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How to Have a Great Company Culture

This past Thursday, I attended a presentation by Kent Thiry, the CEO of DaVita, a dialysis company and former partner at the management consulting firm Bain & Company. Thiry presided over a stunning turnaround at the firm, but the focus of his presentation was not so much on the corporate specifics but on DaVita’s culture.

Culture is not something I used to consider very much, because, frankly, I thought it was mostly fuzzy BS. And, in fact, many companies deliberately make it that way. They skim books like Jim Collins’ Built to Last and half-listen to human resource fads about how the mere fact that a mission statement and a list of values exists makes a company more productive and lasting — not appreciating that the employees know it’s a sham.

What Thiry had to present was an example of a community. DaVita, as presented by Thiry, was not merely a dialysis company where manufacturers and techs work with doctors and nurses to help treat patients, it was a village, where community members watched out for each other, watched out for the community as a whole, and got together on a regular basis to show each other that they cared. Never before have I seen videos of people proudly singing and dancing to the company song, crying when they discussed how much they loved working for DaVita and working with their co-workers and of course their village mayor (his title is not CEO!) KT (Kent Thiry).

So, how did Thiry help construct such a powerful culture? He attributed it to “show that you care“, no matter if business is good or bad. After all, its really easy to stick to your values and your mission statement and your ideas of community when business is good but what makes or breaks a culture is whether or not you stick to it when business is bad.

Among the tips that Thiry had:

  1. Make hiring and firing decisions based not only business and technical competent, but on adherence to the values of the company
  2. Emphasize that DaVita was a community first, a company second
  3. Spend time honoring those who adhere to the values, not simply pay lip service to them in a vague sense, not simply reward them financially — but actually honor them, with plaques, with ceremony, with recognition
  4. Make people self conscious by having them sing the company song, recite the company motto — because when you do things that make you self conscious you really analyze whether or not your life really stacks up against your values
  5. Establish a practice whereby senior management lead by example — if the C-level management (CEO, CMO, CTO, CIO, etc.) are not following community principles, then why should anyone else?

Thiry then walked through a host of amazing cultural stories to illustrate:

  • The DaVita community (meaning the broader community and not just the corporate leaders) chose to establish a fund to help the children of DaVita employees pay for college
  • DaVita has a practice where senior management and the firm match contributions that the community endorses to charities and noble causes
  • DaVita honors doctors who it considers to have made the biggest impact in their patients’ lives, because that is a broader part of the purpose of the DaVita community
  • DaVita established a practice whereby community members in need receive assistance from other community members
  • Thiry showed off amazing videos of interviews with cancer patients/employees who tearfully described how their coworkers not only raised money to help pay for treatment but sent cards, gifts, helped around the house, etc.
  • One of the most touching stories was of a female employee who died along with her husband, leaving a daughter in college to not only deal with the emotional impact of their deaths, but with huge financial burdens and with her own college tuition. The DaVita community came together to take care of the daughter — paying her tuition so she wouldn’t have to drop out and helping to cover the funerary expenses.

If there are two takeaways from this:

  1. Culture matters. Ask any of DaVita’s workers — or any workers, period. It’s very difficult to be productive or, more importantly, to be happy if you hate the environment you work in. Yes, technical and business competence is necessary, but in no way is it sufficient for creating a good business.
  2. To get a great culture, you have to show that it matters. You can’t just write a values statement and expect a wonderful culture to spring up. You have to stick to it, especially when it is hard to, especially when there are conflicting priorities.

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