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Diversifying Your Team Starts with Culture

Diversifying Your Team Starts with Culture

John Kramer
Cambridge Air Solutions
December 5, 2023

In the world of manufacturing, achieving or even approaching gender balance has historically been challenging. The physical work that it requires was once considered more appropriate for men, and though we now know that is not the case, it’s been a hard stereotype to dismantle. However, in recent years, here at Cambridge Air Solutions, we have managed to defy the odds and create a more balanced workforce. It happened partially on purpose and partially by accident, but as we look back and study the changes we’ve seen in recent years, we are now taking steps to intentionally preserve our progress. Above all else, we’ve learned that our success on this front is rooted in a deeply ingrained culture of respect, dignity, and inclusivity.

Cambridge Air Solutions is a purpose-driven, family-owned Evergreen® business. As the second-generation CEO of Cambridge, my personal passion is to restore glory and dignity in manufacturing. I believe deeply in that goal, but it’s lofty and the initial steps toward making it a reality are not necessarily obvious. Or they weren’t to me.

I started with the people at Cambridge and have spent the last 20 years or so, and especially in the decade since I became CEO, focused on helping us all get clearer about why we are in business; we are trying to do manufacturing a different way. Our core values are unconditional love with high expectations, care, courage, and respect. Over time, these have helped us develop a strong culture where the hard work of every single team member is honored and celebrated. It’s important to us that every person at Cambridge goes home winning at the end of every day, knowing that their work matters. Our focused insistence on this kind of relationship with our team and with the work they do has, over time, created a supportive, respectful, and positive workplace.

Although it seems obvious that a culture built on respect should make room for all sorts of people, we were not overtly focused on diversifying our workforce. However, during the pandemic, our VP of Human Resources, Meg Brown, noticed a change. Like the rest of our industry, we hovered around 5-7% female on our team. But during Covid, women started applying for positions ¬– not just on the office side, where the previous 5-7% sat, but also in manufacturing. All of a sudden, we were seeing around 15% women, more than double what it had been. Wanting to keep on this path, we mused about why this was happening and what was motivating these women to apply, and then decided, “We should probably ask them!”

In conversations with these new recruits, it became clear that the company’s culture played a pivotal role. Here are some of the things they told us; “It just felt really welcoming,” “I’ve never really worked with tools, but none of the men around me treated me like I couldn’t. They believed I could.” “Because no one treated me like I was stupid, I started to ask questions, and I learned, and I started to feel capable.” As we listened to them, it struck us: this was the glory and dignity we had been working on for 20 years!

Since then, we have become much more intentional about supporting this evolution. We joined Women in Manufacturing (WIM) about nine months ago and recently hosted a tour for our local chapter. Wrapping up the tour was a panel of female Cambridge employees in front of a screen with their titles: Welder, Maintenance Tech, and Engineer. We inevitably got to the question: “Is it hard working here surrounded by so many men?” Our team members simply replied, “It’s not like that here.” It was powerful.

We experienced a moment recently that exemplifies the journey we’ve been on. We have daily rhythms, where the company goes through the numbers: revenue, safety, quality, delivery, etc. We also leave space for grateful appreciation. One of our wonderful female employees, Maddie, the abovementioned Maintenance Tech on our WIM tour, was moving to North Carolina and it was her last day. When it came time for grateful appreciation, a string of 15 or so people got up and expressed their appreciation for Maddie. They spoke of her great attitude, her energy, how she made every day fun for everyone. One of the older men who runs a punch machine got up and took the microphone. There were literally tears in his eyes and all he could say was, “Thank you.” Everybody lost it then, including Maddie. She got up to speak and said, through tears, “I was not this way at my old job. I was a real jerk.” In that moment, she gave credit to our culture, and our culture gave credit to her. It was an unforgettable day.

Cambridge’s success in increasing gender diversity only represents a start, but we are proud of this progress. I attribute it to our strong people-first culture of dignity and respect. We know that that culture trumps strategy, and our experience with gender inclusivity stands as strong proof of that. We prioritize treating all employees as individuals and respecting their unique abilities, regardless of their gender.

This commitment to fostering a healthy and supportive culture extends beyond gender diversity. Following the same core beliefs, we have undertaken another new initiative – we are partnering with organizations like Boone Center Inc. (BCI) to embrace neurodiversity in our talent pool. As part of their program to integrate adults with disabilities into a work program, BCI operates the Skills Center, offering job training and placement services. These employees receive the same pay and respect as their non-neurodiverse colleagues. Our culture of respect and acceptance extends to these individuals, creating a harmonious and inclusive work environment.

By creating a workplace where everyone feels welcomed, included, and valued at Cambridge, we are working to continue our journey to improve our healthy culture. Attracting talented people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, communities, and groups helps us continue to live into our purpose of enriching lives. We are acting intentionally to evaluate structures, systems and methods so that we may continue to attract a diverse and talented workforce that will support our highest-level purpose – enriching lives.

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