When Chris Barone joined D.A. Davidson in 2009, something that impressed him about the company was its culture.

He said “culture” is a word that might be overused on the business landscape these days, but it’s a word that still has a lot of meaning for D.A. Davidson.

It also is one of the things that continues to attract new employees to the company, and which makes them want to stay long term.

For many companies in the upper Midwest, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of culture in the workplace and made them revisit some old trends while producing new ones.

Culture to attract new hires

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As regional director, Barone is located out of the company’s Great Falls, Mont., office but D.A. Davidson has offices in several states, including North Dakota. As such, culture is one of the things that ties all of the employees together. It also is something the company considers when seeking potential new hires.

That’s good news, according to a March 2020 article by Business Insider, which said companies that want to grow their business should not become lax in their criteria for hiring new employees. “Doing so can be particularly detrimental to company culture, as it shifts the focus away from people and onto the work they can bring,” the article reads.

Barone said D.A. Davidson takes a proactive approach to seeking new recruits, a philosophy that has worked well for the company.

“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” he said in an interview with Prairie Business on May 27, noting that the company seeks employees not only with qualified skills but innate traits that go a long way in making themselves, their clients and the company successful. “We want employees with a good reputation, strong ethics, an extraordinary commitment to clients, and a desire to get better,” he said.

In short order, it wants people who fit in with its culture, a word that according to Matthew Mohr, president of Fargo-based Dakota Paper Co., means more than just a pleasant environment in which to work.

“Having a ping-pong table in the break room doesn’t give you a long-term sustainable culture or make a business successful,” Mohr said. “Business continuity is dependent upon growth, productivity, and profitability.”

The very things that D.A. Davidson has been focused on for a long time. Still, the definition of culture may sometimes seem perplexing: Does the culture of a company help develop employees, for instance, or do employees help create the culture?

It’s a little of both, according to Barone.

“There's nothing more important in business and growing than hiring good people, and we go about that very purposefully, very deliberately,” he said. “We actively recruit. We're looking for the best professionals who have great reputations, and we reach out to them so we’re not sitting back waiting for the phone to ring. … We're looking for professionals that fit our culture, who have strong values that make a deep commitment to their clients.

“It has to be a win for the recruits, so we know that we're improving their lifestyle and business needs to be a win for their clients and how we conduct business; and it needs to be a win for D.A. Davidson, of course, as an additive value that they’ll bring to our organization. We've developed a much deserved and growing reputation for being a great place to work, and we want to ensure that it always stays that way.”

Culture to retain employees

Companies want to provide exceptional service to their customers and clients, and many of them know it begins at the top by providing a positive in-house culture to their staff, including a flexible work-life balance.

Employees at WCCO Belting Inc are seen here participating in a virtual culture event. Jean Voorhees, the company’s vice president of development based in Wahpeton, N.D., said company culture is important in attracting and retaining employees.
Employees at WCCO Belting Inc are seen here participating in a virtual culture event. Jean Voorhees, the company’s vice president of development based in Wahpeton, N.D., said company culture is important in attracting and retaining employees. Image: WCCO Belting Inc

According to an article in Forbes published on March 29, 2020, even as employees work remotely companies should be understanding that they still need the flexibility to balance between work and family. This perhaps is even more true during the coronavirus pandemic when many employees are still working remotely.

An employee work-life balance is important to the culture at WCCO Belting Co., according to Jean Voorhees, the company’s vice president of development, and it is something managers try to emphasize. Voorhees works out of Wahpeton, N.D., but business offices are scattered among a number of states.

“We encourage communication, collaboration, and really celebrating family values, including a work-life balance,” she said. “That's something that has been a big part of our culture and we build flexibility to schedules and shifts so that can happen.”

Similarly, a positive company culture that includes employee flexibility is important to managers at EMC Insurance Companies, said D.J. Campbell, the company’s human resource business partner manager in Bismarck, N.D. He said a good work-life balance “should be part of the organization's total rewards package,” and explained that a “carefully crafted total rewards package is critical when attracting and retaining top talent.”

Part of that package at EMC includes “an alternative work arrangement policy” that fits well during the coronavirus pandemic and outside of it, one “that offers team members many remote working options. Team members can flex their hours, work compressed work weeks, work in a different city at a branch location, work remotely full time, or work remotely part time,” he said. “We offer our team members a generous amount of paid time off and encourage a work-life balance that fits the team member’s needs.”

Gate City Bank, headquartered in Fargo, is yet another company that encourages a friendly work-life balance as part of its culture and serves as a tool to retain employees, said Heather Rye, senior vice president of human resources and development. But it goes beyond retention efforts, she said; it’s just the right thing to do.

“This has especially been a focus during the pandemic as many team members began engaging in remote work,” Rye said. “We’ve embraced flexible scheduling and have increased our focus on mental health and wellness. We started a daily two-minute video series with different topics addressing everything from avoiding burnout to encouraging team members to make themselves a priority with self-care. Another focus has been training leaders how to lead a remote team and assure team members are not blurring the lines between ‘work’ and ‘home.’ This has encouraged team members to designate a workspace and set boundaries.”

Culture that promotes leadership

While culture may go a long way in attracting and retaining employees, managers say it should also embrace opportunities for employees to grow and prepare them for leadership roles.

EMC Insurance looks for the same traits in all of its potential hires, Campbell said, whether they’re applying for a leadership role or not. These traits include an individual's ability to develop talent, make decisions, drive vision and purpose, think strategically, and display business insight. Even so, the company has made continuing education a cultural initiative.

“We have many professional development opportunities allowing all team members the opportunity to grow professionally,” he said, noting it uses both internal and external professional development models and tools.

Back at D.A. Davidson, Barone said the company helps employees improve and develop by using a multi-pronged approach.

“We do it on a number of different levels,” he said. “We have educational programs and advancement programs throughout the firm. We also have a leadership coaching program that we ask everyone from the branch manager and in fact all managerial roles in the company, go through a four month leadership training program. … Many of those programs are credential, so they can get various credentials associated with their financial advisor tied in with staff. We are constantly offering them the ability for advancement and for education and credentials as well.”

Voorhees, of WCCO Belting, said her company also conducts training for all of its employees, including those who are interested in advancing to leadership roles. However, she said the company expects all of its employees to think like a leader, leadership title or not.

That means it’s important for employees to have the desire and drive to maximize responsibility and add value to culture in the workplace. Ultimately, the development of a leader begins at the hiring level and, according to Nancy Bjorndahl, business manager at Dakota Carrier Network in Fargo, there are certain attributes employers should consider when meeting potential hires.

“When looking to fill a job that would traditionally be considered a ‘leadership’ position, sometimes it can be hard to put your finger on exactly what you’re looking for in a candidate,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easier to identify characteristics you don’t want. That said, we look for many of the skills common to good leaders: being a good listener, good communicator, not afraid to ask questions, and able to contribute to the success and productivity of those that report to them.”

She said for someone who wants to be a successful leader, “those skills are critical.”

Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276.