Culture is key: Work environment affects performance and turnover

“We’ve decided that we’re just not going to give them any negative feedback.”

This is a real strategy arrived at by a real leadership team in a real company. Acknowledging that the emerging workforce is less inclined to stay with an organization, this is their solution to the ‘problem.’


From everything I’m reading about young professionals, this is not what they’re saying at all. Quite the opposite, and I know I’m beating a dead horse (if you read this column regularly). They want intentionality, structure, direction, feedback, the opportunity to provide meaningful contributions, growth and mentoring, to be valued…

Several months ago, I wrote about Nick Sarillo, the founder/owner of Nick’s Pizza and Pub in Crystal Lake, Ill. Faced with the challenge of a 200 percent talent turnover in the pizza industry, where many employees are teenagers to young 20s, he decided to build a business model that would face this reality head on. Today, his employee turnover is less than 20 percent of the industry average, and his margins are often twice those of the average pizza joint.

I would like to summarize some of what he’s shared in his book, “A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business.”

“What’s the secret?” Sarillo writes. “Our secret sauce (pardon the pun) can be summed up in one word: Culture. At Nick’s we organize our entire business around delivering a unique and meaningful experience for our people, our customers and our community at large.

“In your average small business, culture doesn’t seem to matter too much. Owners, entrepreneurs, or managers focus on more ‘practical’ matters … As a result, employees seldom derive a sense of higher meaning from their work, nor do they feel they are growing very much as people. They perform poorly and turn over often, creating a need to hire still more warm bodies. Any improvements to the business originate with the owners, who in turn come to expect that their teams don’t care very much about the company success. The cycle repeats, and the result is mediocrity.”

One of the things I liked about Sarillo immediately the first time I talked with him is that he essentially said, “As a business owner, this is my responsibility to figure out.” And he did. Below, I will share a partial list of strategies that he has put into practice, the strategies that serve as the framework of his culture. I will share only a brief description of each. You’ll want to buy the book!

  • Know what you’re all about – “When a company has purpose, work becomes more meaningful … people grow to trust their coworkers and managers more. The environment becomes more collaborative and communal and attrition plummets.”
  • Let people be themselves – At Nick’s, a core system in the organization is known as “Trust and Track.” This is about letting people be themselves (trust) while, at the same time, scrutinizing these same individuals to make sure they stay focused on purpose in their self-expression (track). In the day-to-day operation, leaders coach to the task itself, not to the personality of the individual who is performing it.
  • Train team members to lead – “Team members, not managers, drive the business, and unanticipated energy from the grass-roots level can actually push managers to new heights, inspiring them to work harder rather than just delegate from the top down. We treat even our 16-year-old dishwashers as genuine leaders.”
  • Train managers to be coaches – “I found that most experienced managers – most people, in fact – were used to operating with rules, directives, hierarchies, policing power and the like. Today we teach our managers the emotional intelligence and values required to coach others to thrive in our culture.”
  • Inspire good behavior – “Behavior is everything. Even our subtlest actions – how we greet people, our gait, how we sign emails – send a message about who we are. When building a company culture, such messages are pivotal because not only does each team member’s behavior affect how his colleagues and supervisors think about him (or her); it also affects what others outside the company think. It is too easy to just ‘trust and hope’ when employees are not doing what is needed.”

These strategies may or may not resonate with you. The key is that you have a strategy for the future. The core premises of many of today’s company cultures were essentially authored decades ago. This just won’t work moving forward. Nor will “let’s just not give them any negative feedback.”

Aleta Norris is a co-founding partner of Impact Consulting Group LLC and Living As A Leader, a Brookfield-based leadership training, coaching and consulting firm. You may send Aleta your ‘Leading Generation Y’ question to Also, visit

Get our email updates

No posts to display