This is Part 1 of a 3-Part Culture Series. Parts 2 & 3 will discuss engaging Millennials in your company culture and your culture’s ROI. 

When you hear the words “culture leader,” you might think of a super extroverted, Type-A person who gets people super jazzed with their super infectious, optimistic, unrelenting energy(!!!).

At least, that’s where my brain was headed.

Until I was stopped dead in my tracks by BKS (aka Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners), an independent insurance agency in my home state (Florida).

Elizabeth Krystyn, a partner at BKS, is a self-described introvert AND culture leader.

She is living proof that being a culture leader isn’t dependent on a Myers-Briggs psychological preference that leans intensely-social.

How did she help lead the charge in creating a business culture that’s now won a total of 9 awards (and probably isn’t stopping there)?

 

To answer that, we have to look back at the birth of BKS.

(a fifth of) The BKS Story

It started with #35127: Elizabeth’s employee ID.

The independent agency she had been working for sold to Wachovia. She became a number wading with the other 35,126 people through The Corporate World; red tape, slow feedback, reporting for reporting’s sake, ugh etc.

Don’t worry! There’s a silver-lining here. Through a chance Wachovia meeting in Georgia, she met the partner who would complete the BKS trio: Laura Sherman. Elizabeth immediately called up Lowry Baldwin, a friend and colleague she’d known since she was 27, to tell him how amazing Laura was. They realized their technical expertise (Lowry’s in commercial lines, Laura’s in affluent personal lines and Elizabeth’s in employee benefits) combined with their complementary sales styles were a perfect mix.

And so BKS was born.

Almost.

Initially, there was a fourth partner who helped plant the seed. His incredible success as a prior agency owner in Florida made him a perceived shoe-in as the last partner. But – you were all waiting for the big but – his cultural vision was completely incompatible with what Laura, Elizabeth and Lowry had in mind. So, he ended up parting ways with the BKS trio pretty early on.

Full stop. He left because his “cultural vision” wasn’t the same??

Yes. In fact, Elizabeth explained that it was this moment, the departure of their fourth partner, that the trio became “maniacal” about culture.

And so The Azimuth was born.

The Azimuth

Elizabeth and I chatted for less than an hour, but it became incredibly clear (incredibly quickly) that The Azimuth was the beating heart of BKS.

Azimuth, by the way, is an astrological/navigational measurement used to help determine the direction of an object. Sidenote: I definitely had to read Wikipedia twice to write the above sentence.

The BKS Azimuth is, essentially, a culture statement. It outlines their core values, helping them measure whether their current path is headed in the right direction. Hence, the slightly nerdy and yet somehow awesome name: “Azimuth.”

I honestly didn’t think much of documenting a cultural vision with an “official statement” a few weeks ago. I saw it as a piece of paper that would have been written with the best of intentions, but ultimately ended up collecting dust in some forgotten plastic holder.

Not only that, I was a little concerned about how almost-cultish this document was: “If you can’t live the Azimuth, you won’t be successful here,” explains Elizabeth.

But the more I Iistened, the more I understood what I was misunderstanding.

A Business Culture Theory (definitely 3/4 stolen from Elizabeth)

Whether or not you like it, your business has a culture.

Culture: the character and personality of your organization.

It’s the reason you leaned right instead of left on that really tough decision a few months ago. It’s why you said “yes” instead of “no” to the opportunity that presented itself last week. It’s whether you’ll find a way to compromise or just do what you want when you feel backed into a corner. It’s how closely you’ve listened to expressed concerns, suggestions and ideas from your senior VP vs. a new producer.

At root, business culture is simply a reflection of leadership’s active values…not their voiced values. (Note that values can be good, bad or anything in between.)

That distinction is why I was so unsure about a written document. Leaders can have a vision for what they want the culture to look like and they can talk about it/write it down/shout it from the rooftops. But if it’s not something they actively do or prioritize every day, it will not become Culture. As Elizabeth explains, “People will smell the b.s.”  Aka – any culture statement has to mirror leadership’s active values.

But how do you cultivate a better culture?

First, I have to ask you to define “better.” Culture is not the bullseye on that dartboard everyone is trying to hit. For some businesses, it’s the upper left-hand outer-ring. For other businesses, it’s the lower area about 3 rings in, just shy of the where the ring starts to curve right. Case in point, two of the biggest companies in the U.S. have drastically different cultures: Google’s happiest workplace vs. Amazon’s most efficient workplace.

Elizabeth explains that a better culture is “found in your leadership’s strengths.” Strengths are the best (and most natural) active values. The Azimuth was actually created by identifying the best parts (aka the strengths) of Lowry, Elizabeth and Laura. In taking this inside-out approach, culture becomes a reflection, instead of a mold. 

So, why document it?

I mean – if it’s just a reflection of the best parts of people within the organization, it seems repetitive to write it down. Here are 4 reasons why a written culture statement makes a difference:

  1. It’s a reminder. When you’re faced with a decision (big or small), having a written reminder of your values can take the struggle out of which choice to make.
  2. It improves consistency. Inconsistency can kill culture – identify your set of values and stick to ‘em!
  3. It gives your workforce something to strive towards. When your cultural vision is intangible, no one outside of you can see it, hold it or read it. Put it down on paper and the abstract values turn into aspirational goals.
  4. It can be used to measure. When everyone sees the goal, they can determine how close their performance is to it. The BKS trio intentionally encourages their colleagues to talk about when they see the Azimuth in action.

I could have made this paragraph goal #5 above, but honestly – it would have been awkwardly long. So, it gets it’s own paragraph. The last reason to create an official culture statement is probably the most important.

Remember the fourth partner who parted ways with the BKS trio? He didn’t quite fit into the BKS culture. And that’s ok. Once you identify your business’ culture, you’ll realize not everyone fits into it. There’s no need to place a value-judgement on that – it’s neither good nor bad – it just is. But clarifying what your active values are helps you determine much more efficiently during the hiring process whether someone will flourish or wither in your office. By finding those who flourish and filling your office with them, you’ll be able to boost your culture into high gear.

So, no matter who you are – introvert, extrovert, cool dude, nerdy dude, risk-taker, play-it-safer – your culture is already there for the taking!

IF you’re interested (I hope you are), you’re welcome to take a sneak peek at the BKS Azimuth by clicking here.

Otherwise, stay tuned for Part 2 (Why These Agency Owners Think Millennials Are Geniuses) of this awesome culture series inspired by Elizabeth Krystyn and the BKS Team.

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