I have known of Jeff for many years. We worked at the same organization earlier in our careers. Around the time that Jeff was starting DISHER, I remember hearing that he left to start his own company and thinking, “That guy has some courage; I hope it works out.” I didn’t yet get being an entrepreneur at that point in my life.
Fast forward to 2016: I was flipping through Fortune magazine and saw DISHER recognized as one of the top-5 small company workplaces. Things have worked out for Jeff and the DISHER team, and in getting to know them over the past three years I have always been impressed with how what they believe just oozes out of them. They are a powerful and positive force in my community with their service mindset and their commitment to helping organizations grow. I will let Jeff take it from here to share a little more about his story and his wisdom around building a great culture.
Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?
DISHER opened its doors officially on January 10, 2000. Y2K had just happened a week and a half earlier. The world didn’t end, so I figured it was a good time to start a business. Kidding aside, it was a good time to start the business I was in, given the predicted shortage of technical talent over the next couple decades. I just didn’t know it at the time.
My reasons for starting DISHER were two-fold. First, I was unhappy with the engineering firms I was hiring when I was an engineering manager at Prince Corp. I felt that I, as the customer, wasn’t being supported in the best way by these firms. I started thinking of what I would do differently if I was in their shoes to make me happy as a customer. Not realizing it at the time, I was formulating my business model for DISHER at that moment.
Second, I know that people find out what they are made of when they are pushed to the extremes of life. Whether our backs are against the wall, struggling to survive, or we’re experiencing extreme success, both will show us the real picture of what (and who) is inside us. I wanted to find out who I am at the core, and starting a business from scratch with no safety net was the way I was going to find out. If it failed, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have learned a ton about myself along the way. If it succeeded, I also would’ve learned a ton about myself. From that perspective, either way I couldn’t lose. So, after much prayer and planning, along with the full blessing of my wife Kathy, I took the risk.
My goal for the first year was to survive, plain and simple. We had two survival goals the first couple years:
- Say ‘yes’ to as much work as we could do, and
- Do all our work with excellence, because that would lead to more work
Only after surviving the first year did I scratch out on a piece of paper (which I still have) a vision for the company. Today, 18 years later, we have accomplished — or, at least, tried to accomplish — every part of that vision, and more.
Q: When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?
I wrote our mission statement, “Make a Positive Difference,” a few months before our business opened its doors. I had learned earlier in my career how important and powerful a clear and simple mission can be to any organization. I wanted that for DISHER. I also had a handful of early values written out that helped guide the few of us who were on the team. Having our mission and initial values written out from the beginning gave us all a standard by which we held ourselves accountable, no matter how small we were. I remember having lots of discussion with our team about how to conduct ourselves, how to live our mission out in all kinds of situations and why it all matters, but our culture didn’t start to find its identity and strength until years later.
Much like the natural laws of the farm, cultivating a strong culture doesn’t happen overnight. It has to germinate and grow. All along, each person needs to water, weed and fertilize it to the best of their ability. The moment you stop nurturing it, it begins to die. We work hard on building and sustaining our culture at DISHER.
We’ve learned so much from other companies and we’re sharing back by providing culture tours for any organization interested. Building a strong culture takes hard work and intentionality. There are no shortcuts, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
Q: What are three successes and one failure in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?
The first success we had was keeping our mission simple, clear and in front of us every day. Without this, our culture would be blind and without purpose as it tries to find its way. The second success was establishing a clear set of 12 value phrases that we call “Culture Characteristics,” and covering a different one each month throughout the year with our entire team. This gives us a chance to tell stories and highlight what each one means to us. The third success has been our semiannual off-sites with our entire team. These are day-long events that build comradery through discussions around company strategy, improvement, updates, learning and stewardship.
One failure we had early on was not being careful enough to hire for a cultural fit. We would bring people in first because of the talent and skills they had. We ended up with some people who would create dissension within our team due to their attitude and how they treated others. This hurt our culture more than it helped our business. Now we’re very careful to interview candidates first for a cultural match. This has made an incredible difference.
Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through your business today?
We have a wall in our lobby dedicated to our mission, and another wall with our culture characteristics displayed so everyone can see them. You would see a ripple chart showing how each person has made a difference in our business. You would hear how we encourage each other and hold ourselves accountable in our weekly team meetings. You would see emails sharing which nonprofits in the area need help and who is coordinating support for them. And, occasionally on a Friday afternoon, if we’ve had a long week, you might get pelted with Nerf bullets as an act of love from a neighboring teammate.
Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?
Staying connected with and being available for all team members allows me to hear where our team is at, and what trends are happening that we need to respond to. We have various opportunities built in throughout the year for all these interactions to take place. I also have an open office with no door, and I let everyone know that they are welcome to stop in if they have a question or something to share with me. I see these not as distractions, but as a part of my role and a chance to connect and help. If I need protected time, I find a conference room or coffee shop.
I’ve also found that the more authentic and vulnerable I am with people, the more they are the same with me. Office politics and gossiping are pet peeves of mine. Being real with people, and encouraging the same from others, is the best way I know how to avoid those cultural-health busters.
Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business?
My advice is to know and communicate clearly the purpose (mission) of your company to your entire team. Make it simple enough for each person to immediately understand and personal enough so that each person can see how they connect to it through the work they do. Once you have that, talk about it often — more than you think is needed; every day, if possible — and encourage others to talk about it, as well. Then, be very intentional in living it out for others to see that you are serious about it and adamant that everyone lives it out in their own way, as well.
Culture is not a program or an initiative that is separate from our daily work. Culture is the way we work.
Thank you, Jeff, for sharing your wisdom and experience around your journey building a powerful culture at DISHER.
If you want to learn more about the people at DISHER and how they work, you can:
- Sign up for their blog
- Take a culture tour
- Attend a Whiteboard Wednesday session, where you bring in a problem or opportunity and they walk you through some discovery/problem-solving processes. It’s a free hour, and you leave a little wiser and with a better understanding of how they work.