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14 Tips for Creating the Signshop Culture You Want

Sign managers share their strategies for building a driven, happy team whose values align with the success of your business.

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WE HAVE A GREAT company culture, very team driven and we all work together, but struggle with motivation,” says Scott Milgrom, Image360 San Antonio West, San Antonio, TX. “We are a very busy shop and all we can do is try to get as much done each day. That is my struggle.”

Organizational cultures are tremendously powerful. From a pure business standpoint they can raise standards, spur productivity and engagement, engender accountability, and boost employee retention and loyalty. They can focus workers’ efforts on customer welfare, the bottom line or the next big breakthrough idea. They can attract the right people and deter the wrong candidates from applying. And when the culture is aligned with your own personality and beliefs in how a business should run, it makes coming to work a joy instead of a drag.

The power of culture is something that clearly most business owners understand. Nearly 9 in 10 of the sign pros in our Brain Squad say they agree or strongly agree that culture is critical to their company’s performance and success.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Harvard business professor Boris Groysberg and his team say cultures can be classified into eight types or styles:

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  • Caring work environments are warm and collaborative, with a focus on relationships and mutual trust. This family-like setup is one a lot of sign pros identify with.
  • Purpose is exemplified by shared ideals and contributing to a greater cause. Whole Foods before it was swallowed by Amazon was a good example.
  • Learning is characterized by an emphasis on innovation and creativity. Work environments are open-minded places that spark new ideas and support the exploration of alternatives. Failure is not considered a bad thing. Think Tesla.
  • Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement that are shared with customers. Zappos set the high bar for this kind of culture, before it, too, was consumed by Amazon.
  • Results is a style characterized by achievement, performance and winning. Wall Street investment banks typify this approach.
  • Authority is defined by strength, often reflected by the leader, along with decisiveness and boldness. Steve Jobs-era Apple is a quintessential example.
  • Safety is defined by planning, caution and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Insurance companies and medical institutions often fit this model.
  • Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms and traditions. In the US, the SEC would be an example of such a methodical place where people play by the rules, and leaders emphasize procedures and time-honored customs.

Most organizations are a mix of more than one style. For example, Mike Volling of Georgetown Sign Co. in Georgetown, TX, describes his approach as “Collaborative. Seek input and listen.” Nearly all businesses are results-oriented to some degree. The key thing is that the culture is aligned with what the organization is trying to achieve.

As our chart shows, our Brain Squad ranked Purpose as their No. 1 cultural value with Authority the least desired style.

Few business owners profess to being 100 percent satisfied with their company cultures. Indeed, a plurality of our Brain Squad rated their cultural satisfaction at 8 out of 10 (see full results on page 48).

But it is tough to turn a culture around, and it takes time according to Steven Carpenter, Archetype, Minneapolis. “With the pandemic and staffing changes our old culture has passed and we are evolving a new corporate culture. For better or worse, what existed in 2020 will not be in 2023. Take advantage of this opportunity to start with a clean slate,” he says. “Think through and build what you want your corporate culture to be.”

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In the following pages we provide tips from your fellow sign professionals on how to foster a motivated, content team whose goals and values are aligned with yours.

FIRST: LISTEN

Founders obviously play a significant role in setting company culture but before long it starts taking on a life of its own and develops organically from the staff. Before you can change your shop’s culture, you need to understand how your staff views it. That requires spending time with them discussing the issue. Keep your groups small — no more than four employees at a time — and spend 60 to 90 minutes asking open-ended questions such as these:

  • What 10 words would you use to describe our company?
  • What advice would you give a friend if they came to work here?
  • What do you think is considered really important around here?

“Get it done and learn as you go,” says Pat Dacy, 3V Signs & Graphics, Torrance, CA. “Education is a critical element for the individual and company to grow, so listen, learn, do and teach.”

ESTABLISH YOUR PURPOSE

Purpose may not be your No. 1 cultural priority but it needs to be articulated clearly to new hires in your written core values, as well as modeled and celebrated to reinforce a positive company culture. When workers feel connected to a purpose, they are more willing to try new things, take risks, and contribute to their organizations in new and valuable ways. “We try to display professionalism in all our actions, big and small,” says David Gonzalez, Skymark Signs, Toronto.

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ARTICULATE YOUR VISION

In his book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, which tells of shoe behemoth Zappos’ growth into a billion-dollar company, late founder Tony Hsieh recounted how he resisted for years publishing formal core values — “essentially a definition of our culture” — because he had thought of it as a very “corporate” thing to do. The delay, he says, was one of his bigger management mistakes, as the core values become central to hiring, the way staff interact with one another and customers, and the way the company does business.

“We have a very high level of focus on company culture and have for over 25 years,” says Bob Chapa, Signarama Troy | Metro Detroit, Troy, MI. “It starts with the culture of my leadership team, developing an atmosphere of helping each other no matter what. It then evolves into the company-wide culture of ‘customer-first’ attitude and the importance of hustle in everything we do.”

FOCUS ON VITAL BEHAVIORS

When it comes to fostering cultural change, don’t worry about outcomes, focus on behaviors. Get those right and the outcomes will take care of themselves. “I hire for culture fit and character first,” says Dominic Tancredi, Woodshed Stage Art, Cleveland, OH. “Integrity, personal responsibility/accountability, constant improvement, fun. Skills can be taught. We’re a small but rapidly growing team that crosstrains, so there will likely be lots of opportunity for advancement and/or parallel moves for the right team member.”

LEADERS LEAD

“Lead, don’t ‘do,’” says Adam Brown, Sign Effectz, Milwaukee. “Lead your team and give them the duties needed to get the work done. Work with them, but let them do the work. Make sure you stay out of the ‘in your business’ work. If they fail, look for the takeaway and learning opportunity to coach them to do it the right way. Patience!” Brown encourages. “Experience and wisdom coaching takes time and failures.”

SPREAD THE JOY


A long line of research on emotional contagion shows that people in groups “catch” feelings from others through behavioral mimicry. If you regularly walk into a room smiling with high energy, you’re much more likely to create a culture of joy than if you wear a neutral expression. Your employees will smile back and start to mean it. “You gotta have some fun and a great sense of humor around here, but also be able to embrace a challenge,” says Lannette Ring, Signs & Designs by AFS, Colfax, WA. “We stand behind every job and build great relationships with our customers.”

PROMOTE ACCOUNTABILITY

Defending the high standards of a culture requires peer accountability, so that workers of any level feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. “Our culture is built on staff and owners’ accountability, ownership of respective roles and responsibilities,” says Derek Atchley, Atchley Graphics, Columbus, OH. “We embody work hard, play hard and have a very balanced structure between them. We encourage staff to not only enjoy their work, but also that we all have lives and interests outside of work that are equally important. There’s a lot of mutual respect!”

SUPPORT WITH INCENTIVES

According to studies, the primary cause of most culture-change debacles is when companies attempt to influence behaviors by using rewards as their first motivational strategy. But incentives can still reinforce well-deserved recognition. “We like to check in from day to day and if we see someone having a down day to do little pick-me-ups like a coffee gift card or lunch,” says Alexandra Lund, Bismarck Sign Co., Bismarck, ND. “We have monthly meetings where the entire staff gets together for lunch paid for by the company. We have noticed our staff is significantly closer and more transparent since starting this a year ago.”

GO DEEPER

Hire for culture, not skills, is a business adage reflected in the shorthand definition: A Good Hire = Skill + Will + Cultural Fit. But what many managers look for and are acting on is more of “an intuitive sense of ‘Would I get along with this person?’ and that often isn’t very reliable,” Kirsta Anderson, partner and chief people officer for Partners Group, told The Wall Street Journal.

Keep in mind that a good cultural fit is not someone who looks and talks like you and has had similar life experiences, she says.

What it is:

  • Shared enthusiasm about a company’s mission or purpose.
  • A common approach to working, together or individually.
  • A mutual understanding of how to make decisions and assess risk.

What it’s not:

  • A common educational, cultural or career background.
  • A sense of comfort and familiarity with co-workers.
  • Shared enjoyment of such perks as ping-pong and craft beer.

“One of the most common responses that we get from internal surveys is that our team has indicated they like the people they work with,” says Stuart Stein, ESCO Mfg. dba Stein Signs, Watertown, SD. “We strive to make an emphasis on hiring for character (and our core values) and we will be prepared to train the proper skillset.

BEWARE GROUPTHINK

However, too much emphasis on cultural fit can stifle diversity and cause managers to overlook promising candidates with unique perspectives, an important attribute in our fast-changing world. “I would describe our company culture as collaborative, transparent, progressive, casual, inclusive, challenging and fast-paced,” says Mallory Lynn, Signarama Brighton, Brighton, CO. “We work hard as a team to try new ideas, designs and technology. Our owner is very transparent about why we are making certain decisions as a company and on performance. She is always pushing us to be our best by encouraging self-growth and educational opportunities. We have many different individuals from various walks of life, cultures and backgrounds, which make for a diverse team.”

BRING OUT THE BEST IN PEOPLE

“We support and encourage constant transparent and open communication,” says Russell Toynes, Studio Dzo, Austin, TX. “Our business relies on thorough and consistent communication between clients, team members and leadership. Cultivating successful company culture requires honesty and transparency. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Leadership needs to sincerely care about their team. Both on and off the field. Pull no punches and keep no secrets. Keep it 100. Share any and all challenges that leadership is facing and let the team know that everyone’s support is needed to keep the ship on course. People don’t want just a job. They want to be part of something that they believe in. Give them values and a mission to uphold and deliver.”

CREATE A CULTURE OF TRUST

To a lot of bosses, culture means employees who will keep working hard even when no one is watching. Trust is thus central. Managers can cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and then getting out of their way. “Trust the skills of your staff, no matter what the level,” says Grace Francisco, San Diego State University, San Diego.

MAKE IT A GREAT PLACE TO WORK,
BUT …

Happy hours, team lunches, birthday shout-outs and company outings can help build a positive environment and people generally do their jobs better when they know, trust and like their co-workers. Keep in mind, however, that culture is not about providing a company keg or other frills like ping-pong tables. It’s hiring people who have meaningful shared values and who actually want to have beers together.

“Although we are hardworking and serious about completing a project, we try to laugh along the way. Construction can be a stressful environment so we do our best to balance that stress with humor,” says Corrie Lebens, Crown Signs Systems Inc., Mount Vernon, NY. “After an internal survey, we found that many employees wanted more company events and have been trying to plan get-togethers outside the office more to grow the relationship amongst the staff.”

Signs of the Times has been the world leader in sign information since 1906. Contact Signs of the Times' editors at [email protected].

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