Culture Can Save Your Company—And Make You Stronger After The Crisis

A former oil CEO and Airborne Ranger says CEOs should seize the current opportunity to get leaner and become the company they want to be—and that employees are the key to getting there.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, corporate culture was abuzz, with an increasing number of stakeholders on all fronts—large institutional shareholders, customers, employees—demanding companies take measures to ensure workforce diversity, integrity and sustainability. Everyone agreed: culture was—and continues to be—a key driver of long-term value.

But the health pandemic has forced a great deal of companies to shutter or cut their workforce by significant margins. In fact, our most recent polling of chief executives during the first few days of April shows that nearly 30 percent of companies had already furloughed or laid off workers in March due to the crisis, and another 30 percent was considering doing so in April. Adding to that other actions taken such as cutting wages or reducing salaries, and the concept of culture has become somewhat of an after-thought for many.

But Bill Higgs, former CEO of Mustang Engineering, author of Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business and founder of the popular Culture Code Champions podcast, says CEOs who want to come out of this crisis stronger and leaner than before should get their heads out of the accounting books and return their focus to their culture and employees.

“As you’re crunching numbers and trying to figure it out how you’re going to make it through another three to six months, don’t forget that your employees are here to do that leg work with you. They want to do that leg work with you. Rally the troops and get everybody driven towards the same goal. You don’t, as leadership, have to do this alone,” he says.

Higgs’ oil & gas company was only a four-month startup when oil prices tumbled from $20 a barrel to $3 a barrel. “There was no work. There were foreclosures on every street; 1,200 banks in Texas and Arkansas went under. It was just awful,” he remembers.

But he says the fact that the downturn affected everyone, people were listening and more willing to adapt—and that’s the opportunity he says CEOs should seize at the moment.

“It’s your trial by fire,” he tells CEOs. “This is a great opportunity. Everybody’s dislocated, and they’re hunting and pecking and trying to figure out where they’re going to be in the next four or five months. This is the time to change to the company you want to be and change to the culture that you want to have.”

Plus, with the amount of communication going on top to bottom and side to side these days, CEOs have never had more of their people’s attention.

“They understand how fragile the business is, and they’re way more willing now to weld together and learn how to work differently,” he says recounting how when the downturn in the oil sector shook Mustang Engineering—not once but twice during his tenure—he found ways to keep his workforce engaged.

“We chased a big job with the Houston Metro bus company and put most of our people working on bus maintenance facilities for a couple of months. Then, we put them working for Uncle Ben’s rice, and six or eight months later, we came out and were able to give another offshore oil platform, which is what we had designed the company to do.”

In 20 years, he grew the company from their initial $15,000 investment and three people to a billion-dollar company with 6,500 people worldwide. Second, third and fourth-generation leaders took the company to $2 billion in 2014. And he says this is all thanks to an engaged, driven culture and seizing opportunity in a downstream.

“One of the things that’s hard for CEOs to understand is that nobody really cares if their company survives. Their clients would like them to stay business. The employees would like them to stay in business, their suppliers would like them to stay in business. What if they don’t stay in business? All of those people would go to the new flavor that’s out there, the new company that’s starting up or the one that made it through. And so, from a leadership standpoint, you have to take all of those drastic actions to make sure you survive to fight another day. And that’s what people need to understand that I think they’re starting to learn a little bit more as we go through this.”

So, as more and more people begin to understand that they must do everything they can to survive, CEOs should double-down on communication, reiterating the goals and pulling people together.

“Don’t forget to create that sense of bonding and that sense of team. If you haven’t named yourselves, get a name, wear a hat when you’re having these meetings, make it fun, create some smiles, create some memories, some fun memories while you’re working over the internet with your people. And if you can do that, it’ll start to spiral attitudes up. Once you’ve got people moving and you’ve got their attitude spiraling up, then you can mold them into the team that you want to have coming out of this. The key thing is that the leader needs to have the vision of how they’re going to work through this, pull out, pull this team together, and then come out of it stronger than they went into it.”

He says even furloughed employees can be part of this engagement by trying to find ways to get more efficient at doing what they used to be doing when they were at work. Because now, “there’s thinking time. Sometimes it’s hard to do that when everything’s running fast and furious; when it’s slowed down a little bit like this and they’re furloughed, they can work on those things and you can actually come back with some better systems when you get back to work.”

Higgs, who’s a distinguished graduate (top 5% academically) of the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Airborne Ranger and former commander of a combat engineer company, knows a thing or two about the survival of the fittest mentality. He says to come out winning, CEOs need to be looking at the actions they’re taking to survive in the now and see what that will look like on the other side of this.

“What we always did when we were in downturns, we would take notes on things that we had cut out, get rid of. If we had combined some jobs into one person, we took notes on all of those. So, as we came out, we didn’t build that fat back into the company. So, we would come out a leaner, meaner organization. Way more competitive. If you can start taking market share, then you can be hiring really good people that have been dislocated because their company didn’t take care of them or their company went under. You need to be looking at how you’re going to hydrate your team because really good people are becoming available. You have to take actions.”

For one, he says, start by busting silos and once they’re gone, don’t let them back in.

“Keep those silos busted. You don’t want to go back to where you were three months ago or six months ago. You want to get into a totally new place with a culture that’s differentiated from your competitors to where you can actually start competing because your teams and your culture is better than your competitors. You’ll be more efficient.”