I have heard the cliché “green goes with everything” many times.  It’s always nice to have a few bucks in reserve or the ability to afford the things you like, but where company culture is concerned there is a more appropriate cliché: “money isn’t everything.”

Successful companies that prosper over the long-term are the ones that offer much more than compensation.  The cultures that survive tumultuous business climates are built upon a core central ideal – a genuine care for employees.

Health & Well-being

A foundational objective in building such a culture is to ensure the basic needs of every employee are met.  This includes the opportunity for the employee to earn enough to make ends meet and battle rising inflation and taxes.  Equally important, offering a comprehensive and affordable healthcare package is essential.  Listening to out-of-work candidates during the great recession reinforced this for me.  As unemployment and COBRA ran out, talented professionals would work for a fraction of their former salaries if they could secure the health and well-being of their loved ones.

One of the most important benchmarks of restaurant healthcare benefits came in 2005, the year Starbucks’ healthcare expenses eclipsed the amount of money they spend on coffee beans.  They did not waver on their values, and that dedication to their people strengthens their culture.  Making such a choice may seem easier for a company with the cash flow and leverage like Starbucks.  There are baby steps you can take if you need to address this fundamental cultural investment, and you may be surprised at the positive reaction from employees when you discuss increased medical benefits in lieu of higher compensation.

Reward Dedication

Beyond meeting needs, successful companies recognize and reward their people.  Everyone matters, and in the hospitality world this may apply more than any other profession.  If the General Manager has to suddenly take the day off, the show can typically go on without a hitch.  But take away the bussers, housekeepers, dishwashers, stewards or bar backs and the possibility of service problems significantly increases.

Don’t take for granted the dedicated cook or valet.  Employees who are in uniform on time and follow company policy are special.  Not all of them aspire to be CEO, and that’s OK.  They deserve an “atta girl” or “atta boy” as much as the director of sales who just brought in a big corporate client.  Leaders who get to know their people at every level – their families, their hobbies, their goals – build binding connections that glue together the culture.

Upward Mobility

Goals are not to be overlooked.  Everyone loves the story of the dishwasher who rises to company executive, but it’s not just the behemoth corporations who foster talent.  Providing upward mobility is essential in organizations of every size.  Employees need to know that they can advance through hard work and dedication, and the best companies offer detailed criteria and training programs to facilitate promotion from within. 

But what if your employees feel motivated to leave and start a business?  If you are a serial entrepreneur like Tom Walter, CEO of Tasty Catering, you retain your talent by encouraging employees to pitch their ideas to his in-house micro-VC firm Touhy Capital.  Like in the television show Shark Tank employees present business plans to Tom, his two brothers and partners Larry and Kevin, and his son Tim.  If the idea holds water, they back the plan financially and provide assets such as their years of experience, connections, and back-office resources.  They make an investment in a bright leader they know and trust, and they keep the new venture under their roof.  Best of all, they retain and deepen their relationship with their valuable employee.

A company culture is far more than the publicly visible elements – the parts that define a personality or brand to customers. The internal elements are often far more important. These are critical to attracting and retaining top talent at all levels.

When it comes down to it, you’re in a service oriented business. Those firms that successfully serve their employees will see that attitude flow through to the customers as well.

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