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Ask The Experts: How Brands Can Grow A Stronger Culture With Jeff Fromm and Jimmy Keown

1851 spoke to these corporate culture experts on what the process of establishing a company culture looks like and how leaders can do so in a meaningful and authentic way.

By Taylor Karg1851 Franchise Contributor
Updated 3:15PM 02/11/20

An established culture is the backbone of every company. It defines the values and influences the behaviors that contribute to the distinctive social and entrepreneurial environment of the business. It’s what employees—from the top line all the way down—see, believe in and execute each time they step through the doors of the business. 

1851 Franchise caught up with culture experts Jeff Fromm, millennial consumer behavior expert, president of FutureCast, a subsidiary at Barkley and author of “The Purpose Advantage,” and Jimmy Keown, Growth Strategy Director at Barkley, to learn more about what it takes to establish a strong company culture. 

Keown began by elaborating on what culture means to him: “Culture is ‘how do we win on the inside so that we can win on the outside?’” he said. “Winning on the inside means finding advantages within the culture to help create alignment, energy and shared intent in order to then win on the outside. Winning on the outside means the company is successful, making money and making a difference in the world,” Keown said. 

1851: What is the first step a brand or company should take if looking to establish (or reestablish) a strong culture?

Fromm: Assess the current situation the company is in. Understand the culture that already exists through research and observations and adjust accordingly. 

Keown: It’s tricky—the question of how to establish a culture from scratch is really tough. It starts with primary and secondary research of companies or brands out there with attributes of culture that are exemplary. The culture needs to help support some type of intent that you have as an organization. Ask things like, “What are we trying to accomplish?; What is our mission?; How do we want our employees to feel?” Once those core differentiators are established, they can begin to be disseminated throughout the company. Things like the mission, values and rituals are all ‘treasures’ of a brand and are something that each and every employee needs to anchor on to.

One of the trickiest things about culture is that most companies don’t realize that it’s something they have to invest in. It’s something that’s not only important to the health and wellbeing of the employees, but it’s important to the success of the company. 

1851: It's not enough for brands to talk the talk when it comes to culture—they also have to walk the walk. How can brands accomplish this in a meaningful and authentic way?

Fromm: Establishing a company culture means creating certain rituals as part of a larger strategy that stakeholders will be able to perceive and feel. For example, instead of monthly or quarterly meetings, try weekly or daily stand-up meetings. Or try an app that allows employees to ask things anonymously so that they don't fear the answer or getting in trouble. Company culture is something that everyone in the company can see and feel—employers need to think about the strategy and rituals that are clearly visible to all employees and stakeholders.

Keown: Meaningful and authentic—those are two words that have a lot of different meanings. “Meaningful” goes back to more of understanding that broader intent and the role that everybody plays in that intent. What does “meaningful” mean in our company  and how do we get our employees to reflect that? “Authentic” is a word that’s often really hard to nail down. We’ve had clients that say, “Oh, we really want to be more authentic,” but it’s something that really has to be unpacked. What does authenticity really mean? Is it transparency? Is it honesty? Even within those two words there are many dimensions. So, establishing what authenticity truly means to your culture and what behaviors we want to reflect this is crucial. 

1851:  What is a brand or company with a culture you admire and why?

Fromm: First, I would definitely say Seventh Generation—the laundry product company. They really live their culture by creating products based on their beliefs and exemplifying a brand strategy that reflects it. All of their products are plant-based and packaged with sustainability and health in mind.

Next, I would say MOD Pizza. MOD hires people who have been incarcerated and/or have a gap in their employment history. They, of course, do background checks and make sure that each person will be a good fit, but it really gives people a chance who otherwise wouldn’t get one. It’s working out great for the company—this type of culture has actually given the company an advantage. They have high employee retention which means lower turnover, lower training costs, et cetera. This strategy improves their overall financial performance and creates an extremely grateful employee base, ultimately leading to a better guest experience.

Keown: Well, no one brand’s culture is perfect—were all human beings. But one that I really think about and admire a lot is Southwest Airlines. What’s really interesting about Southwest is that they treat everyone as though they are a customer.  Most brands are focused on being “customer-obsessed,” so when you go into a place where everyone—customers, pilots, corporate workers and flight attendants—is treated like a customer, it makes for a great environment and culture. They are somehow able to embrace that idea that each employee’s needs are as important as their customers’ needs. They call it the “citizen-approach” and it makes it really impressive because of the category they’re in—they found a way to bring passion into the airline industry, one that’s notoriously known for not being very passionate. 

1851: What are some of the most important qualities leaders must have to grow the culture they envision for their brands?

Fromm: I think it requires collaboration, listening, willingness to be wrong, willingness to change and empathy. Culture is something company leaders can influence, but it’s something they can’t dictate. 

Keown: For one, I think a leader needs to embrace the behavior and values they want the entire company to embody. Leaders need to play to their strengths and embody everything they want to see in their people—it starts with the CEO and the top line. In order to be successful, they need to understand the culture they want to embody better than anyone else at the company. It can then trickle down from there. It’s important for them to understand and empower that knowledge throughout the entire company. Additionally, they should also create some sort of feedback loop, whether that may be an app or an online forum, where employees can reinforce positive aspects of the culture.