I recently had the opportunity to speak with a group of business students at The College of New Jersey. During the Q&A session, an attendee brought up the phrase culture eats strategy for lunch for discussion. Originally attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker, this powerful quote got me thinking about the culture we’ve established at Heartland.
As CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, I’ve learned that corporate culture is one of the most important factors in long-term, sustainable success. It’s not good enough to have world-class products and a healthy bank balance. When you offer a vibrant corporate culture you attract top talent and retain that talent. When these people go out to represent your company and products to the rest of the world, they take with them your company values.
How does a leader build a strong culture?
- Keep it personal and be authentic. At a business conference not long ago I had the honor of being introduced as “the most authentic CEO in America.” That meant a lot to me, because I have always done my best to build my business—and life—on honesty and integrity.
Culture is built from the top down. Leadership with strong values and principles in line with a company’s mission is critical. Employees will most often follow the culture they observe in the actions of their leaders.
- Put your people first. Employees are the key component to the success of any company. Earning their respect and trust is vital to their engagement, commitment and loyalty. No matter how large the organization, it is important to make each person feel that they matter. And that leads me to the next point.
- Celebrate contributions. Employees make contributions—large and small—every day. It’s important to recognize innovation, a great mentor, excellent customer service or even just a positive attitude. Formal or informal recognition programs go a long way in making employees feel that they are part of something greater.
To this day, some of our best salespeople have interviewed with other major payment processors but pick Heartland because of its culture of honesty and integrity. These are people who have gone on to do great things for Heartland and the merchants we jointly serve.
I also know culture is a difficult thing to get right. You can hire a top-notch team to develop a fancy corporate strategy, but building a winning culture is not something that happens overnight. It takes nurturing by everyone—from the boardroom to the mailroom.
And culture is certainly not something that can be manufactured or engineered. It’s not defined by the snacks you offer in the break room, swanky office décor or the holiday party you host.
Months ago, I reaped the rewards of our investment in corporate culture when I learned that 87 percent of our employees rated Heartland as a great place to work in a survey conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute. 87 percent!
Even more important was the analysis of this survey and the employee comments that were collected. Comments like:
People in this company truly care about each other.
Working for Heartland is like working with a family.
No one judges you, even when you have personal issues.
A solid culture and set of values can also prepare a company to handle potentially adverse scenarios in a positive way.
This was never more evident to me than when Heartland suffered a massive data breach in 2009—one of the worst in the history of the payment industry. In this case, our culture created the foundation for our strategy in responding to that breach: quickly, with transparency and empathy.
A data breach, especially one as large and severe as ours, has the ability to undo years of brand equity. I think that is what occurred at Target. But Heartland’s data breach made us stronger, more resilient, more respected.
In fact Richard S. Levick, a public relations expert, wrote in his book, The Communicators, that Heartland took a potentially fatal incident and reacted in a way that actually strengthened our brand. We established our company as a thought leader committed to prevention, industry-wide solutions, honest communication, and putting customers and employees first.
That’s our culture. It’s the way we try to do things around here.
Recently Heartland unveiled a new corporate motto. While I’ve generally been opposed to mission statements, mottos and the like, I think this one is terrific and the late addition of the word respectfully makes all the difference. It puts our culture—our purpose—front and center:
Entrepreneurs Respectfully Serving Entrepreneurs
It is one thing to have your company’s values framed in a conference room or listed in a PowerPoint presentation. It’s another to live and breathe these beliefs every day. I’m proud of the culture we’ve built at Heartland.