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Elevating Culture to the C-Suite

Elevating Culture to the C-Suite

William Cantey
Cantey Foundation Specialists
October 7, 2019

I have always been hungry for self-improvement. I have sought out mentors over the years, and I am a voracious reader. As I read, listen, and learn, I have transformed my personal and business trajectory.

It was through this ongoing journey of self-discovery that I attended a conference and met a woman who served as Chief Culture Officer at a large, national retailer. I was intrigued by her description of her role and the impact of her work cultivating and sharing the company’s culture among employees, customers, and the wider community. 

My Evergreen® company, Cantey Foundation Specialists, couldn’t be more different than the huge, public company that she served, but I felt the impact of a similar role in my own business could be profound. I wanted to know that our mission and Purpose were not only something we created to put down on paper but that we were living them in our daily work and in the community. 

Two years in, I can say that implementing the position of Culture Ambassador, as we’ve termed it, has been the one of the best operational decision I’ve made. The Culture Ambassador is an executive-level position, independent of HR, held by a leader who engages with employees in our office, on job sites, and remotely with our sales force, listening to our team’s concerns, responding to questions and requests, and continually reinforcing our Purpose and Values. 

This regular interaction is key in our business because with the exception of our 25 office-based employees, the balance of our 130-person team is out in the field—either laboring or engaged in sales efforts—Tuesday through Friday. Before we implemented the Culture Ambassador’s role, our only opportunity to connect with our staff was our team meeting on Monday. For the rest of the week, that large, semi-remote workforce was dispersed, and maintaining communication beyond the necessary tactical and strategic back-and-forth was challenging. 

The work our people do can be grueling. Often, our production guys are spending days in crawl spaces, doing uncomfortable, dirty work. It’s tough. We want them to know that we understand the challenges they face—and that we want to ensure their safety and their overall job satisfaction. 

The Culture Ambassador plans company events and perks for our employees and, most important, spends time visiting job sites, gathering data, and listening. She gets to know team members, takes them to lunch, and helps maintain an open line of communication. She keeps a close eye on job-site safety as well. 

Because the position reports directly to me, I now have a consistent, accurate understanding of how our people feel and what they need. The Culture Ambassador evaluates the team’s questions and concerns and is able to route them to a manager or to me. We can respond to issues nimbly and efficiently react. As a result, our people feel appreciated and heard. 

This approach isn’t the norm in the construction field. In fact, when I shared my intention to hire for the position, more than one peer in the industry told me I was crazy. But that response inspired me to do more. Our Purpose is to Redefine Our Industry, and this is one way we are trying to do so. I want to continue to build a unique company, one that sets a new standard for what employees and customers can expect. I want people to really want to work here and to know that they can grow and improve their lives. I want our team to feel the same opportunity for learning and personal development that has been essential in my journey.

Recently, I was able to see just how well the Culture Ambassador allows us to continue to work toward that goal. During a visit with employees, she heard from a guy who had been speaking with his manager about a growth plan—a strategy to take on more responsibility and move up in the company. He was frustrated because though he had expressed interest to grow, nothing was happening. This man was not an employee we wanted to lose.

At 5:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, I got word about the situation, and we ended up working with this employee through the weekend, coaching him through the situation and developing a plan to work with him toward a management track. I was able to walk the talk of our culture and reiterate our commitment to self-improvement and growth with this employee. I think we could have lost a great team member if we hadn’t had someone to be that ear on the ground, to understand his frustration and get that information to me. 

Sometimes, the issues we’re able to resolve are more personal. In one instance, the Culture Ambassador heard that a team member’s car had been totaled and that the person was planning to quit because he could not get back and forth to work.  We were able to put together a plan for this person to use a spare vehicle we had available until they could get back on their feet. In the past, before we had someone looking out for just this sort of thing, this person probably would have been embarrassed to make their problem ours, and we would have lost a good employee without our having the opportunity to help. 

In addition to providing support, showing gratitude, and reinforcing our culture internally, our Culture Ambassador has also allowed us to share our company values with our community in Camden, South Carolina. The role oversees charitable efforts and planning for employees to be involved in events that allow us to do good in the community we serve. We partner with Habitat for Humanity and with United Way, and those projects would not be possible without the Culture Ambassador managing the planning and administrative tasks connected to those efforts. 

At the end of the day, my decision to create a new position that focuses on our culture within the company and in our community was born of my desire to do more for our people. And it’s allowing me to do just that: We are now able to solve issues that in the past we would never have known were happening until it was too late.  If I had to put a dollar amount or percentage point of value to the bottom line to support this position, I would struggle, but the role is now just a part of who we are and adds to the bottom line in an unquantifiable way. 

William Cantey is CEO of Cantey Foundation Specialists.

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