Article originally posted in and nationally syndicated by the American City Business Journals on July 25, 2017.

I recently had the honor of serving as the moderator of a panel discussion of three business leaders at a breakfast event hosted by the Philadelphia Business Journal. The discussion focused on the importance of organizational culture in building successful businesses.

Participating on the panel were Nick Bayer, CEO of Saxbys; Emily Bittenbender, managing partner of Bittenbender Construction; and Ed Hanway, former chairman and CEO of Cigna.

What follows are a few of the key perspectives of each participant on the elements of organizational culture that drive the success of their companies.

Nick Bayer: “Saxbys’ mission (is) ‘To make life better.’”

Bayer shared with the events’ attendees, “Saxbys is not just a coffee company but a hospitality company fueled by great coffee.” He added that their goal is to be the place everyone wants to go for “a great human experience.”

Saxbys’ mission, he said, is to “make life better,” and that mission permeates Saxbys’ culture. Saxbys currently operates 24 cafes with more to come.

Said Bayer, “During Saxbys’ first few years, we were not a culture-driven company. We finally realized that we were in a ubiquitous industry and many companies make great coffee. We asked ourselves how we should differentiate ourselves. We decided above all else we’d be a culture-driven company – a company committed to making an impact through great jobs, unforgettable hospitality and social impact.”

He continued, “Saxbys’ mission – ‘To make life better,’ drives our core values which in turn drives the actions and behaviors of our team members. We hire people who love who they are. They are outgoing, detail-oriented and disciplined and love being around people. As we say in one of our six core values, we live with pride, passion and purpose.”

Bayer is a firm believer in “servant leadership.”

“The members of Saxbys leadership team are there to serve our cafe executive officers (CEOs) and their team members who serve our guests,” he said.

These are not newly developed beliefs for Bayer, ether. In an article I wrote about Saxbys in May 2015, Bayer said, “Organizations work best when they are upside down. … We are here to help (our CEOs) be better at their jobs. My expectation of them is to be servant leaders to the members of their teams. Their job is to make life better for their guests every single day.”

Emily Bittenbender: “How you treat other people is incredibly important to us.”

Bittenbender is an entrepreneur and pioneer in the rough and tumble Philadelphia construction business, a sector historically dominated by men. In 2015, the Philadelphia chapter of the General Building Contractors Association named Bittenbender as its new chairwoman — the first female to hold the top post in the organization’s 124-year history. She is an important role model in the way she conducts and grows her business.

I asked Bittenbender what she values when she interviews job applicants. She responded, “We are in a blue-collar industry. For many of our positions, we don’t place a whole lot of focus on a university education. We hire people who are self-motivated, who buy into our culture and (who) have a can-do spirit.

“I am a people person,” she added. “How you treat other people is incredibly important to us. We want people who have the capability to learn. Coping skills are very important in the construction industry. Many times things don’t go right.

“In our industry, people screw up all the time. Adverse things happen outside of our control. We value employees with a high degree of emotional intelligence, (who) can cope and react and get a project back on track.

“We want people we can mentor and who in turn will help their colleagues succeed,” Bittenbender said. “We want people who have a sense of humor. Occasionally, we need to tell people you might be an awesome person but just not a good fit for our culture. You may be happier and more successful somewhere else.”

Ed Hanway: “Culture is what guides our employees on how to treat our customers.”

Hanway led Cigna’s transition to become a leading global health services organization that provides products and services including health, disability and life insurance, which are offered to employees through their employers.

Hanway focused Cigna on a journey to become the preferred provider within the industry, with the objective of “convincing other companies to choose us based on the client experience we could provide their employees and their families.”

I asked Hanway what the most important cultural norm was for the success of his organization. He said, “Unless you have great people and create an environment and culture in which they feel empowered and excited about what they are doing, you won’t be very successful, regardless of your organization.

“The most important people within your organization are the ones who are closest to your customers. They typically are the ones further away from the executives of Cigna. Culture is what guides our employees in how to treat our customers.

“Within the company,” he said, “you need to have the strongest people you can find regardless of position … and then you need to allow them to do their jobs.”

As Hanway was sharing his views, I was reminded of what Steve Jobs, the late chairman and CEO of Apple, once said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

As the panel discussion ensued, it was clear how important culture is to a company’s success and that Bayer, Bittenbender and Hanway are strong advocates and communicators of the culture they want for their organizations. They are the chief culture officers for their companies. Not very many leaders are as passionate about culture.

The phrase “achievement of financial results” was not mentioned once during the panel discussion. The message of Bayer, Bittenbender and Hanway is if you hire the right people with the right management and leadership skills and instill the right cultural norms, the financial results will come. A great message for all leaders.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at
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