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Creating a Culture of Service

Using values to build a culture that serves customers and employees alike can make a difference not only inside an organization but outside of it as well.

YPO member Jamin Arvig, Founder and CEO of U.S. Water Filters, set out with a clear business mission: to bring clean drinking water to the 1 billion people in the world who do not have it. He started by selling water filters on a website from his house. After growth that included doubling every year for 10 straight years, the company exceeded USD50 million in sales and became the leading direct-to-end user distribution company for water filters and air filters.

His company has received various awards, including Inc 500 Fastest Growing Businesses (2007-2009), Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Business (Top 1,000 for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), Best Place to Work (2010-2017), BBB Integrity Award Finalist (2012) and 2014 Progress Minnesota Award, among others.

Arvig is passionate about constantly learning and applying new knowledge each day to help grow his organization — and each person in it. He believes that leaders have an opportunity to achieve not only success but significance as well.

‘In order to be significant, a leader needs to lift people up and help people live better lives, be more productive at work, achieve their career goals and be as happy as possible,” says Arvig.

Whether employees head home happy, excited and fulfilled or stressed, depressed and unmotivated can have a domino effect on those they work with, live with and encounter, he says. “It’s an important responsibility to make a difference in every person’s life at our company. Every person in our company impacts others. It’s why we care about service.”

Define your culture — and live by it

Arvig’s company provides a 360-degree service model to ensure they are serving everyone they touch. It is comprised of four parts: over-the-top service to customers, servant leadership within the organization, long-term and win-win service to partners, and service to the world or for the greater good. Service is the top core value of U.S. Walter Filters, followed by passion, owning it, growth, acceleration and excellence.

Leaders who want to create a sustainable culture of service — one that inspires, engages and motivates — need to proactively define the culture they are creating. It starts with identifying values that are used as the standard to hire, make decisions, hold people accountable and share ideas. As a CEO, Arvig faced his share of challenges and missteps in establishing culture — until he clearly identified the company’s values and started building a team around them, engaging employees in defining the vision and establishing common goals.

“When we empower people with something that critical as helping to articulate the core values that shape a company, they definitely take ownership,” says Arvig. “I do best by helping empower people and having everyone help drive us forward.”

The values exist not only to build the right team but also to hold that team accountable. Values should guide a company in the right direction and overrule subjective decisions by any member of the team, including the CEO. As an example, Arvig faced a tough decision over the firing of an employee he liked but that his team had found failed to live by the company values; they based the ultimate firing solely on the company values and not personal feelings.

“Anyone who has taken time to draw up core values knows that if you’re not hiring and firing with them as your guide, then they’re worthless,” says Arvig. “We really do live by them. We hire by them. We have annual reviews by them. People win awards based on each of the core values. We’ve got cultural ambassadors whose job it is to improve how we live out the core values each day.”

Another way that Arvig reinforces the core value of service at his company is by empowering his employees to make autonomous decisions in how they serve customers or partners. In addition, employees are encouraged to submit ideas for how the company can improve operations and its commitment to the core values. This gives employees not only a direct link to the chief executive as Arvig manages the platform but also a way to contribute and help shape the culture of the company.

A culture of service needs to resonate not only with the CEO but with the employees as well. In order for it to take hold, the message needs to be relevant to the people and consistent with the vision of the company. The message also needs to be communicated to keep the values and culture at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“For something to be lasting and impactful, we need to make sure that it’s really sewn into the fabric of the company, that we really do live by it all the time, and that it’s part of our language that people in the company speak,” says Arvig.

Melissa Fleming has previously worked for Catchafire, Fast Company, Harper’s Bazaar, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Time Out New York Kids, Town & Country and Vogue, among others.