A company’s culture is defined as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in an organization. That’s the classic dictionary definition. How that plays out in any given organization is an entirely different story, and it is less about dictating and more about listening.
Since culture is largely intangible, it is hard to pin down. “A company can say, ‘this is our culture,’ but it is really employees who dictate that. It is how they perceive it,” said Michael Raisbeck, chief people officer at Fikes Wholesale Inc., parent company of CEFCO Convenience Stores. He likes how employees at Fikes perceive the company today. “What I hear over and over is ‘I’m not a number,’ and ‘They know who I am,’” he said. Both of those statements reflect a connection to the company beyond a paycheck, something Fikes has worked hard to achieve.
This year marks the fourth year of Fikes’ culture change efforts. One of the key components of the change—and one that many leaders are working on—is shifting from a perceived command-and-control leadership style to a decentralized style, where decision-making and daily operations entrepreneurial leadership comes from middle and lower management teams. “That meant some people had to let go of the reigns a little bit,” said Raisbeck, which proved a tough challenge for some. (This approach is one of the management styles explored during the NACS Executive Leadership Program at Cornell, endowed by Reynolds.)
That mental shift to a more decentralized approach is in line with how the company views its headquarters staff today. In fact, Raisbeck said, “We don’t really look at ourselves as a corporate headquarters. We view everything more as a customer support group. Yes, the parent company sits in Temple, Texas, but most of the business engages from multiple offices around the country to support our people on the front lines.”
Raisbeck believes the corporate culture changes are a contributing factor to growth. He noted that CEFCO has enjoyed three consecutive years of increased inside sales, fuel gallons sold and food sales. “I connect a lot of it to that culture change,” he said, as well as an increased focus on food sales with the company’s new CEFCO Kitchens. Fikes also opened a commissary in November 2021.
Notably, not everyone made the transition as Fikes went through its culture change efforts. “Some tough decisions were made,” Raisbeck said. In some cases, team members themselves opted out.
Raisbeck said the top concern at Fikes is attracting the right people at every level. “It’s not necessarily true today that the higher up you go, the longer you stay. Certain positions are in high demand and are transferable [to other industries], such as IT security,” he said. “The most difficult thing right now is being able to find, identify, land good talent and keep it. It has always been a struggle, but now, keeping a hold of good people is a business imperative.”
We have heard loud and clear that employees appreciate the flexibility to work remotely."
TRANSFORMING THE WORKPLACE
Even corporations recognized as best-in class, such as Sheetz, struggle with retention at the corporate level. “Although we work hard to retain our employees, people do leave,” said Stephanie Doliveira, vice president of human resources at Sheetz, adding that the Pennsylvania-based company is “dedicated to strengthening our culture and work environment while meeting the needs of our changing workforce.”
In today’s workplace, keeping people means considering unique benefits like greater flexibility for office-level staff. “We are committed to finding a way to be flexible,” Doliveira said. Flexibility was a key goal for shifting from a work-at-home environment to working back in the office, and allowing employees to have the flexibility they crave, while also maintaining a collaborative, innovative environment that includes social interaction.
“Listening to employees is incredibly important to everything we do. We have heard loud and clear that employees appreciate the flexibility to work remotely,” said Doliveira.
Kum & Go continues to assess its work-from-home strategy, as well. Earlier this year, the corporate headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, remained open but employees were not required to work from that location. Everyone was welcome, but it was not a requirement, said Matthew Spackman, senior vice president of Kum & Go’s Grow People department.
Like other convenience retailers, Kum & Go set a date for employees to return to the office, then pushed it back as new COVID-19 variants emerged. As employees continue to return, a new rule allows corporate employees to work at home eight times per month. Associates work with their leaders on which days are remote, Spackman explained, adding that there may be specific days a team leader wants everyone together, like Mondays.
“While working remote can be efficient, it might not always be the most effective,” Spackman said. “We want to make sure the communication is effective, that people are happy with their work ... the softer sides of relationships are most easily strengthened when people are in the same place. We want to give people the advantage of working at home and not spending a lot of time commuting to the office but also preserve the culture that exists at headquarters.”
It has always been a struggle, but now, keeping a hold of good people is a business imperative."
DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION
In addition to adjusting to a more flexible work environment, both Kum & Go and Sheetz are advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and building on their commitments to an inclusive culture.
“LGBTQ issues have been an area of concern for Krause Group [parent company to Kum & Go] for a while and an area the company wants to continue to support,” said Spackman. To further its commitment to inclusion efforts, the company hired Heather Schott as its diversity, equity and inclusion manager in 2020, and implemented DEI initiatives like hosting guest speakers and providing a leadership training program.
Spackman said that establishing a formal DEI role took the effort that the company long supported and gave it more traction. “When a DEI committee was established, the interest level grew within the organization,” he said, adding that Schott’s role brings formal expertise and is helping the company move forward. “We feel we are making good progress as an organization,” he said. “We commit to it publicly; we need to live it internally.”
The public commitment includes ways that go beyond financial donations. For example, last summer Kum & Go collaborated with a clothing designer for Pride Month on a line of merchandise sold at stores, with proceeds benefiting the Transgender Law Center. For each “Kum & Gay Rights” shirt and tank sold, a $10 donation was made to a suicide and crisis organization for LGBTQ youth.
Krause Group established formal objectives and metrics in place around DEI goals, including a broader range of representation in leadership positions. The company uses an annual employee engagement survey as a guidepost on some of those metrics.
For Sheetz, 2022 also brought a renewed commitment to DEI. “A team of executives and leadership has spent the last year really working behind the scenes on educating ourselves on best practices and immersing ourselves in learning,” Doliveira said. “We have launched a corporate initiative around diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We believe that creating an inclusive work environment based on respect of each employee’s identity will make us a stronger organization. We want an employee to feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work,” Doliveira said.
Doliveira described the culture at Sheetz as “special and unique.” The idea of work family comes up a lot, and the Sheetz leadership team, which includes Sheetz family members and nonfamily members, wants to hear ideas and suggestions from others. “It’s a very collaborative culture,” she said. “It all stems from a common goal of working together to support store operations.”
Building a team with longer retention often occurs when there are more connections between the person and the workplace, such as the same ethnicity, gender or age, explained James Pogue, a consultant, coach and educator in the field of inclusivity and diversity. “It creates a stickiness between the person and organization when there are more connections,” he said.
I don’t believe young people today are experiencing any more difficulty around self-identity than in the past, but leaders should understand the difference is that they are allowed to express it today."
Companies that want to attract employees should focus more on diversity and inclusion, suggested Pogue. “That’s going to be even more important to be relevant to the younger workforce, particularly top-tier candidates,” he said. “I don’t believe young people today are experiencing any more difficulty around self-identity than in the past, but leaders should understand the difference is that they are allowed to express it today. They expect to come into their work environment and be accepted for who they are.”
Companies can embark on their diversity journey with inclusionary leadership, beginning with the leadership team. “Maybe the leadership team does not look all that diverse—that’s OK. They can still be more diverse as leaders than ever before,” Pogue said. “Consider factors such as age, disability, even women—all of that works to engage in greater diversity. Sometimes the best on-ramp is a piece that we connect with easily.”
Having a strong sense of what you believe in and how it impacts you as a leader is critical, Pogue believes. “Leaders must be willing to push themselves. ... You don’t want to be the one to say, ‘Where is my organization going? If I can find out, I can lead them.’” His biggest piece of advice for leaders is this: “Start on the journey, then keep walking the diversity journey, and demand it of your team.”
CEFCO, Kum & Go and Sheetz
Open communication is an important part of the cultures at each of these three companies, HR executives said. Their views provide some insight into how culture takes shape day by day.
Michael Raisbeck, chief people officer at The Fikes Companies, CEFCO Convenience Stores: “Senior-level leaders visit our stores every day, and employees are asked for their feedback on what we are doing well and what we can be doing better. It’s a smaller company feeling, even though we are not a small company.”
Stephanie Doliveira, vice president of human resources at Sheetz: “Staying connected to our team members is really something led by the Sheetz family that has spilled over to the Sheetz leadership team. The family atmosphere permeates throughout the halls of the Sheetz offices. If anyone has an idea, they are welcome to share it.”
Matthew Spackman, senior vice president of the Grow People department at Kum & Go: “Our annual employee engagement survey offers insight into how we are progressing with employees. While it can be somewhat subjective, it’s also a great way to track how people feel about something: Ask them.”