When Culture is not a Cliche

06/27/2017 12:52 pm ET
The flag at half-staff outside the Didion Milling plant in Cambria, WI.
The flag at half-staff outside the Didion Milling plant in Cambria, WI.

By Amy Jones, Human Development and Staffing Business Partner at Didion Milling, Inc.

This isn’t another article trying to throw numbers or data at you to prove why improving company culture is the right thing to do. This is a testimonial about how culture had a real business impact during a time when our company was tested.

A week ago, the company I work for, Didion Milling, was impacted forever by a tragic explosion at our main plant in Cambria, WI. It took the lives of four of our team members and injured a dozen more. It is impossible to estimate the number of people and families recovering from the event. As I write this, we have more people than I can count receiving help for PTSD symptoms. Didion Milling Explosion

This was a terrible tragedy which none of us could have possibly planned for in our professional lives. No playbook existed for how to handle the many decisions that needed to be made. However, from the moment of the blast, the culture of this company I love shown through.

It was demonstrated immediately after the explosion by our employees, who literally risked their own lives to enter a burning building to save their co-workers because they knew exactly where their team members were working in the plant that night.

I see it in our people leaders as they make decisions based on what is the right thing to do and not what “most companies do.” Their skill and will is being tested. They are leading with their hearts and focused on doing the right thing and sometimes that means doing different things for different people on their teams. Every day they and their teams make critical business decisions that impact how we are going to get our plant back up and running. Every meeting, every conversation, every decision is made with the impact of the team in mind.

Everywhere I look during this crisis, I see our team lifting each other up. They so much believe in the people around them that they go to extraordinary lengths to support each other. The most extreme example I saw of this is one of our team members who lost both of his legs, offering to meet with others impacted to give them encouragement and help his team members and their families through their own grief and shock.

Our culture wasn’t always what it is today, and we are no means perfect or some days, even good at it! We are however on a conscious journey to make our culture better. About 7 years ago, we implemented a different model for running a company called HPWP (High Performance Work Place). For my fellow HR colleagues reading this, the best way I can describe this model is to take everything you’ve learned about traditional workplace HR and leadership and turn it on its head! Throw out the employee handbook. Let the teams decide who you will hire. Involve all levels of team members in big decisions. Give leaders guidelines, not rules so they can be flexible with employee situations and do the right thing. Teams hold themselves and others to high expectations. Be transparent with numbers. Show respect. Have adult to adult conversations. Live by the Golden Rule…”do unto others how you would have done unto you”. In our time of crisis, our culture and core values were something we leaned upon to guide us in doing the right thing.

So what is the impact of this culture on our company that is working to rise above this tragedy? Time will tell, but early signs show that we are creating and maintaining positive relationships with impacted team members and families, the government regulators that are onsite and our customers who are showing fierce loyalty to our brand and believe in our abilities to recover. All of our employees who can and want to come back to work, have a place on our team. It may be doing very different work than they’ve done before, volunteering in the community, or even working at for a different employer for a while until our mill is back up and running. We are just a little over a week after the tragedy and we have already started to rebuild.

We were in the national news for a terrible tragedy. As we grieve with the families of our team members lost, we are equally striving to reach a goal….. to be in the national news again; this time for the greatest turnaround story in our industry and operating the best mill in North America. I have no doubt we will bounce back from this and truly believe our culture will play a huge role in helping us to achieve this goal. 

About the Author: Amy Jones is the Human Development and Staffing Business Partner at Didion Milling, Inc. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.

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