A Company Culture Starts With People

By Inside Radio | Featured Image: Clipart.com

The challenges of not just creating but managing and maintaining a company’s culture – its values, beliefs and behaviors that encourage employee performance and drive its success – were the subject of an RAB webinar which put three radio business CEOs in the hot seat.

“Building a culture starts with people,” Saga Communications President and CEO Chris Forgy says. “People are our most precious resource. To build culture, first, the organizational leader has to have a vision, clearly articulate and get the organization to buy into that vision, and then manage and nurture it all the way to the end.”

COVID’s Challenge

As each panelist has discovered, accomplishing all this isn’t easy, especially given the disruption of the pandemic. “All of our organizations were impacted,” Neuhoff Communications CEO Mike Hulvey says. “We recognized that mental health, all of a sudden, went to one of the top levels. You saw what was happening in your families, with your kids and their schools, and your businesses. [So] we encouraged employees to use our employee assistance program. We normalized the theme that it’s okay not to be okay. It is a call of strength. If you do need a little extra help, go get it. It was not a negative [but] a positive.”

Seven Mountains Media Owner and CEO Kristin Cantrell took a similar approach. “We try to be very employee-centric, and what I found out during calls with employees was, we weren’t always talking about business. I said, there’s going to be a pandemic inside this pandemic – a mental health pandemic. We’re going to be dealing with this for years to come, so we need to start addressing it now. So we expanded our vacation schedule to include all federal holidays, so people would have more time off. We did a lot of one-on-one meetings. If they wanted to come straight to the top, that’s what they did.”

From a business standpoint, Seven Mountains’ market acquisitions just prior to COVID showed Cantrell how much that impacted her company’s culture. “We had not been able to bring those markets into our culture the way that we [normally] do, which is very hands-on,” she says. “[So while] most all of our markets we had before – that knew us and knew our culture – grew through the pandemic, our markets we had just acquired that had not had the hands-on in-market experience – us going on calls and doing things with them – were struggling.”

Going to those markets and meeting with employees helped turn the tide. “The wrong thing was that I assumed that they understood our culture, because I said it, but they hadn’t seen me in action inside the market,” Cantrell says. “I said, I know the problem: it’s a pandemic of assumptions. Don’t assume that because we say it that we’re always right. We’re good people, you’re good people, we’re going to figure this out.”

People Are The Key

The transparency, honesty and openness important to Seven Mountains’ culture is also a major part of the other two companies’ strategy. “When I started our culture building, I said, we’re going to swim like dolphins swim,” Forgy says. “We protect one another, we encourage one another, we hold each other accountable. GREAT is an acronym we use in our company. It stands for gratitude, respect, enthusiasm, accountability, and teamwork. Those are the elements of culture in Saga Communications.”

At Neuhoff, the people-driven culture boils down to four words, vs. Saga’s five. “We asked employees a simple question: Why is working here important to you?” Hulvey says. “What came out [were] grit, community, innovation, and excellence. Don’t ever give up, give back, think differently, be exceptional.”

Seven Mountains’ Cantrell abides by Rotary International’s four-way test: is it the truth, is it fair to all concerned, will it build goodwill and better friendships, and will it be beneficial to all concerned? “If it passes those four things, you do it, and if it doesn’t, you don’t,” she says. The company’s questions to its full-time employees dig a little deeper than Neuhoff’s. “We ask, what’s their dream? What gives them energy? What do they love most about their job? What would they like to do? Very often [people] will say to me, no one’s ever asked me that before. It’s like a complete paradigm shift for them.”

For Hulvey, the key to company culture is “communicating your core values across your companies, [and] remembering that we are in a people business. That’s what we do, and I think we do it really well.” Forgy notes that building a culture is “not just to achieve your goals, but to reach for impeccability and stand the test of time. If you’re unhappy with your [company’s] culture, you want to go look in the mirror, because you created it.”