Local leadership that works

By Jann Freed / Guest Editorial

One of my mantras is, “leaders need to create places where people want to work.”

This is easier said than done. But several months ago, I discovered a company in Cedar Rapids with this mantra as a goal. In 1992, Tony Golobic had a vision to create a financial-services company supported by a culture that is customer-focused and that stands apart from its competitors.

I interviewed Doug Olson, GreatAmerica’s vice chairman and concluded that GreatAmerica is a great place to work. My conclusions are based on what I learned in writing “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts.”

Since 2004, I have been interviewing leadership sages, some of the top thought leaders and executive coaches in the country about how to lead in these uncertain times.

A theme that emerged was the importance for leaders to create healthy work environments. This is critical because it influences how people think, feel and behave. Mr. Olson said, “Our greatest asset is our people, they give us the competitive advantage.”

Many companies claim that “their people are their greatest asset,” and then they treat them as expenses to cut when times get tough. I wanted to know more about how the GreatAmerica “DNA” originated. Based on what Mr. Olson shared, I decided the company creates this culture for its more than 400 employees by emphasizing these five aspects: customers, tangible elements, hiring practices, communication and rewards and recognition.


Make the customer’s life easier and don’t lose track of them. Make the customer experience easy in order to receive repeat business. High quality and high service is how GreatAmerica intentionally differentiates itself from the competition.

“We want to be the Nordstrom’s of the industry, not the Walmart,” Mr. Olson said, emphasizing a non-commodity-based approach to their business.

He added GreatAmerica is more than a leasing company.

“We support customers by adding value to their business. Our vision is to help our customers achieve greater success,” he said. “We coach them how to be better by continuously implementing value added measures that allow them to be even more successful.”

Tangible Elements

Effective leaders realize that the little things can make a big difference. As I was touring the building, I noticed the work stations had a low profile, which creates an open environment. Mr. Olson said the leadership is accessible to everyone. Giant white boards on each floor are used for writing inspirational messages and goals. Since there is no voicemail, people are trained to answer the phone within two rings or less. And, there are real flowers in the lobby and bathrooms.

Hiring Practices

GreatAmerica understands that with each person hired, the environment is affected in some way, good or bad. During the past year fewer than 2 percent of the applicants were hired to make sure the applicant was a good fit for GreatAmerica and vice versa.

Applicants are encouraged to job shadow. They are given a test to determine how quickly they can assimilate information, their ability to perform in a team and if their personality traits fit the needs of the job position. Applicants are interviewed by other team members to determine the “fit” within the culture.


Transparency rules at GreatAmerica and becomes immediately apparent upon entering their offices. Their open floor plan encourages participation and sharing. Each month, all team members assemble to hear how the company is performing. Half of each meeting is spent on monthly financial results and the other half of the meeting is spent on a message determined by the leadership.

Semi-annually, there is a “what’s on your mind?” meeting. It allows team members to ask any question “on their mind” which provides a wonderful forum for leadership to communicate.

Rewards and recognition

GreatAmerica believes in sharing rewards. They have a bonus system in which everyone participates. Half of the bonus is based on team goals and half is based on GreatAmerica corporate goals. It is possible that 20 percent of their base salary could be a bonus, monthly.

They have an awards banquet once a year that, according to Mr. Olson, is intended to give everyone an “Academy Awards Night” feel. Everyone dresses up. This year’s event featured a live big band, with Scott Schulte as the emcee. A short video is created each year that captures every face at GreatAmerica.

Tenure awards based on length of employment are also recognized at the banquet. Team members are given nice watches, bracelets and necklaces for various years of service. Names of team members with 20 years of service are engraved on granite tiles and displayed at the entrance of the building.

Other important awards distributed at the banquet include:

• Wow Award: instant recognition for people delivering the GreatAmerica experience

• Outstanding Achiever Awards: nominated by peers

• Sales Achievement Awards: top finishers in each business unit

The selection committee for the Outstanding Achievers consists of the previous year’s winners because they know what it takes and the leadership has no input. Winners of this award receive an all-expense paid resort package for that they take with their significant others. All award winners travel together to build relationships.

The GreatAmerica turnover rate is low and they have never laid anyone off. In fact, they have been rated in the Cannata report (an office technology publication) as the best leasing company four out of the last five years. In addition, their commitment to giving back to the community involves the teams within each business unit adopting individual causes to support.

What makes GreatAmerica a great company can be adopted by all companies. Create a culture that is focused on knowing your customers and their needs. Pay attention to the small tangible elements that enhance building relationships and teamwork. Hire the right people and empower them to perform. Be transparent and intentional in communicating the important messages employees need to know to stay committed and motivated. Then reward and recognize them for their good work in making the company great because employees are your greatest asset, an investment that will yield great returns.




Jann Freed is a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group. For more information, visit www.jannfreed.com.