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CEOs

7 Strategies to Build an Excellent Company Culture

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Russ Yelton, CEO of Pinnacle Transplant Technologies

Russ Yelton is the CEO of Pinnacle Transplant Technologies, a human tissue bank based in Phoenix. Since Russ took the helm in 2014, Pinnacle has seen 237% growth. The company was named to the 2016 Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies. It has also tripled its workforce, while increasing retention by 50%.

Creating a strong culture has been one of Russ’ main focuses as he grows the business. “As a leader, you have to be intentional about culture. If you ignore creating culture, one is still going to be created. It’s just going to be the wrong one,” says Russ. “Changing the wrong culture can be impossible.”

Here are a few of Russ’ strategies for building a healthy company culture.

1. Take feedback seriously.

One of the first initiatives Russ instituted when he came aboard Pinnacle Transplant Technologies was a suggestion box — “a place for employees to let us know what they’re thinking.”

Russ says at least one his fellow executives was “appalled” by the idea, but he held strong. As a member of the executive team, he recognizes that he doesn’t have a clear vantage point on the concerns of all employees. “I’m not doing processing in the back. We don’t do everything right 100% of the time, and I wanted to give employees a forum to provide feedback.” The leadership team uses the monthly internal e-newsletter to answer and address all the feedback they receive.

pinnacle-transplant-technologies-office2. Incentivize great ideas.

Ninety-five percent of what comes into the suggestion box are process improvement suggestions. Russ and the leadership team don’t just accept these suggestions — they incentivize them.

“If someone comes up with a process improvement that can save the company time or money, they can submit it to the executive team. They get a $250 bonus and are put in charge of implementing the change. Six months later, we review the outcomes,” says Russ. If the process change was successful, the employee gets a 1% raise in addition to any other merit-based raise they might receive for the year.

3. Reward excellence. 

Pinnacle gives out “spot awards” to recognize exceptional performance — spur-of-the-moment awards that come with a $25 gift card. While the money is a nice perk, the real point is to provide a forum for public recognition.

In the same vein, Pinnacle keeps a shout-out wall in the breakroom, where any employee can post a thank-you note for another employee for everyone to see. “The idea actually came from the suggestion box,” says Russ. “This way it’s not just management recognizing people. We’re giving other team members the ability to stand up and recognize one another for doing a great job.”

4. Don’t be a fortress.

After a certain point, the company got too big for the executive team to interview every new hire. Still, Russ wanted to make sure that leadership had a chance to connect with every person who joined the team.

Now, the company hosts a monthly lunch for new employees. “We get to know them and their background and talk to them about the vision and culture of the company,” says Russ. “Before lunch, I walk them through the company’s two-year-plan, where we’re going and what the executive team actually does all day. I have an open door policy anyway, but I want new team members to feel like they are bought into the vision of the company and that they play an important role.”

5. Equip managers to succeed.

When Russ joined the company, he saw a need to cultivate a group of middle managers to build leadership and capacity as the business grew.

The executive team promoted a number of people internally, some of whom had years of management experience and others who had zero. It was a challenging transition, and Russ quickly realized the new cadre needed additional guidance.

The company started an internal leadership academy to cover important skills like setting expectations and delivering bad news, both for current managers and those on a management track. The curriculum puts a heavy emphasis on role play and reflection to make sure that the lessons have real-life value.

“Our goal is to have people retire from our company. But if you don’t, I want you to walk out the door with a better skillset than the one you walked in with,” says Russ. “If you don’t, I haven’t done my job.”

6. Don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re not willing to do.

“Last year, we were running short on our circulators,” says Russ — the employees who get materials and supplies and wash instruments. “Every member of our executive team went in the back and gowned in and did dishes,” says Russ.

“One person was fairly new at the time. He said he went home and told his wife, ‘The CEO was there in the back with us!’ Well, why wouldn’t I be there? Why wouldn’t I go back and help our people when they need it?’” says Russ.

“My work background is very varied. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I’ve waited tables, worked in burger joints. Even at the level I’m at now, I believe strongly that everyone should be contributing as a team and everyone should be recognized for the work they do.”

7. Remember that it’s all about the people.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned in my career is that you can have an A team and a B idea, but you can’t have that in reverse,” says Russ. “If you don’t get the people part of the equation right, nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is or how excited people are about your product.”

“You need the right people on the right seats of the bus. Because we’ve grown rapidly, we’ve been able to allow employees some freedom to move around from time to time to get them in the right place and grow their skills. We’re about to roll out individual professional development plans for everyone in the company, including executives, including me,” says Russ. “Just because I’m the CEO doesn’t mean I can’t learn.” 

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