Culture Is More Than Just a Buzzword

May 17, 2021 | Employee Retention, Employees, Management

I was asked recently to give feedback to Landscape Management Magazine on how to ensure that culture is more than a buzzword.

Even though I wrote the book on this topic, Become A Destination Company ®, I wanted to gather fresh anecdotes from my clients on how they actively develop their cultures to help their teams excel every day.

As I reviewed the feedback and my notes, I found there are seven pillars to consider.

Strong Cultures Are Built On Seven Pillars


1. Putting Values into Action

All great cultures are built on this foundation:

Use core values to hire and fire employees and to give feedback.

E.g., during a performance review, discuss your values, where the employee is doing well, and where the company can also do better.

Discussion about values should pervade every meeting, as a way to give life and meaning to your values, don’t assume everyone “gets it.”

Ted Lucia (Lucia Landscaping) has created a mantra of “One Team” as their company’s most important value and has created a separate logo to highlight it. This mantra finds its way into every interview and team huddle and in everyday conversations between employees.

Wade Vugteveen (DeHamer Landscaping) has “family first” as one of his values and is giving 3 mandatory Fridays off this summer to promote their family first culture and put his money where his mouth is.

As Blair Walton (Element Outdoor Living) and George Tucker (LanDesign) said, it’s the little things, specifically the respect you give employees, and they give each other in every interaction.

You must also put values to work on your client’s property. Treating clients with respect, and not putting up with sub-par quality, redoing work when necessary. Do you live by your values in the rush of spring and the heat of summer?

Culture Is More Than Just a Buzzword Share on X

2. Making Recognition Part of Company Life

I can tell a company’s culture by its use of wall space. Are they empty or full of positive symbols and photos?

Arnie Arsenault (A. Arsenault & Sons) has a High Five Board where all client compliments are posted; his company also has an app where compliments are shared among all the employees, where employees can comment and give each other high fives.

“Breaking Bread” with employees is a classic way to recognize your employees and show you care. Food and eating together underpin all great cultures.

The best-performing companies put on a food-based event at least monthly, mixing food and games to build bonds. One contractor I know goes to the extreme of impromptu lunches, cookouts, breakfasts and free food every day (fully stocked fridge, cereal, snack bar, fresh fruit, juice, etc.).

Gerry Bower (TLC Total Lawn Care) shared with me that just because his culture has taken on a life of its own, it doesn’t mean he can take it for granted. He finds when he takes extra time to recognize his people’s good deeds, their pride climbs that much higher and stays high even through the tough periods.


3. Team Meetings for Teaching and Accountability

Culture lives in the interactions of people and teams. Meetings are a perfect vehicle for teaching culture.

Mark Hutten (Hutten & Co.) shared that he uses weekly meetings to collaborate and build strong teams, with revolving topics: training on company standards, strategic planning and monthly goal progress updates, simple monthly financial and KPI metrics, and recognition for a job well done.

Team meetings, like football huddles, are your stage for setting the tone.


4. Making It Personal

Your employees do not care what you know (or want) until they know that you truly care.

Seth Kehne (The Lawn Butler) shows he cares by providing the opportunity for employees to get their shots while at work, not just during Covid, but even flu shots each winter, trying to keep them safe and healthy.

As one client shared with me, “I reach out on an individual basis to our team members. I am careful to reference past news/events/concerns that have been mentioned, showing them that we care, we listen, we are genuine.

Molly John (M.J. Design) takes time to talk to team members, getting to know more about them than just work. Letting them know she cares about their well-being and family. “I let them know that the work is important, but they are more important.”


5. Owners Walking the Talk

As an owner, Molly John is willing to do what she asks of the team. Getting out into the field and working alongside them in the beautiful sunshine or pouring down rain. No matter how busy you are, your people love seeing you on job sites.

Sean Baxter (Lawn and Landscape Solutions) takes his job as owner very seriously “I think leading by example of who you want the company to be is important: I wear our gear each day, I bring my lunch, I strive to be on time to employee-related meetings, I use positive language about other employees and clients when talking, I am honest if I make a mistake or do something that may be offensive to someone and I apologize for it no matter who it is. This is how we show over time what we are made of!”

Greg Semmer (Semmer Landscape) shared, “It starts at the top with owners and executives creating an atmosphere of We and not an Us v. Them. It’s more than talk and beer Friday. It is creating a team atmosphere every single day where everyone is just as important as the next person


6. Using Aspirational Language

You can reinforce the culture you want by watching the “nouns” you use and picking vocabulary that sends the right signals.

Loriena Harrington (Beautiful Blooms) gave the following examples:

  • Instead of employees, use words like team members, associates, or co-workers
  • Instead of a job, call it a career, or profession, or passion
  • Instead of a customer, call them clients, supporters, or even fans.

Look at your company terms and language. Does it align with an aspirational culture?


7. Being a Great Place to Work

Lastly, culture doesn’t work when the company is not set up to excel:

  1.  Know what your competition is paying and make sure your pay rises to the level of professionalism you want to attract.
  2.  Ensure your company has clear lines of authority and modern human-resource tools and practices.
  3.  Use career paths so ambitious people can build a dream career.
  4.  Offer clear roles and solid training so you can empower and trust your people.
  5.  Motivate with a purpose that every employee can get behind when they come to work, a purpose larger than making a paycheque.

Marcus Kerske (Gardens of Babylon) always looks to make decisions based on his main vision for his company “I want everyone that works with us to say this is the best company I have ever worked for.”


Your Challenge – Pulling it all together.

Barney Naylor (Naylor Landscape) shared the following:

“For us, it was Identifying, defining & promoting our core values, removing a handful of people that didn’t fit these values and adding a few that did, plus making a few policy changes that created a profound improvement in the culture at our company. After that, it was like, get out of the way and let it grow! Jeffrey, you helped us identify this early on and It didn’t change overnight, but it did change, slowly getting better every day, every month, every year.”

Use these pillars to identify where your company excels and where it can improve. Find one step you can take to make your culture stronger tomorrow.

Is it working? You know you are doing a good job when your people are showing up most days with a smile on their face, happy to be at work at your company