Culture Matters: Why “Who You Work For” is as Important as “How Much You’re Paid”

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Keith Klein, President of Transport America

Every day, truck drivers all over the United States and Canada make the jump from one company to another.

Many, based on numerous trucking industry studies, are looking for higher pay, signing bonuses, and more miles. Other truck drivers cite home time as the key issue for making the switch. And yet, at some transportation companies, the turnover of qualified truck drivers is more than 75% or more per year.

To Keith Klein, President of Transport America, paying drivers a fair day’s wage is the ante to the game. But what really matters, he says, is how a transportation company treats its drivers, day-in and day-out.

“Of course we need to be competitive when it comes to paying our drivers,” Klein says. “But over the past ten years, we’ve learned that money does not buy career satisfaction or happiness.”

“Instead, we’ve learned it’s the intangibles that really count – things like knowing a truck driver’s name, respecting their professional opinion on when it’s not safe to drive any further, or understanding their life at home so we can help them be there for when it really counts – when a spouse is facing surgery, or when a child is achieving a major milestone in their life.”

In developing the culture at Transport America, the company’s leadership team came to realize that anyone can start and run a trucking company. But, what differentiates one trucking company from another often is its culture.

When we think of culture, we think of things such as the history of an organization. The stories and the people that make a company what it is. We think of other elements, too, from company policies and workplace expectations to annual traditions and how a company decorates its offices. They all go into how we perceive the day-to-day life at an organization.

But underlying all those elements are the values that drive a company, and the actions of the company’s leadership that set the tone and feel from the moment you walk in the doors each day.

“It’s like trying to define quality. It’s difficult to define if a company has a good culture or not,” says Klein. “But, you know it when you see it.”

What defines the culture at Transport America?

To Klein, the big picture values that serve as the company’s compass, include: safety, integrity, respect, a positive attitude and generating value for the company’s customers.

But often times, it’s the little things that truly shed the most light on a company’s culture.

“To me, I want a culture where we know everyone by their first name,” says Klein, as he rattles off what matters the most to him on his fingers. “Number two: when you interact with each other, you’re there to help someone be successful, versus finding fault with them. Three: life is more than just driving a truck. We seek balance between our work and family. Four: we care for others – we’re there for our employees, and we give generously to our communities.

“And fifth, work should be as meaningful as possible. And it should be fun, too,” Klein says.

The culture that defines Transport America today didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years to build.

“Our former CEO gets the credit for the culture that we value at Transport America,” says Klein. “But it’s up to us, at all levels of the company, to continue to build on what we have and refine the vision.”

Klein points to the company’s new tagline “The Trucking Company That’s Changing Trucking” as an example of this process of refining “Who We Are.”

“Historically, truck drivers we’re not valued by trucking companies. And in some companies, they’re viewed as disposable,” says Klein, “which may be the real reason why our industry has such high turnover. But at our company, we believe that everyone’s contributions are valuable and that we all have a stake in our success. We live it and we breath it everyday.”

So, if a driver is looking to make a move to another company, what questions should they ask themselves?

“I’d first start with asking ‘Is what they’re promising even true?’ because I think that goes to the very heart of a company’s culture, which is their trustworthiness,” says Klein.

Then, he says, drivers should ask themselves the three additional questions:

  • Does the company really respect its drivers or will it view me as a steering wheel holder?
  • How do the company’s fleet leaders and dispatch operators treat its drivers? Do they know them by their first name?
  • What’s the company’s record on safety?

“I think the best test is to go up and ask a driver who works for another trucking company: ‘How does your company treat you?’” Klein says. “Listen carefully at what they say…and what they leave out.”

As for Transport America, Klein invites any driver to talk to one of his drivers – especially a driver who has returned back to Transport America after checking out how green the grass is at another trucking company.

“I love our drivers that return for employment a second time,” Klein says. “When they come back they confirm that we’re on the right track in creating a trucking company that is changing trucking. A trucking company where people are valued for their professionalism and their contributions.”