CEO Brian Fielkow walks through creating and maintaining a good work culture then reveals how prospective employees can find out if they fit a new workplace’s culture.
- Why customers pay for culture
- Brian’s definition of a healthy work culture
- How to discover if you are a cultural fit at the interview stage
Brian Fielkow, J.D., is the CEO of Jetco Delivery, a multimillion-dollar Houston-based trucking and logistics company with 200+ employees that was named a “Top Workplace” by the Houston Chronicle, highlighted on the 2015 Inc. 5000 list, and given the Gold Safety Award by the DOW Chemical Company. Brian is also the author of “Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture.”
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Learn a new language anytime, anywhere with Babbel
- Brian’s website: www.BrianFielkow.com
- Brian’s book: Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture
- Book: The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Pat Lencioni
- Book: The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win by Jeff Haden
She’s well known in Hawaii and she’s starting to make a good name on the mainland. But the song, Island Inside Me, I wrote for my wife for our anniversary.
I just have these lyrics going around in my head, but I’m not a songwriter, I can’t sing, I’m not a musician. I connected with Anuhea. We put this song together sort of as an anniversary gift. It took off. It was a pretty cool experience. I don’t think I’ll have that experience again, but to have that song. Every once in a while I’ll hear it on Sirius-type stations. It’s kind of neat.
Yeah, well, could you sing perhaps the refrain or the chorus or a segment for us?
Oh, you don’t want me to sing anything, but I know she’s got it posted. I know it’s available. It’s again, Island Inside Me, but if I sang it, I think we’d lose all of our listeners right now.
Okay, fair enough. We’ll play it safe this time.
Play it safe, yup.
You have a deep expertise when it comes to culture matters. You have some real hands-on experience instead of only doing research and writing books. Maybe could you orient us a little bit to where you’ve come from and why culture has become an issue that really matters to you so much?
Yeah, I have kind of an interesting career. It’s not one that you could have ever planned coming out of school. I began my career practicing corporate law in Milwaukee. Maybe six or seven years in, I went to go work for my favorite client. They were in the recycling business. It was a wonderful opportunity.
We built that business while I was there for a good six – seven years. We sold it to Waste Management. I worked at Waste for a couple years. Then I bought my current company about 13 – 14 years ago, Trucking and Logistics. I’ve seen large Fortune 500 companies, I’ve seen entrepreneurial companies, everything in between.
It was interesting when I got into recycling coming out of the law business, I noticed that what we were selling were bales of cardboard. A bale of cardboard is a bale of cardboard, but we were commanding a premium. It took me a while to figure out why would anybody pay us more for what’s in the truest sense of the word a commodity.
It didn’t take me long to realize that other people would promise an order of a thousand tons and they’d ship 700. There was so much gamesmanship in the business, but we did what we said. People were paying us a premium for peace of mind. They weren’t really buying our cardboard; they were buying our peace of mind. That was a lesson I got very early on post law.
It kind of woke me up to the fact that every one of our businesses with rare exception to some degree is commoditized. I got really interested in de-commoditizing what we do, not having it to compete as much on price. Yes, the price is important, but if we can get to a situation where a customer appreciates our value proposition more than just the core product or service you’re offering, you can command a higher price.
Over the years I learned that what people are really paying for is your culture, kind of how you do things, what makes you different, that secret ingredient that nobody else can steal.
Certainly. Your culture is what they’re paying for. It’s how you do things differently, your secret sauce. Is that how you define culture in those ways or do you have a particular definition that you run with?
Yeah, let me give you how I define it. There are books and books on culture and the theory behind it. I’m not a fan of the theory because we’re practitioners and we need to know now. I’m going to keep it real simple and say that in simplest terms, you’ve got the beginning of a healthy culture when you’ve got the right people and the right processes working in harmony.
In a healthy culture, you’ve got the convergence of people and process, that’s what yields consistent and hopefully excellent results for the customer. You could have the right people and no process and every day is a new day. You could have the right process and the wrong people and forget about that. I’ve learned over the years that it’s getting the right people, the right process working in harmony.
It’s also rooting your company in a well-defined set of values. We have so many arrows coming at us in the business world, so many different priorities that sometimes we forget that there’s this adhesive that binds us together.
I can’t tell any business what their values should be, but once you’ve established your values, you’ve got to live by them. You don’t compromise your values. That’s something that your team needs to understand, your customers understand. It’s the adhesive that binds your company together through good times and bad, where priorities, on the other hand, they change by the day. We have customer issues. We’ve got service issues.
But those priorities never, ever compromise our core values, who we are and what’s important to us and what’s important to our team. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got to walk the walk. You’ve got to live and breathe your values. Whether you’re in the C-suite, whether it’s your first day on the job, you’ve got to agree that these are the rules that we’re going to play by.
That’s interesting you said you cannot tell another company what their values should be. I guess I’m imagining there are some that would generally be a recipe for good things and some that would be a recipe for bad things and a whole lot that it’s sort of – it’s a matter of finding the right fit in terms of the people and the processes and the industry and kind of what is your focus as a business.
Could you give us an example of some values that are unique because I think a lot of organizations will say, hey, integrity of course is a big value. I think sometimes they live it and walk the talk and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t really seem so distinctive when you hear that integrity is a value.
But it seems like in your practice, integrity is defined as doing what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it really was a differentiator there. Could you give us some examples of different values and how they come to life?
Sure. Let’s talk about integrity for a minute because you’re right. That can sound over used. What company in the world doesn’t say integrity is a core value?
But now look around and if you watch football as much as I do, you’ve seen the Wells Fargo ads, established in 1860-something, reestablished in 2018. Why? Because they had integrity issues that really hurt their reputation, opening up fictitious accounts. It was a pretty big deal. Wells Fargo had to do work to repair its brand because of integrity.
It’s something you take for granted, but then you realize that if you let it slip and don’t focus on it, it could slip intentionally or unintentionally. Something even as simple and common place as integrity, if you as the leader aren’t living it and are kind of looking the other way, one lie will breed a thousand lies.
If I’ve got a problem with a customer, I’m not going to make something up. I’m going to tell the customer what happened and how we’re going to fix it. Even though the customer may be upset, hopefully over time, the customer will respect me more because people can smell a lie a mile away.
If my team sees me behaving in that manner, they’re going to follow my lead. On the other hand, if my team sees me acting with integrity, they’re going to follow my lead. Especially as we’re starting to work with younger and younger employees, people just don’t want to work in a company where the values are adrift. Integrity.
Another great example is respect. Again, people use respect too loosely, in my opinion. When I say respect, what I’m talking about is treating people like human beings first and employees second. That’s the ultimate respect. The ultimate form of disrespect is anonymity, “Hey, you’re number 100. Go do your job. Punch in, punch out,” not knowing a thing about that employee personally.
As my company is growing, I can’t know a thing about all my employees but my managers better. There needs to be something in the culture that makes sure that my managers know their employees like I know my direct reports so that everyone is accounted for and that the ultimate form of respect, like I said, is making sure that people’s overall human needs are met and that nobody, no matter if it’s their first day on the job, feels like all they’re doing is punching a clock and if they didn’t show up, it wouldn’t matter. That’s just a horrible situation to be in.
Respect is a value. Those are some of the things that we do that promote respect regardless of what it is you do because you’re an important member of the team regardless.
Right, okay. I would love to dig in a little bit in terms of thinking about values when it comes to finding fit with regard to career planning. How do you think about that game—I’d say both in terms of zeroing in on what values matter to you and then assessing whether a company really has it? Because I think a number of cultural pieces in terms of how things are done in a given organization really can vary and vary fine and suit different people differently.
For example, I think that some folks would say, “Oh yeah, we’re all about collaboration and so we’ve got an open office floor plan and we’ve got bays with ten employees in each of them, so they’re always kind of seeing and interacting with folks. We’re always on Slack and doing that.” Then some folks would say, “That would drive me insane. I need my quiet time to really focus and go deep in creating stuff.”
That would be sort of a natural mismatch when it comes to sort of how you prefer to do your thing and how the organization is doing their thing. How do you think about navigating this whole fit and research game?
Such a great question because whenever I see forced fun, I run away. I go in the opposite direction. For me, having a slide in the middle of the office and having all those amenities, that’s all well and good, but that’s not culture. People mistake that kind of stuff for culture. Culture is not campfire fun and games stuff. This is a hardcore business proposition.
If kind of the slide in the office fits your culture and it’s in the context of an overall healthy culture, it’s fine. But if you’re using those bells and whistles to get employees in and then once they come in, they realize you’re in a toxic environment, that doesn’t work.
To me, there’s some subjectivity to it. There’s definitely a component of individual taste. Maybe I prefer a company that’s more formal. Or maybe I prefer a company that’s more casual. Maybe having a social life with my coworkers is important. Maybe I don’t want it at all. Maybe the company is extremely hierarchical, has a well-defined org chart. Maybe the company is more loosely defined.
All that’s okay and none of that is indicative of whether the company has a healthy culture or a poor culture. It’s how the company chooses to operate. It’s its own personality. That’s where you’ve got to find the fit. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer there.
But when you want to talk about how do I find the right culture, regardless of whether it’s hierarchical or loose, whether we’re wearing suits or whether we’re wearing shorts, that’s the key is to dig beyond the surface, dig beyond the slide. It’s not one-size fits all.
I think the best advice I could give somebody is when you’re doing an interview, you definitely – you’re going to speak with the hiring manager. You might speak with human resources. But the real people you want to talk to are prospective peers, prospective coworkers.
We do that with pretty much all of our job interviews. Again, it doesn’t matter the level that we’re hiring for. We want to be sure that peers can talk unscripted and what it’s really like to work here. We want to make full disclosure. We want to make full disclosure about our company. We’re proud of it, but we know that just like any other company, we’re not a fit for everybody. We’d rather know that before we make a hiring decision or before you would agree to join our company.
There’s nothing like a peer-to-peer interview where you can ask questions. “What’s it really like to work here?” The company’s recruiting brochure says X, Y, Z, but six months later is that really what’s happening? Do they have a good-looking recruiting brochure or are they really delivering the goods?
The absolutely best advice I can give is do your homework on the company. Understand what the company is all about. Understand its culture. But peer-to-peer man, that’s really where you’re going to learn what it’s like to work there.
By the way, if that peer-to-peer interview goes well, now you’re new coworkers, they know you before you start. They’ve got a vested interest in integration. They’ve got a vested interest in bringing you in and helping you succeed.
If they say to the hiring manager, “Wow, thumbs up. Let’s bring this person in,” that opens the door and creates a pathway for success in a way that just a traditional interview and “By the way everybody, here’s your new coworker who you’ve never met,” that doesn’t work quite as well.
I’m curious if that organization – if you’re interviewing an organization and they don’t have the wisdom to … process, do you have any pro tips in terms of how you’d go about proactively having those conversations and some of the key things you’d want to say when you’re in the midst of them to learn what you really need to learn?
Let’s say that I’m interviewing at an organization. They did not give me the benefit of engaging in these conversations peer-to-peer, so it’s a little bit more on me to be proactive in terms of finding these people, having these conversations. How shall I find them and engage them and what should we say when we’re talking?
Well, a lot of companies may not offer the ability to interview a peer. First thing is you just ask. Say, “Hey, could I interview somebody in the department that I’m – can I meet with somebody in the department that I’m interviewing to work in?” A lot of times the companies may say yes, but if they say “No, that’s not our practice. We don’t do that,” okay, let’s respect that.
But I would still ask the hiring manager questions like “What are your company’s values? Give me a feeling for when those values were challenged. How did the company respond?” Just like they’re going to ask you those questions. They’re going to ask you, “Tell me a particularly difficult problem or difficult situation. How did you address it?” You better be prepared to answer that. Well, I think it’s a fair question for employers too is, “Tell me your story.”
If you look at an interview as a two-way street, not just the hiring manager interviewing you, look at it as a conversation. You’ll be able to develop the feel just almost organically in a conversation. If it’s that tight and that rigid and you don’t have that opportunity, the company is telling you something about its personality.
I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying that’s probably not a place I’d want to work. That’s not kind of how we bring employees in. I want an open door, full disclosure. But if companies don’t do that, with social media you can still network and find people who work there and talk to them informally or former employees, talk to them. But you can also have that same conversation with your hiring manager.
I love it when people come in, they’ve done their homework on the company and they challenge me with questions. That tells me that I’m dealing with somebody exceptional, who understands that the interview is a conversation.
Well, I love that point on social media. LinkedIn is so cool with all the filters that you can dig in and search for folks that way.
People used to call LinkedIn the boring version of Facebook or Instagram, but LinkedIn is the encyclopedia for how to network. I use it all the time. It’s such a valuable tool.
Absolutely. And I really love that question you asked in terms of “Tell me about a time a value was challenged,” because I think a lot of times you’re probably going to get total blank stare response, like “Uh, these are just the words we repeat. I can’t think of any real experiences to share with you right now.” That tells you something right there.
But now you’ve got me curious, Brian can you tell me about a time in your company that you had a core value that got challenged and how did you live it out?
Sure. In 2015 – ’16, we’re in trucking and logistics in Houston. That was a rough time. The energy markets collapsed and business was really challenged. We had to make some very difficult decisions.
In doing so, it wasn’t like memos from the C-suite; we brought our employees into the process. When we had to make the company smaller and downsize, we met with our employees. We treated them with respect. We made sure that everybody knew what we were doing, why we were doing.
What it did is it created sort of a foxhole mentality that we’re not working around our employees. We’ve not sugar coating like, “Oh, everything’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” We brought them in and we fought the war together because we were so transparent and open with them. You’ve got to be prepared to share good news and bad news.
In doing that, for example, safety in our company is a core value. We don’t compromise it. Well, no matter how rough business got, no maintenance got deferred. Every single vehicle was maintained regardless of the company’s financial performance.
I’ve seen other organizations where “Oh, business is bad. Let’s figure out where to cut. Well, we can cut maintenance.” No, if safety is a core value, you don’t cut, you don’t defer maintenance. You keep running your business.
I can use that time when this company was really challenged and really stressed by a rough economy. People in other businesses were losing their jobs left and right in Houston during that time and we just took a very contrarian approach that we’re taking our employees with us. Even though we couldn’t take everybody with us, and we did have to let people go. It was done, like I said, with dignity, with respect and then with complete transparency to the rest of the team.
That’s created kind of I think an unparalleled level of camaraderie as the company has rebounded, recovered, and grown so well in the past couple years.
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, could you share some other perspectives when it comes to zeroing in on determining if a culture is a fit for you?
Do you have some extra perspectives and tips when it comes to determining if an opportunity has a good cultural fit for you?
Yeah, I think that you’ve got to be careful not to conform yourself to become somebody that you’re not. Don’t mold yourself to a culture that doesn’t fit. You’ve got to understand what fits.
In our situation, in a healthy culture, you’ve got to have employees who are technically excellent and who are in line with the company’s values. You get yourself in a lot of trouble when you look the other way.
I’ve got a technically excellent employee that’s walking all over everybody else, just a horrible team player. Well, I have to either coach that employee back in to working within our values or they can’t be part of the team no matter how technically good they are.
A lot of times we look the other way when it comes to technically good people even if they’re destroying the morale of the company. As an employer, you’ve got to stand up to that and be sure that you’ve got people who are value aligned and who know what they’re doing.
Well, similarly, for the employees, you can’t really fake it. I’m assuming you got the job because technically you met the criteria, but in a healthy culture, I hope that you’re yourself, that you don’t force anything. In a healthy culture you’ll be challenged.
Hopefully that culture will make you a better employee and a better person and hopefully you’ll do the same. You’ll make the company a better company and you’ll improve your coworkers. But if it doesn’t fit, you’ve got to know it.
I’ve seen too many times where people jump at the money. They jump at the money. “Oh, somebody wants me, I’m going to accept the job,” without asking these questions of “Am I going to be happy?” You may make money and you’ll be miserable. Life is too short.
That’s why interviewing for culture and being aware of culture is just so critically important because we’ve all had maybe in our careers, the Sunday night blues, kind of that horrible feeling that Monday is coming and I’ve got to a place that I really don’t want to go. I’ve had that in my career.
Because I’ve had that in my career and I understand it so well, part of my job is to make sure that we don’t have the Sunday night blues, that people are excited to come to work because they’re treated right, because it’s a place that they know they fit in. But if you don’t fit in the place and it’s not right for you, you’ve got to know when to get off the bus too.
Lovely. Well, Brian, tell me, anything else you want to make sure mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I like to always say that at the foundation of the culture is what I call the three T’s: treatment, transparency, and trust. If you’ve got that and if you work at a company – look I’m in the trucking business. I’ve got a lot of people who told me, “Well, geez, I never thought in my life I would get into the trucking business. How did you as a corporate lawyer decide to do it?”
First of all, I love the industry, but it’s an industry that a lot of people might not necessarily just automatically gravitate to. But it almost doesn’t matter what you do as long as you love the job, you love the people. I think treatment, transparency and trust, whether you’re in a medical office, trucking business, law office, doesn’t matter.
Treatment, like I said before, you’re a human being first, an employee second. The ultimate form of poor treatment is anonymity.
Transparency, is just making sure your team is engaged. The best way to engage your team is to explain the why. If you give me a memo and you say, “Brian, just do it,” my personality is going to be to rebel. I’m not going to do it because you told me to do it. But if you say, “Brian, look here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s the why. It’s not a democracy. I’m not asking for your vote. But here’s the why,” I’ll be a lot more inclined to participate. I’ll be a lot more inclined to support. Just make sure you take time to explain the why.
As an employee, if you don’t know why, ask why. If somebody says, “Well, never mind. It’s none of your business, never mind,” that’s a little tip, isn’t it? But the key to an engaged workforce is for everybody to know their mission, know the company’s mission, know their role. Why?
Then finally trust. If there’s no trust, let’s forget about all this. In a company where trust is lacking, where people say one thing and do another, you’re operating on quicksand. You’re never going to have employee satisfaction where there’s a lack of trust among coworkers, lack of trust where leadership doesn’t trust the employees, employees don’t trust leadership.
Treatment, transparency, and trust are the three critical elements that I would look for in any business. I don’t care what the business does, as a sign of a healthy culture.
Lovely, thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?
The problem with my favorite quote is it’s too long, but I’m going to just read a little bit of it. It’s Teddy Roosevelt’s quote that we’re all here in the game and there’s people on the sidelines. They’re always going to be throwing stones at you.
It says, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I love that quote. I just love it because you’ve got people throwing stones at you your whole life. Just forget about those people and go out there and be your best.
Awesome, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I’d like to if possible move to a couple books that I’d like to kind of recommend.
My favorite book, if you took all my books away, would be The Advantage by Pat Lencioni. I think that’s the one book that everybody needs to read in college, coming out of college. I go back to that book all the time. It really lays out the basis for healthy organization and your role in the healthy organization. Really, I like anything that Lencioni writes, but The Advantage is my favorite.
Another book that just came out last year that I’m really into is called The Motivation Myth. Because I’m not terribly into – as you probably can guess by now – I’m not into a lot of the motivational, feel-good speakers and those kinds of books.
What The Motivation Myth does is it takes the concept and turns it on its head and says it’s not like you have to have the motivation then you do the job, then you’re successful. The motivation comes from the journey itself.
The book argues that it’s those small steps. It’s the victories. It’s getting knocked down, getting back up. The motivation comes from those incremental successes. The more you have, the harder you work, the more motivation you have. Motivation isn’t like a prerequisite. Instead, motivation is one of the things that comes from doing something you love.
The book also argues that quit trying to be like some of the celebrity CEOs. They did what worked for them. You’ve got to figure out what works for you. Spend less time emulating and spend more time figuring out what your own formula is. I just love that as opposed to just, “Hey, do what I say. Follow my advice and you’ll be successful.” I just don’t buy that. I buy, you figure out your own formula and that’s the key to success.
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
Trying to maintain a semblance of work/life balance. I’m not by any stretch nine to five, but I listen to my body rhythm. I listen to how I work. I’m up at crazy hours of the morning because that’s when I work the best, but unless something is really important, you’re not going to find me here – later in the day, you’re not going to find me here necessarily on a Friday afternoon.
What I’ve learned over the years is that we’ve all kind of grew up in this eight to five world or seven to five or whatever it is, but hopefully as technology evolves and as employers become more and more progressive – this isn’t true for every job obviously. If you’re a doctor or a nurse, you’ve got to be with your patients. But for a lot of jobs, the more you can listen to your body clock and know when you’re productive and kind of know when you’ve got that momentum, the more effective you’ll be.
I could do something in a half hour that would take me five hours if I picked the wrong time and the rhythm isn’t there. Listening to your body, kind of knowing how you work. Some people, as you know, are night owls. Some people, again, like me, are up before the sun. But being able to know that and capture it, I think, is the secret to optimum production and success.
Thank you. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your employees and folks who are reading your stuff?
When I’m talking to audiences, I do a lot of keynoting, there’s a couple things. First of all, take your frontlines with you. I use that all the time and it resonates. I don’t like doing keynotes and just kind of closing and leaving. I like to do keynotes and then saying, “All right, what are the takeaways? We’re not here to talk about theory. What are the things that you’ll implement the minute you get back to the office?”
A lot of my keynotes, a lot of my presentation revolves around frontline engagement because I think that as a country, we’ve broken our contract with our frontlines. The more we engage our frontlines, the better. Take your frontlines with you. Bring them in.
In my company our drivers are – we have an elected driver committee that’s part of how we run the company. We’ve got our drivers in management and operational decisions. Take your frontlines with you is very – people use that a lot.
The three T’s. If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, I’ve heard other speakers use the three T’s, but I think I may have invented that one.
Then there’s 20/60/20, which people quote a lot. This is a story when I was at Waste Management. I got to Waste Management at a time when there was a CEO, a brilliant CEO, Maury Myers, was brought in to turn the company around.
He brought his management team into the room. It was a large room. He had a large team. And was kind of rumored to say this, something like this, “20% of you know where we’re going and you’re with me. You know that we’ve got to make changes. I appreciate that. 60% of you, you’re scared. The ship is changing drastically its course. I’m going to work 24/7 to win you over.
The remaining 20% of you have made up your mind. You don’t like me and you don’t like the direction that we’re going. Here’s the commitment I’m going to make to you. This will be the smoothest transition you’ve ever had out of a company, but make no mistake, you’re out.”
20/60/20 means don’t find yourself in that bottom 20. Figure out how to continue to rise in your company. You’ve either got to align with the company’s direction and values or leave. From an employer’s standpoint, you’re not there to bat a thousand, simply not. Part of your job is to weed out the people who are kind of a drain on your culture, a drain on your performance.
I’ll tell you people in my company will use 20/60/20 a lot. We all know what they mean. The three T’s, 20/60/20, take your frontlines with you really are essential things that I talk about not just when I keynote, but when I run my own company.
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them at my website, which is BrianFielkow, so B-R-I-A-N-F-I-E-L-K-O-W. com. They can also email me, just Brian—B-R-I-A-N @BrianFielkow.com. I’m easy to get in touch with and glad to kind of continue this conversation.
Lovely. Well, Brian, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in making your culture all the more vibrant and excellent and business growth and all that you’re up to.
Thank you so much for the time. I really enjoyed this conversation.