It’s one thing to say that you care about your associates and display inspiring words on your office walls or in your employee manual. It’s another thing entirely to instill a positive culture throughout an organization that is meaningful in people’s daily work and lives. My company has survived in the restaurant industry for 25 years – a lifetime in an industry characterized by high failure rates – specifically because of the strength of our culture. Here are six keys to walking the talk when it comes to your company culture.

1. Make culture your most important priority

The first step is to make your culture your most important priority. I say that maintaining our culture is job number one for everyone in the company.

2. Choose culture over profit

Sometimes, business leaders see a conflict between a positive culture and the drive for profit. For us, there is no conflict. If there is a choice between the two, the answer is clear: culture wins every time. In fact, we say that we dedicate 51 percent of our efforts toward maintaining our culture, and 49 percent toward making a profit. If something does not align with our values, we just don’t do it. Yet when we compare our bottom-line performance to that of comparable publicly-held companies, we are always at least in the upper quartile, and often the upper 10 percent of profit as a percentage of revenue.

All associates at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants attend a four-hour orientation after they are hired. During the orientation, we take the associates through our culture and values in depth. We also give each of our new associates a copy of our “little red book” and encourage them to carry it for reference. It’s a simple brochure that describes our culture’s five pillars and eight core values. I am often amazed to see how many of our people, at a moment’s notice, can pull out a wrinkled, worn copy of the little red book and share it with pride. Of course, they get a milkshake to reinforce “Yes is the Answer.”

3. Put your associates first

Put your people first out of genuine concern for them, not to manipulate them into working harder or better for you. Our culture puts them first because this is purely how we want to treat them and how we want to value them. In doing so, we attain incredible results. Our company is built by its people and for its people. Most wake up in the morning feeling they belong to something special. CMR is their home and their family. In 2017, we had only 5 percent turnover of management personnel and 48 percent turnover of hourly associates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry turnover rate is closer to 35 percent for management and 80 percent for hourly associates.

We have so many “associates come first” stories. One of my favorites is about Valerie, our sous chef in Beverly Hills. Valerie told me her younger sister back home in Detroit was gravely ill with cancer. Valerie had transferred to Beverly Hills from Detroit to help with the new restaurant. I asked if she was going to spend some time with her sister soon. She said she’d be going there for Thanksgiving. At the time of this conversation, it was August. “Why are you waiting so long?” I asked. She told me she couldn’t afford plane tickets, and didn’t have vacation time.

“You do now,” I said. “The company will pay for your round-trip airfare, and once a month you can combine your weekly two days off with a couple of personal or vacation days. That way, you’ll get four days in a row off to go and visit your sister each month, from now through the end of the year. You were already planning on paying for your airfare Thanksgiving week, so that is on you, and the company will take care of the rest.”

She was blown away. The best part was that she was able to see her sister many more times before she passed away far too young.

4. Promote everyone’s wellbeing

Many people believe that when you choose a career in the restaurant business, you are entering a career of long hours, low pay, and a poor quality of life. At CMR, we could not disagree more. We are truly invested in our associates’ well-being, not only at work, but also at home. We believe you cannot be successful at work if you are not successful at home, and if you cannot be successful at home, you cannot be successful at work. We believe these two realms are incredibly intertwined. Here are some of the ways we promote our associates’ well-being and work-life balance.

I never wanted to work on Christmas, so why would I ask our associates to do so? We are closed for seven major holidays each year, plus Super Bowl Sunday. These days are a time for family, friends, and relaxation. I don’t understand why some companies feel they need to be open 365 days a year. I think we can still do well being open only 357 days and closed for those eight days.

One of my favorite lines is: “You will never make it to all of your kids’ events.” Even so, I insist, and we practice, using the rest of the phrase: “…but you will make it to more games and events than you’ll miss.” We want you to see your kid perform in the recital or play in the soccer tournament—whatever the case may be—every chance you can.

We never want associates to quit without giving notice, so why would we quit them without extending the same courtesy? When we close a restaurant, and we have closed a few, we give all associates three weeks’ notice. Any associate who stays through the closure process gets an additional three weeks’ severance. We share stories, hugs, and tears, and many of them thank us for being a class act all the way to the end. This stands in stark contrast to the common industry practice of letting associates arrive to a padlocked door with a sign, only to find that their workplace has closed with no notice, no severance, and no communication. That absolutely appalls me. It is just plain wrong. This is a case in point that integrity takes years to build and days to ruin.

5. Communicate openly and honestly

Open, honest communication should be a core value in every company’s culture. We make it a point to be in constant contact and communication, and we share information in many ways.

We have a 1-800 hotline that anybody can use to call in with a concern or suggestion. We also create frequent in-person opportunities for communication. The general manager of each restaurant holds a cabinet meeting every three months, at which he or she has a representative from every associate department—for example, a server, a bartender, a cook, and a dishwasher. This meeting gives the associates a chance to sit and talk about what’s going on at their restaurant, share information, and resolve problems.

We also require daily pre-shift pit-stop meetings, where managers talk with associates about living out the culture on the floor of the restaurant and sharing additional information, expectations, and concerns of the day.

We want to hear what our associates think. If there is severe weather, we always manage by collaboration and make decisions as a team, allowing people to weigh in about whether we should close or have limited hours. We do the same thing if the electricity goes down or any other problem impacts everyone at a given location. Our communication is constant. I don’t think our people feel disconnected at any time whatsoever.

We have two fall and spring meetings that cover three days and two nights, bringing together all our general managers and executive chefs as well as the senior leadership of the company. We also hold an annual meeting that lasts three days and two nights, bringing together all assistant managers in the company.

In addition to bringing our managers and assistants to us, we go to them with many on-site visits and meetings. Members of our human resources, facilities, and accounting teams visit each restaurant once or twice a year to hold a series of support meetings. We review our business practices, check the files, and ensure that everyone is doing things the way they’re supposed to be done.

Twice a year, we have a president’s roundtable. David, our President and COO, and I visit each of the out-of-town restaurants, sit down, and break bread with a group of associates representing their respective teams. We deliver a State of the Union-type address about what’s happening with the company, and then we talk about the individual restaurant’s business. We also talk individually with all the managers of that site. We do the same thing with our in-town restaurants and home office team.

6. Get honest feedback from your employees so you can measure quality

Feedback is the breakfast of champions, which is why we measure everything in our company—from guest counts and sanitation scores, to sales and net income, and everything in between. While this data is invaluable, some of our most important metrics come from our associate opinion survey, or AOS, which we administer each winter and summer. The survey is voluntary, and is usually completed by more than 97 percent of our associates. All our company managers and leaders, including me, are evaluated. We have been doing this survey from almost the beginning. The survey measures how our culture and values are influencing the company and how much they are resonating within.

In eleven questions, all respondents are asked for feedback on a range of points, such as whether they are proud to work at their restaurant, if they receive the proper tools to do their job, whether the food is of consistent quality, and if the restaurant is clean and well-maintained. We also ask if their restaurant exhibits CMR culture and philosophies, whether they feel they have a voice, and how well the management team works together, provides information, and trains staff.

The survey provides insights for our managers about how they perform and how our people perceive them. This feedback has proven, time and time again, to be invaluable to our continued growth and success. Today the survey results fill a six-inch binder, now approaching three hundred-plus pages of information. We are always comparing our results to prior years and looking for trends. If our goal is to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today, we want proof that we are succeeding. I am happy to say we usually achieve the goal, and our survey results rate our cultural impact at 93 percent or 94 percent, year in and year out.

While good scores are wonderful, the survey always shows us where we need to improve. I often meet with the manager who got the worst score in the company and say, “This could be the best day of your life.” Then I share my own experience from when I was a young man and nearly had a mutiny on my team. Sometimes, the most painful feedback is the most valuable.

Here are a few ways you can put these keys into practice in your business:

  1. Constantly measure how effectively your culture and values are impacting your company and your people.
  2. Do not place profit over culture or the culture will erode. An example for us would be opening for Christmas Eve. Twice we have asked our associates if they would like for us to be open on that holiday, and both times the move was shot down 3:1 by our people. Even though they could all make extra money and the company could make a tremendous profit by being open that day, we choose to honor our people’s wishes and put our culture and values over profit.
  3. People are any company’s most important asset. We are all in the people business. When presented with an opportunity to put your people first, do it. Why wouldn’t you always choose to put your people first every day?
  4. Understand the importance of work-life balance to your associates and make sure you are doing what you can to protect their wellbeing. By doing so you are promoting the wellbeing of your company. 
  5. Give an honest state of the union speech to your associates when you can. I do it just about anytime I am in front of a group of them – probably at least two dozen or more times a year. I think it is important for our people to hear directly from me an open, honest assessment of how we are doing and where we are going. Knowledge is power. 
  6. Solicit and act upon feedback. If you don’t do both steps, the first is meaningless. The feedback can be just a casual conversation or a formal, anonymous survey. The mode really doesn’t matter as long as it is asked for, received, and valued. 

Leaders often get bogged down putting out fires, reacting to issues of people and the business, and focusing on tomorrow instead of today. If leaders spent more time and focus on these six issues, they would find that many of the issues or fires they are dealing with are no longer there. It’s a matter of focus and, in particular, focusing on your people. Then, almost magically, a lot of other problems take care of themselves. 

Adapted from Yes is the Answer. What is the Question?. Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Mitchell. Published by IdeaPress Publishing.