The Best Diversity Practice: Inclusion

Tom Walter
Tom Walter

Over four decades ago, I started my first of many businesses. For 35 years, I operated each one of my companies using command-and-control management—which I thought was working just fine…at the time.

It took me a while to learn that the more I commanded, the less I controlled. Actually, it took until two young leaders in their early 20s approached my desk one day to tell me, “Either you change your management style, or we are leaving.”

It was mid-November, and our company had just moved into a new building that was four times larger than our previous facility. The larger area was great in that it allowed us to grow, yet it also provided the perfect atmosphere for the silo-effect to settle in, which resulted in conflicting orders and lower levels of effective internal communication.

When these two bright young minds approached my desk demanding a change, I thought, Change what?! What do they mean?

They meant change our command-and-control management style to leadership through an employee-driven culture. It was a total wake-up call and defining moment in our company’s tribal lore.

The fateful ultimatum eventually led to an entire organizational change resulting in dozens of local, regional and national awards for product and culture, including the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthiest Small for Profit Business in 2014, but the change didn’t happen overnight.

This wasn’t my first experience with change in a workplace either. When it had happened before, I was the one asking for change.

I was in my late teens/early 20s and going to school while working part-time at a very successful fast-food service restaurant owned and operated by a WWII Marine sergeant. He was the ultimate command-and-control guy. I had asked him about opening up another location seven miles away, explaining how he could capitalize on his current success and brand recognition and really do some great things, but he didn’t listen. He had no interest.

Two other managers and I borrowed money and opened up that location ourselves with no support from him, though we managed to turn it into something of a success. My former boss didn’t listen and lost out on a business opportunity (and the opportunity to retain three of his most effective managers with the company!).

Now, in 2005, I found myself presented with a similar opportunity to listen to and support these two young people calling for change.

Immediately after having the discussion at my desk nearly ten years ago, we started the process. Although I didn’t yet know about John Kotter’s “8-Step Change Model,” we followed it, first creating teams within each department and having them read a popular business book on creating culture. Then, we formed an employee council with a representative from each team who brought to the council their team’s culture statement: Core Values, Vision and Mission. After that, we devoted one council meeting creating each of the company’s own statement.

Our teams posted the resulting culture statement in every public room and cubicle. We posted pictures of staff with motivational messages throughout the facility. We introduced “The Great Game of Business” for financial transparency. Company leaders no longer wrote the internal newsletters (removing our old top-down communication style). They were now peer-to-peer, each team entering their stories of success and challenges for the week.

We incorporated a number of other steps to ensure that our business was for the people and by the people, reinforcing it with artifacts and symbols of our people and our culture.
Although, again, I was not aware of Edgar Schein at that time, we were following his “Three Levels of Culture: Artifacts, Espoused Values and Basic Underlying Assumptions.”
Now, we know that Tasty Catering has four pillars:

  1. God or your higher power
  2. Family
  3. Education
  4. Work

There are artifacts that identify the value of each of those four pillars in our facility. We don’t get to No. 4 until numbers 1 through 3 have been addressed.

Our first Core Value is “Always moral, ethical and legal.” We know that if someone asks for time off for a religious, family or school function, they are being honest about having to address that need.

We have a diverse workforce, which thankfully, is becoming the norm. We have found that if we would leave our personal culture at the door and adopt the organization’s culture while working, we get along tremendously.

Our seven core values are numbered so that staff can hold each other accountable (“Hey, that’s not #4!), and support each other (“#3! Great job!”). Behavior is controllable as well as predictable.

Our focus is to create an inclusive society where everyone matters; everyone is somebody. Every voice must be heard. To further this spirit, the organization chart was replaced with a “responsibility chart” identifying who is responsible for whom. Inclusion, therefore, is our diversity. We are one through the separate but equal components of gender, race, religion and nationality.

This culture change has resulted in the achievement of high performance with employee engagement scores soaring above the 90 percentile, sales growth and profit above industry norms, low turnover, great brand recognition, awards for culture, high product performance and finally, attracting incredible talent.

Our culture statement—and culture in general—has grown to be a living part of our organization, and we can attribute a great number of things of which we are insanely proud.