A CEO’s take on building a culture with staying power

By Bonnie Low-KramenBonnie Low-Kramen

In my quest to find leaders who are committed to building authentically positive and profitable company cultures that actively support the administrative staff, I interviewed Don Ochsenreiter, president and CEO of Dollamur Sports Surfaces. A former management consultant for McKinsey, Accenture and others, Don has a strong point of view on company culture and its impact on staff.

In April 2016, Don attended the Administrative Awards ceremony in Fort Worth, TX after he nominated Dollamur’s office manager Donna Hinze as a stellar member of the company’s administrative team. Although Donna didn’t win the award (an assistant who had been at her company for 52 years won), Don had an eye-opening experience at the event attended by more than 500 people.

Don Ochsenreiter

Don Ochsenreiter

“Our administrative staff is the glue at Dollamur. They make everything happen and in general are tremendously under-recognized, in my view,” he says. “They think ahead and are committed to excellence. When you find a great assistant, my strategy is to pay them competitively and to enthusiastically invest in their professional development.”

Below, Don shares his thoughts on how you can foster a better company culture.

Bonnie: What is the secret to building a culture that is sustainable and inspires staff to do great work?

Don: “I saw from experience that changing a company’s culture is one of the most difficult tasks that faces executives. Twenty years ago, when I was more naïve in my career, I thought it would be easy to change culture, but I had a rude awakening. I took it as a challenge to break down the ‘them vs. us’ mentality. It takes time and hard work. It is important to sincerely support work/life balance.

“The thing that can ruin a culture very fast is a bad apple. I believe in giving people an opportunity to change and to do what it takes for that to happen, including outside coaching. I typically give an individual three to fix months to work out the problem. After that, if the person is unwilling or unable to change, it is important to take the bad apple out of the company. It is important to act swiftly because the rest of the team is depending on the leader to do the right thing.”

Bonnie: What’s your number one rule for leaders regarding culture?

Don: “If a company has a cancer in destructive personnel, a true leader must do something about it. If they can’t or won’t act, they are not a true leader.”

Bonnie: Where did you learn about the importance of company culture? In business school?

Don: “I didn’t learn to be an effective leader in business school [at UT Austin] or from reading. I learned it through first-hand experience as a management consultant in various companies. I saw dysfunction and what works to solve it and what doesn’t.”

Bonnie: Is there a connection between culture and profits?

Don: “Absolutely, no question about it. If everyone is on the same page, when the chemistry is right, a team can achieve incredible things.”

Bonnie: What advice about culture would you give to another CEO?

Don: “Do everything you can to honestly assess your management team. See the potential in the members of the team and determine if mentorship is needed. Decide if someone is a change agent or a problem. I believe everyone has a certain amount of potential and it is gratifying to see people reach theirs.”

Bonnie: What mistakes did you make with managing your team?

Don: “Looking back, I regret not taking action on our bad apples fast enough. They hurt the rest of the team when they are permitted to stay longer than they should.”

Bonnie: What leaders of company culture do you admire?

Don: “Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines built a great culture in [the company’s] first 20 years. They truly disrupted the airline industry with their unique culture, which included flight attendants who sang to travelers.

“I think Jim Harbaugh over at the University of Michigan has done a remarkable job of changing the culture of that football program in just one year. He is so committed to excellence and removing carelessness and sloppiness.”

Bonnie Low-Kramen is a workplace leadership expert and international trainer and speaker. She served as Olympia Dukakis’s executive and personal assistant for 25 years. Through Ultimate Assistant, LLC, she is now dedicated to opening the lines of communication between executives and their assistants in every organization. Her purpose is to educate executives on how to leverage this powerful relationship, and empower assistants around the world to find their voice, and communicate with intention, confidence, and honesty. Sign her SpeakUp Pledge at www.speakuppledge.com, and follow her on Twitter @BonnieLowKramen.