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Travis Mcallister handles a pizza to a customer at the new Longo's flagship location in the basement of the Maple Leaf Square complex in downtown Toronto, November 05 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Travis Mcallister handles a pizza to a customer at the new Longo's flagship location in the basement of the Maple Leaf Square complex in downtown Toronto, November 05 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Three firms and their winning corporate cultures Add to ...

A few years ago, the Longo's supermarket chain embarked on an ambitious growth strategy. It not only added nine new stores to the existing 14, but expanded from its traditional suburban terrain into downtown Toronto. For human resources manager Carol Henry, much of that strategy's success can be put down to the family-run company's "culture of always providing employees with opportunities for career growth and for learning."

The company works hard at instilling its values of honesty, trustworthiness and mutual respect. "When opening new stores, we use a careful ratio of old and new, because we want to make sure that the culture is permeating," said Ms. Henry. "If they're engaged, happy people, they're going to provide better service. If I give better service, I'm going to get more customers."

Fostering a workplace environment that encourages and empowers employees not only can save a company the costs of recruiting new talent but support values that help differentiate it from the competition.

At Calgary-based WestJet Airlines, the fact that 86 per cent of employees own company shares means greater accountability in looking after customers, said Blair Pollard, its vice-president of talent management. It was one of the features that attracted him to the company. "If you have an engaged work force that's kind of turned on, loves what they do, cares about that organization passionately and goes out and does those little extra things," he explained, "it's going to make you more successful."

So what can companies do to encourage an atmosphere that nurtures creative, high performing workers? For both Mr. Pollard and Ms. Henry, it begins with the hiring process. At Longo's, Ms. Henry wants new employees "to love us," she said.

"At WestJet, we're looking at peoples' capability for the job they being hired for," said Mr. Pollard, "but also considering their future potential. Are they folks that look like they'll have the ability to learn and grow with the organization and help build the future? And then it's a question of making sure you're developing the talent you have, good jobs, challenging jobs, where people can grow in the work."

The fast-growing airline company also maintains "a good posting process," he added, "making sure people have access when opportunities are made available."

It also communicates plans for changes well in advance of carrying them out.

"It's neat because it gives us an idea of how employees will react to what we are thinking about," said Mr. Pollard. "In a lot of cases, they'll bring things to our attention that we might not have thought of." A company intranet also encourages its 8,000 employees to post their views, whether those are beefs or kudos. "That's an owner thing," he said. "As an owner, I feel I have to say what I think about what you're doing."

As a non-profit medical-transport organization set up in 2006 when the Ontario Ministry of Health amalgamated several existing regional authorities, Toronto-based Ornge faced challenges in establishing a vibrant corporate culture. The answer: a series of in-house training sessions designed to offer employees both personal and professional development. They began with a Leadership Academy, a three-week residential programs for management.

"But ever since it started," said Rhonda Mauricette, manager for organizational development and strategy, "there's been discussion about how we need to open this up to people in front-line positions, working on the aircraft, who are maybe interested in entering management or in being engaged in the organization in different ways."

In the resulting Ambassador Program for unionized workers, who make up 60 per cent of the company's work force, "we still look at compassion, your emotional intelligence and self-discovery," she said, "at becoming more familiar with the corporate side of the organization, and at how to take what you've learned and bring it back to the bases."

Preparing employees for leadership positions is one of that program's main goals, she explained. Another deals with activities in the broader community. "Our front-line staff are already the face of Ornge," she added, "and there's a desire across the board to be engaged in their communities as representatives of Ornge in more than just saving lives."

According to Ms. Mauricette, "in both programs, people have to do projects that often deal with taking a problem or issue in the organization, putting their heads to it and coming up with really innovative ideas or new approaches."

The payoff, she said, is the conviction among staff that Ornge is an organization that cares about them. "It's win-win, because you get that engagement. We are developing our own talent for positions that we need, to have people ready to assume roles. We're a growing organization, so we need that bench strength," she said.

At Toronto-based coaching company Pursuit Development Labs, "this idea of finding some meaningful work in the organization that creates the greatest connection with its purpose as a company and its community is what we call the sweet spot," said partner Mike Farley. "Without that, if you're looking at maximizing efficiency and all that, it's very hard for people to understand the expectations of the organization."

Recognizing and celebrating the contributions employees make, he said, is as important as looking at what went wrong. And that doesn't have to be a big weekend at a resort, he added, but "the small stuff. You affirm people every day, tell them they're on the right path."

For Longo's Carol Henry, the difference is clear. "You can buy bananas anywhere," she said. "People come here for an experience, and they're not going to get that unless the team is happy about what they're doing."

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