Commentary by Genevieve Roberts
Companies aiming to become one of the Best Places to Work in Virginia are going about it backwards, according to executives from two of the top companies from last year’s list. These executives believe that the focus should be on creating the kind of environment and culture that excites and motivates employees. Being named the top company in their category was validation that they were building the kind of organizations they wanted. The award was a critical indicator that they are working on the right things.
“It’s not about winning the award but about creating an organization that is worthy of winning the award — we focus on creating an environment that makes our associates want to come to work every day,” says Mike Mulvihill, president of Richmond public relations firm CRT/tanaka, last year’s top small company. “Our assets are our people, and we have to make sure the plant and equipment are well-oiled and finely functioning every day.”
Gary Lisota, CEO and president of Virginia Beach defense contractor Valkyrie Enterprises, echoes Mulvihill’s sentiments. Being named the top midsize company last year meant that he accomplished what he set out to do when he started the firm in 2007. Lisota‘s goal was to “focus on developing the kind of culture where my employees are proud and want to come to work.” He makes it a priority to “really get out there and walk the talk, show my team that I am interested in taking the time with my people on a human and worker level to show that I care.”
Both executives say the Best Places to Work recognition has had very positive effects on their organizations. Valkyrie uses the honor as part of its branding strategy. The Best Places to Work logo is featured in a company sign at Norfolk International Airport and is incorporated in all of its marketing handouts. The award has given Valkyrie further credibility with customers and in some cases, Lisota says, has helped it “seal the deal.”
Mulvihill agrees that the award impresses customers. “We have certainly heard a lot of positive things back from clients, though that’s not why a client hires us. They become greater champions for us within their organizations, which results in us being able to get a higher level of exposure.” CRT/tanaka is getting more inquiries from new prospects, Mulvihill says. Where before the firm might have been one of many candidates for a job, “now we are one of a few narrowed-down finalists for a project,” he says.
The executives also say the recognition has helped them attract and retain employees. “Everybody says we’re a great company to work for, but we can point to [the Best Places to Work logo],” says Lisota. “That says what our employees really say about us.” The recruitment process is immediately shortened as a result.
CRT/tanaka, meanwhile, has seen a bump in some internal employee survey scores. Mulvihill believes that “sometimes you need someone else to tell you that you are good to appreciate that you are good.” Being named the top small firm is like having a “third-party spotlight” shining on the company. The recognition has caused employees to have a greater engagement with the company, he says.
So what’s in store for these companies? “We can’t stop and sit on our laurels, so we are constantly looking at how can we do things better, keep morphing the culture and create new opportunities for people to grow,” Mulvihill says. Those opportunities can include new locations, new or expanded lines of business or the acquisition of other companies. CRT/tanaka evaluates potential acquisitions from a cultural standpoint and will turn down a deal if it’s not the right fit. Not surprisingly, company executives look at what awards a potential acquisition has won.
At fast-growing Valkyrie, the job of maintaining the type of culture that garnered the Best Places to Work award “gets harder as it gets bigger,” Lisota says. He challenges company leaders to get to know each employee. Because many of his employees work on-site with a client, they have a harder time feeling connected to the company. So, Lisota invites 12 employees each month to meet him at a local pub for a talk. He has overheard his workers bragging to competitors that “we just had beers with our CEO.”
Lisota says his company has won many awards, but the Best Places to Work recognition meant more to him because it involved the opinion of his employees. Their positive response has reaffirmed his efforts to create a “home for my employees where they know we care about them.” For Valkyrie and CRT/tanaka, the Best Places to Work recognition is a means to an end but not an end in itself.
Genevieve Roberts is a partner at Titan Group LLC, a Richmond-based human resources consulting firm. She can be reached at , http://www.titanhr.com, or (804) 741-2390.
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