Building a Contagious Culture

Recent research places U.S. unemployment at 3.7% (   With joblessness hovering at record lows, and minimum wage on the rise, it’s difficult for employers to recruit and retain top talent.  Yet, there are companies with a kind of “secret sauce” that seems to keep staff engaged and content even in this “job-seeker market”.

Last week, the Louisville’s Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) hosted a meeting entitled, “Building a Contagious Culture”.  Scott Colosi, retired President of Texas Roadhouse (TRH), spoke about what sets this high energy, steakhouse chain apart from others.  He also related how the (TRH) “secret sauce” applies to nonprofit organizations.  This blog recaps 5 of his key points.

1.  Know your mission.  It’s important that everyone understand the organization’s mission.  At TRH the mission is simple. Legendary food… Legendary service. This common mission unites people across the brand (from dishwashers to the CEO) under a common purpose. For nonprofits, mission is key in building a strong case for support. People in all roles should be able to clearly and passionately articulate the mission. This helps them share stories of success and it provides reasons why the organization is worthy of support.

2.  Find Balance. Often organizations struggle to find an appropriate balance between discipline and fun.  Scott mentioned this as a real strength in the TRH culture.  To illustrate he shared a few stories.

For example, to keep things lively, one Wednesday someone walked a baby camel through the offices, mimicking the popular Geico commercial for “Hump Day”.  Also, he shared that TRH provides opportunities for employees to volunteer (even during work hours).

But Scott was also quick to add that while fun is important, it is equally essential to maximize productivity through discipline.  For many nonprofits, simply keeping up with the daily tasks (client needs, operations, fundraising, capital campaigns) leaves little time left for fun.  Yet, it is vital, even in the midst of demanding schedules, for nonprofit employees to find time to laugh, bond and enjoy their work.

3.  Empower Employees. Freedom to make both decisions and mistakes allows employees to contribute and be creative.  Scott noted that TRH encourages staff to try new things and challenge the status quo.  Sometimes this moves the organization in an even better direction.  Listening goes hand-in-hand with empowerment.  Effective leaders seek and hear feedback and consider new ideas from employees at all levels.  Often at TRH the best ideas come from workers in their stores. Similarly, nonprofits can learn a lot simply by seeking input and listening to stakeholders. Allowing staff and donors to contribute ideas, feelings and advice builds buy-in and often improves results.

4.  Think Long-Term.  Focusing on long-term rather than immediate results may seem counter-productive. It means doing right things immediately, even though they may be costly.  Though you may lose short-term money, such decisions can produce hefty long-term results. For example, during a slow period TRH resisted cutting staff and benefits for short-term gain. The results were long-term profitability through employee retention, perceived organizational integrity and sales growth.  While many nonprofits face similar budgetary concerns, it’s important not to lose a long-term view in decision-making.

5.  Care About People.  In the final analysis Scott was talking about building a contagious culture by respecting and caring for people, demonstrating to stakeholders that, “We care”.  At TRH stakeholders include employees, guests, investors and vendors.  At nonprofits, it’s staff, donors, volunteers and the extended community. Decisions are based not only on what’s profitable but also on what best cares for others. Loyalty to stakeholders breeds loyalty. Certainly this requires time, but personal touches tell people they’re valued, and when people feel valued results become contagious.