Building an Entrepreneurial Culture

It has been a great few months for all of us here at Convenience Store Decisions as we got to spend some time learning about Kwik Trip, the Wisconsin retailer who earned our 2018 Chain of the Year honors.

The one thing that stands out at Kwik Trip is the caliber of its people. KT’s leadership group, headed by its prodigious founder and chairman Don Zietlow, strongly believes in rewarding co-workers for providing outstanding service. As such, the company shares 40% of its pretax profits with its 21,000 workers; offers health insurance and other medical benefits; provides a 401K savings plan; and gives a month-long sabbatical to co-workers celebrating their 20-year anniversaries.

“We have to take care of our employees so that they can take care of our customers,” Zietlow said.

It’s hard to argue with Zietlow’s strategy. The company is expected to grow to 700 stores by the end of 2019. Sales are at an all-time high and turnover is an industry-low 30%. The retailer teaches a lesson others can learn from regarding how it empowers its employees to be leaders.

Today’s companies must be nimble, more innovative and more entrepreneurial, and all of this begins with your employees. I think this part is clear. What the industry needs to work on is how to affect the culture change that needs to happen—especially when an organization is already set in its lumbering, bureaucratic ways.

“The good news is there are some very specific steps you can take that will start the reaction shifts in your culture,” according to Michael Houlihan, author of The Entrepreneurial Culture. “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. You just have to take the right actions.”

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Houlihan, who also co-founded Barefoot Wine, offered tips for convenience stores on how to create engaged, empowered employees.

Hire for hustle. A great way to separate the entrepreneurial thinkers from those who aren’t is to place a special emphasis on hiring people with a sense of urgency—people who can and will move quickly and those who don’t always have to be told what to do next. In other words, don’t hire solely based on someone’s technical skill set. You can always teach that.

You can’t teach the other stuff—things like exuding a positive, service-oriented temperament. That’s the difference between an average company and a great company.

Don’t skimp on training. Many companies approach orientation like it’s a formality. New employees are ushered in, given a quick tour of the office and a rundown of the benefits offered, and then they’re expected to get right to work. This minimalist approach to training can have some counterproductive consequences, especially where judgment, relationships and potential are involved.

Never waste a perfectly good mistake. Most leaders look at mistakes as something to be avoided, and as a result, they pass that sentiment down to their employees. But the most innovative, agile companies embrace mistakes. When you move from a culture that punishes mistakes to one that embraces them, your employees will have the freedom to take risks, and that’s where entrepreneurial thinking leads to great innovation.

Say, “thank you.” Making gratitude part of your culture plays an essential role in creating employees who feel empowered and engaged. In truth, you should be saying thank you to everyone you come into contact with through your company. Everyone, from employees to colleagues to vendors, will respond positively when you say—or better yet, demonstrate—your thanks.

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“This is a time of extreme opportunity for companies that recognize the value of entrepreneurial thinking,” Houlihan said. “It is by far one of the greatest competitive advantages for companies today. When you get your employees to think like owners, it will solve the biggest problem in business right now: lack of engagement. Once they see the difference they can make, they will be excited to be part of the process.”


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