab says. “Decide what your non-negotiables are. Understand how you want to be seen as a company in the industry and in the community, and then start building your values around that. Start working on communicating those to the point where your team is aligned and starts holding each other accountable to those same values.”

    Listening to the Voices of Employees

    Feedback isn’t always pleasant, but Theresa Greene believes it’s one of the biggest differences between a good and bad culture. Throughout her entire career in hospitality and vacation rentals, Greene—director of business development at vacation rental company Mainsail Lodging & Development—noticed that companies with good culture welcome feedback, whereas companies with poor culture tend to detest feedback. 

    “Having open communication breaks down barriers,” Greene says. “People are more willing to go to whomever they need to talk to about anything, not just guest opportunities or guest problems. Maybe something isn’t working as efficiently as it could, so they want to suggest a way for it to work better.” Greene says that when employees—those who are working closest to day-to-day operations— feel free to give feedback, they feel a sense of belonging to the company.

    On the other hand, when there are taboos about what employees can and can’t say, employees don’t feel heard. This leads to cultural breakdown, with many employees who end up feeling like they’re simply working for a paycheck. Receiving and reacting to feedback is leading by action, Greene says, who compares it to being a parent. “If my kids see me being polite, it’s a lot easier for them to catch on, because they’re surrounded in an environment where you’re constantly seeing the values being lived,” Greene says.

    One way to get feedback from employees is to do employee surveys. A lot of companies do surveys, but few act on them, Greene says. “Pick the important things to work on,” Greene says. “If you’re getting consistently low scores in a particular area, put together an action plan. That way, your team can really see that you care about their feedback. You’re working to make their environment better for them.” Stiel suggests getting employee feedback multiple times per year, rather than simply doing an annual survey. When only hearing employee concerns once a year, a company may be shocked by what bubbles up in each survey—employees may say that they’re unhappy, unheard, or feeling a lack of something important. Companies can avoid this shock by reaching out for feedback more often.

    The Company’s Immune System

    A good culture acts as a company’s immune system, Schwab says—it bolsters the good employees and expels those who don’t fit. There’s no doubt that the culture of society is in flux, he says, with many people holding differing values about what they want from a company culture.

    When Casago has hired employees whose worldview differs greatly from its values, Schwab says that they often leave quickly. This is a good thing, he says. Rather than bending to what’s happening in culture, Schwab says that a strong culture helps find employees who fit. “Whoever you are, if you can be honest with yourself and the world and your team, you’ll find people who are in alignment with you,” Schwab says. “Plant your flag. If you want to sell in three years, say so. If you’re someone who cares about people, puts homeowners first, and loves the community, say it out loud all the time. You’ll find people that will follow.”

    When feedback and communication are part of culture, a company doesn’t have to worry much about trends. Greene says that there are multiple kinds of people across the Mainsail team, all of whom can be open and honest with one another. The important part is not adopting something because it’s trendy, but because it fits in with the company culture. Even when acquiring other companies and new properties, Greene says that cultural fit is foundational. “We don’t want to go in and turn everything upside down on its head,” she says. “Having that alignment from the beginning is very important to keep our culture in place.”

    Once a company knows and communicates its culture, some employees will be drawn to it and others will leave. But Stiel says that once a good culture in place, employees who take to it will become the culture. The Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts is a great example, she says, as employees work hard because they love the company. “The team actually monitors itself,” Stiel says. “This is the way we do things here. If you don’t do it, you’re going to be the pariah. There are going to be people who are going to leave on their own, because they realize they don’t fit. And that’s OK.”  

    A Culture Beyond

    When a company has worked on its culture, Stiel says that it tends to become an employer of choice. These companies often retain employees for longer, have a happier workforce, and have driven employees who grow professionally as they help the company grow.

    At Mainsail, for example, Greene says that she’s excited to be part of a growing culture built on open communication. She loves that the company is flexible, listens to the needs of its employees, and is willing to meet people where they are in life. “We’re all in this for the same common goal, and that’s to provide the best service to our guests and owners,” Greene says. “No matter what your role is, no matter what your responsibilities are, our end goals are always the same.”

    Meanwhile, in a company with an ill-defined culture, Schwab says that he would expect to see massive overturn, a more chaotic environment, and more confused employees. “HR may tell employees, ‘These are our principles and what we stand for,’ but then you see that the policies are very different, and it’s confusing,” Schwab says. “Let’s say a company holds caring about the guest as a value but doesn’t have a heart for them when something goes wrong. Do they really care about the guest? Your actions and what you practice will be the strongest pieces of how you build a culture of social norms.” Schwab saw this in action after he put the ORANGE creed in place, when he noticed that his employees were holding him accountable to the culture.

    One day, he felt angry and said something negative about a company he bought out. An employee who has been with Casago for over a decade took Schwab aside into a private room. “He lit into me,” Schwab says. The employee reminded Schwab that his outburst wasn’t in line with what he taught them and wasn’t part of the Casago culture. “I apologized,” Schwab says. “He was right. I was angry. And I’d said a few things that I shouldn’t have said about the transaction. But I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to hug the guy because the culture worked.” “When you have people who have a strong moral compass and believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got a culture that’s beyond you,” Schwab says.

    Hal Conick is a Chicago-based writer.

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