Building a People-First Culture Is Better for Business

I’m often asked what my No. 1 priority is, and I typically reply that it’s not my customers. My response is naturally followed by a deer-in-the-headlights expression, until I explain why. It’s our people. If my No. 1 priority is our people, then I know they will take care of our customers.

Since the beginning of the year, AFC has been on a journey shifting our focus inwards —reflecting internally and taking a hard look at our culture and our purpose. Although we have not yet finished this process, we have already made great strides. The lessons learned along the way will continue to be instrumental to our success.

No matter the business, industry, company size or team structure, I believe the key to building a successful culture — one that energizes employees and will, in turn, drive better business results — starts with these three steps.

Find your purpose

If a company and its employees don’t know their “why,” how can they get to their destination? At AFC, we started on the path to find our “why” this year. We’re having honest conversations with employees from every corner of the company about why we exist, and we’re challenging ourselves to dig deeper. With more than 130 branches and 700-plus employees, our footprint affords us with a significant impact on the local communities where we work and live — and the scale of our impact goes beyond providing inventory financing solutions. If you don’t have a purpose-based culture and only have an execution-based culture, you won’t succeed. It takes both to be in balance.

Ask for input

At AFC, we shifted from prescribing how to attain success to asking our employees — the real experts — how we can achieve success. Our employees are in the field working directly with our customers and, consequently, they know our customers’ needs the best.

But asking for input isn’t a one-time deal and certainly isn’t limited to our customers; it’s a continuous process that impacts overall morale and efficiencies. This is the reason why at each employee town hall, “Java with Jim,” email, video and phone call with employees, I make it a priority to close by asking for feedback.

I’ve also made it my personal goal to visit at least 50 branches this year and, through October, I’ve totaled 45 and counting. During these visits, I have candid conversations with employees who represent our company across the nation each and every day. By having an open-door (and phone and email) policy, employees feel comfortable letting me know if something’s not working well and sharing suggestions for improvement.

Empower your team

One of the many definitions of “empower” is “to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” This resonates with me. At the local level, I want our employees to have the authority to make customer-specific recommendations that fit their business model. I’m a firm believer that as long as we’re providing the right guardrails and tools for success, our AFC branch employees should feel empowered to make those important business decisions. Set guardrails, provide tools for success and trust that your team will do the rest.

Sure, it’s not easy. It’s a constant process and takes some serious time and self-reflection. But, it’s well worth the effort. While we have yet to finalize our own culture exploration here at AFC, simply heading down this path — embracing input and encouraging employee empowerment — toward pursuing our purpose has been a rewarding journey.

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