There are as many ways to run a self-storage company as there are personalities within the organization, but developing the right culture will make your team more creative, purposeful and successful. That said, developing a healthy, productive culture can be a long and potentially difficult process. The truth is it never really ends.
Over the last 17 years, my company has grown from a staff of 15 in Southern California to 165 employees operating self-storage facilities in two states. Our growth came with mistakes and learning moments. We took our losses and victories in stride, and always tried to learn from the positive as well as the negative. We may not have thought we were developing company culture in the early days, but these shared experiences shaped our values and policies.
Along the way, I met people from across the industry who exposed me to new ideas and perspectives that took our company to the next level. What follows are a few of the lessons I’ve learned. I hope you find these thoughts helpful when developing your own company culture.
Don’t Be a Dictator
How long can your company last with only a single person providing all the answers, direction and motivation? At a point, an organization needs to recognize what it does well and where there are gaps. By giving all team members ownership of their specialty, you begin to fully leverage your organization’s potential. In our case, this means creating a higher quality of life for our employees and a better rental experience for our customers.
All of us are smarter than any one of us. Informed leaders surround themselves with people who’ll give them the information they need to make decisions. This is especially important during a company’s early days because decisions will often need to be made quickly and with limited resources.
Communication within a dictatorial company flows from team members on the ground toward the decision-maker. The main shortcoming of this culture is no matter how informed the executive team is, everyone else is left unempowered. This means you’re failing to leverage the talents of your team.
This model is easy from an organizational standpoint and probably necessary if you’re bootstrapping your own operation. It worked for us in our early years, and we created a lot of value during this period. Even with our initial success, however, we knew there was more to be done. We began searching for that special something that could take our company culture to the next level.
Develop Organic Values
No matter what your culture becomes, it needs a starting point, which should be rooted in your team’s shared experiences. It should be shaped by the individuals within your organization and the local community as well as your processes and procedures, and other factors unique to your experience.
At the beginning, team members in top management positions will likely lead the charge in terms of exploring and spreading company culture. Enlisting participation from other staff will be more difficult, but this contribution will give them a feeling of ownership they probably haven’t felt with other companies.
When each member contributes in his own way, it benefits others and allows everyone to draw from shared experience. This breaks down silos of information and creates an open ethos of communication. Employees become relaxed and are better equipped to develop meaningful relationships. A shared cause rooted in shared experience is the only way to create an authentic culture. This is how you get people to care about a company and join for a common good.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, ask yourself:
- What is your company’s decision-making process?
- Do the people most familiar with a situation have a platform to voice their opinions, even and especially if they’re customer-facing?
- How do you facilitate communication between team members and departments?
- When was the last time you implemented an idea that was brought to your attention by a facility manager?
- What kind of corporate citizen do you want to be?
- What’s your company’s mission, and does it align with your business goals?
- Is your passion for that mission real and authentic?
As your culture develops, you’ll find more opportunities to question and test. This is important because if the values you choose to espouse aren’t deeply rooted in reality, your culture will lack authenticity. This will be apparent to team members and those looking in from the outside, especially customers. Take the time to identify values that come from your team, as this will be the foundation for your culture.
Once you’ve identified your company’s core values, the real fun begins. You can talk and write company-wide e-mails about culture, but if you aren’t acting on it every day, it doesn’t carry much weight.
We found our goals and values were better met by a distributed management structure rather than the traditional hierarchy-based structure in which we started. This helped develop our culture by empowering our team to make decisions from the bottom up, allowing those with firsthand knowledge of a situation to make their voice heard regardless of position. Some of our best ideas have come from the craziest places because we listened to every member of our team and incorporated what we heard.
Those close to me will tell you I’m not a patient person. At one point, it felt like we were trying to do too much by committee. But you can really never do too much by committee. You just have to have the commitment to do this the better, more difficult way.
People want to be heard and want to know that you’ve considered their point of view. Fostering an environment of open and honest communication helped us identify team members who were responsive to our culture. These employees have become some of our biggest advocates.
This process has taken time and effort, but the return has been invaluable. We have staff who want to hit their goals, not purely for a bonus of financial incentive, but because they’re proud and believe in the cause. Money is nice and people should be rewarded for their work, but pride and fulfillment lead to higher job satisfaction and retention.
Find Help Along the Way
Developing your company culture won’t happen in a vacuum, nor should it. As your experience grows, it’s likely you’ll meet people and encounter ideas that will be beneficial to you and your team.
This happened to me during the summer of 2012. I was attending a seminar at an industry tradeshow. Presented by motivational speaker Jenn Lim, the topic was the book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose,” by Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos. Lim’s presentation caused me to have an epiphany: Why couldn’t our company grow into something that not only makes money but changes people’s lives for the better?
Not long after this seminar, we were fortunate enough to find the book, “Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results,” by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen. It tells the story of Mary Jane, a supervisor at a financial-services company, who’s put in charge of the most underperforming department. Faced with a toxic company culture as well as problems at home, she was at first distraught and convinced she would fail and lose her job. Then, during a walk-through of Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, she met a fishmonger who taught her how to create a culture of high morale and performance despite negative circumstances.
This book became central to our culture. All team members received a copy, and every one of our facilities was given a betta fish as a mascot. We even set aside part of our meetings to recognize members who went above and beyond their job duties using principles taught in the book.
Make It Yours
By early 2014, our company culture was fairly developed, but we had started to lag. With all the growth we were experiencing, we had lost focus. It was time to recommit to our culture, regain trust and openly communicate who we are, who we wanted to be and how we wanted to get there.
Later that year, the executive team took a retreat to identify our core values. We decided our dream and vision was to be supporters of a more awesome life. We we wanted to come together and make the world a better place by celebrating diversity, working hard and supporting the communities in which we operate. We created the STRAT acronym, which became part of our company name. It stands for:
- Strengthen our communities
- Treat others the way they want to be treated
- Represent with integrity
- Accomplish a wow
- Take it to the next level
This commitment to values is displayed in all our facilities. Our hiring process has been developed to the point that every applicant is inundated with information about the company culture from day one.
By giving our team a framework and letting them interact with it in their own way, members can gravitate to different core values. In this way, they can let their personality shine and further take ownership on their own terms.
Grow the Next Generation of Leaders
A head football coach is a lot more effective if he has coordinators who understand, contribute, believe, buy into and act on the plan he’s created. Those coordinators succeed if the players under their guidance do the same. When the team understands the plan and can carry it out without the help of the head coach, that’s a sign of a high-performing team.
Developing our company culture has been much the same. My focus is now on developing our next generation of leadership. We’ve created a culture and structure that gives our team direction, ownership, accountability and pride.
More than ever, we look for attitude, passion, positivity and genuine interest in the people we hire. Everything else can be taught. The beauty in our culture is that anyone can contribute. It doesn’t matter where you are in the company, there’s someone out there you can help in some way. Your voice will be heard.
The truth is developing company culture is an endeavor that never ends. The benefits you generate will likely creep into other areas of your life. I’ve often seen team members find success at work that sparked improvement in their home and personal lives as well.
There are few greater honors than providing the self-storage community with the same guidance that was provided to me. I hope you found my experience useful and are ready to build something great!
Don Clauson is CEO of Strat Property Management Inc., a property-management company based in San Diego that operates under the StaxUp Storage brand in California, and Lockaway Storage in Texas. For more information call 619.295.2211; visit www.stratprop.com.