In the Great Resignation era, when businesses across multiple sectors are short of qualified employees, building the right company culture is more important than ever.

That’s the message that Lisa Ryan, a consultant to manufacturing, distribution, and construction businesses and associations, brought to the recent Heating Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) Focus conference.

“When we get the culture right, that’s the foundation of everything,” said Ryan during the May 13 Focus closing keynote at the Marriott City Center hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

Ryan, a business author and the founder of Grategy, a consulting firm whose operating principle is the benefits of practicing gratitude, stressed that a positive culture can attract and retain good employees and keep them engaged at work. Citing research, she said that it typically takes a 20% pay increase to woo an engaged employee away from another firm, while a disengaged employee can be poached “for next to nothing.”

Ryan spent years in industrial sales and marketing, industries dominated by men. She said that so-called soft skills are, in fact, difficult.

“They are not soft skills,” Ryan said. “They are essential skills to a successful business.”

Ryan offered seven tips for building a company culture of gratitude:

• Be generous with appreciation. “Catch your employees in the act of doing something well.”

• Be accessible to employees, who may offer valuable insights about the business or may just want to connect. “It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It doesn’t have to cost any money.”

• Show empathy, especially during difficult times such as the coronavirus pandemic have brought. “Just take the time to understand that people are going through stuff.”

• Offer flexibility, including in scheduling, working remotely, and trying out employees in different work roles. “You may put that employee in a role that lights them up.”

Managers should also encourage workers to share successes and exchange kudos with each other, even on Zoom calls. “If you’re just getting down to business, nobody likes it.”

• Establish “stay interviews” as a way of finding out what keeps employees engaged and getting to know them on a personal level. Such interviews could be a way to gain information that could help recruit new employees, she said.

People are looking for human connections, she said, and showing a personal interest in employees can keep them more engaged.

• Invest in training: lunch-and-learn sessions, in-house or hired trainers, trade shows, and seminars. Even training that helps employees in their personal lives can keep them more engaged at work, she said.

• Say, “Thank you.” And follow up thanks received with, “You’re welcome.”

Responding to thanks with “It was nothing” or “No problem” creates a vibe of uncertainty about the interaction, Ryan said. “We need to complete the cycle of appreciation,” she said.

Careful language is important in fostering a positive workplace culture, Ryan said.

“When you change your language, you change your culture,” she said.

Rhonda Wight, the HARDI board chairwoman and the CEO of Refrigeration Sales Corp., an HVACR distributor in Valley View, Ohio, said Ryan offered a high-value keynote.

“A lot of humor, great public speaker, great content,” Wight said. “Honestly, it’s something we all struggle with.”

Managers at RSC, she said, talk often about how much they value their employees, but various appreciation programs there have been sidelined in the crush of day-to-day tasks.

“It gets difficult,” she said. “We get into season, and it’s all hands on deck, and we forget to say ‘thank you’ as frequently as we should.”

Wight especially liked the concept of the stay interview.

“I can just see those conversations really changing the culture and having a good impact," she said.


HARDI’s first Focus conference since 2019 included networking opportunities and upbeat keynote speeches, as well as workshops on sales, marketing, and navigating supply-chain upheaval.