A case study in how Solutions 21 client Henderson Brothers enhanced its organizational culture to create even better bonds with employees and clients through the pandemic

Henderson Brothers, founded in 1893 to provide insurance on goods ferried on the Ohio River, Henderson Brothers is one of few companies in the United States that had already survived a global pandemic when COVID-19 swept across the globe in 2020.

But amid tremendous uncertainty and a massive shift in the way businesses operate, few lessons carried over from the late 1910s. Leadership needed to find modern ways to keep employees engaged – and the business strong. Company executives knew that their ability to be there for their clients – and live up to their Expect an Expert motto — extended only as far as the team had the infrastructure, emotional energy, and mental space to execute.

The management team led the way, and more than 150 employees closely followed. The result was not only a more robust culture, but better client relationships, new business, and exceptionally high retention that was aided by competitors who struggled to shift from their 2020 pandemic response to triaging turnover because of the Great Resignation of 2021. All this work – recognized by the company’s workforce and clients alike – culminated in capturing the No. 1 spot in Top Workplaces 2021, awarded by their regional newspaper of record, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Based on interviews with owners Dan and Tom Grealish, executive decision-makers, and other employees, we uncovered four key lessons that all leaders can take from Henderson Brothers’ success in navigating the rough waters of the pandemic and its repercussions.

Key Lessons

Culture is not a switch

“Some of what we did, we’ve been planning for the last few years,” President Tom Grealish said. “It just so happened that we had to accelerate our efforts because of the pandemic.”

Strategic planning is a central part of the culture at Henderson Brothers and has been for nearly two decades. One tangible example of its impact has roots in a plan from years prior, when the company recognized that its growth would be fueled by a future workforce that was both remote and mobile.

”We realized [then] we couldn’t do it the old way,” Chairman Dan Grealish said. By the time offices closed their doors in March 2020, all of the groundwork was done. Overnight, more than 160 employees had taken their laptops home and could access all of the information they needed from newly minted home offices. “We got lucky with the timing,” said William Beale, COO, “and all of that preparation paid off for us.”

That kind of planning wouldn’t be possible without a strong management team and trusted bench strength throughout the organization. The choice years before to invest in leadership development prepared a broader range of employees to join the decision-making ranks, providing executives with a group of trusted, capable leaders who could tackle strategic projects and reinforce the culture at all levels.

“The management team was committed to making sure we kept our culture even when we weren’t able to be in the office, and we made that happen,” Human Resources Director John DeSimone said. “Having so many resources for our employees to go to helped calm fears, especially in the early days that were full of unknowns.”

According to Korn Ferry, up to 30% of the U.S. workforce will work from home several days a week by the end of 2021, and nearly three-quarters of CEOs see at least 5% of employees working remotely permanently. Leaders at Henderson Brothers embraced these trends and adapted to flexible work arrangements across the organization in a way that continues to preserve their strong culture.

Transparency and Consistent Communication

When asked why employees at Henderson Brothers stayed aligned despite the significant disruptions, Beale said, “My first warcry was ‘communication, communication, communication.’”

For a company where employees heard about the state of the business in quarterly town halls, having executives speak openly about the organization’s health wasn’t new. In the early days of the pandemic, having those discussions every week was a breath of fresh air when so little was stable. “I genuinely believe that we had to let people know what we were doing and that we were going to be okay,” Tom Grealish said. “I know it meant a lot to the team by the feedback I received both directly and through the managers.” The team didn’t force it, either – those weekly meetings became monthly and, eventually, quarterly once again as conditions changed.

However, for a communication-heavy strategy to be effective, employees have to trust the message. Executives at the organization insisted that whatever the news, there needed to be an open and honest analysis of the state of the business based on the available information. Commitment to that level of openness helped create a sense of psychological safety, enabling employees to focus on themselves, their families, and their clients.

Communication didn’t just come from the top, and managers led the way to connect with their employees. Senior leaders asked managers to focus first on the health of employees and their families. As Tom Grealish said, “If the conversation ended up about work issues, great. If not, the employees at least knew that we cared about them as people.”

While executives remained aligned on many issues, leaders admitted to their share of conflicts: “Candidly, I was the ‘caveman’ arguing for bringing people back to the office as soon as possible,” Dan Grealish said. “Everyone else disagreed with me, and looking back, they were all smart for not listening to me. We got through this in large part because of decisions that I was uncomfortable with or disagreed with at first.” An established culture where leaders could engage in productive conflict allowed the organization to arrive at the best decisions for employees and clients alike.

Focus on Others

Leadership in crisis requires high emotional intelligence. One area where Henderson Brothers excelled was the extent to which they recognized that every one of their clients was facing the same challenges, fears, and anxieties as they were.

“We needed to make sure that our clients knew that we cared about them as people first and foremost,” Tom Grealish said. “I told our entire team to reach out to their clients and check in on them to make sure they were OK.”

There were two immediate payoffs to that strategy.

First, clients appreciated the personal outreach at a time when their email inboxes were being flooded with generic messages about their partners’ pandemic response. The genuine connections enabled more personal, in-depth interactions that built stronger bonds and, in some cases, created new business opportunities.

“We renewed business, expanded business, and signed new business simply because we picked up the phone and asked how people were doing … [and] about their business and their families,” Tom Grealish said. “It’s incredible how much of an impact that simple act had on our relationships.”

Second, the charge to focus on the clients’ needs helped boost the morale of Henderson Brothers’ workforce. Research shows that providing help to others can offset the impact of stress on mental health, which proved true for the company. “Having our employees focus on our clients instead of their challenges, fears, and concerns at home was the difference-maker in how our team performed,” Beale said.

Focusing on others went beyond the uncertain early days of the pandemic. Leveraging employee feedback tools – which leadership had used consistently to respond to employee needs – Henderson Brothers was able to keep a finger on the pulse of employee opinion. Impactful decisions, such as when employees would feel safe returning to the office, were informed by feedback. As an executive team committed to being “fast followers” – willing to keep an eye out for what others are doing well and make adjustments quickly – it was able to make crucial calls with complete information and ensure employees felt safe and heard. Dan Grealish reinforced this point by saying, “I appreciated that our team was able to gather enough information to make our decisions easier, even if they weren’t what we had done in the past.”

Another channel the company used was its website, creating a COVID-19 response mini-site that the team constantly updated with the latest available information. “We knew it would be helpful, but we were surprised by the response,” Beale said. “Our clients used it, our employees used it, and we had new business opportunities simply because we were giving out that information for free. I think it sent the message that we were here for you, and our employees bought in most of all.”

Henderson Brothers was so forward-thinking, they beat McKinsey & Company by more than a year. In July 2021, the global consulting firm published return-to-work communication best practices centered around four principles: listen to the workforce, inspire employees to help them reenergize, engage employees in two-way dialogue, and guide those struggling with the transition. For Henderson Brothers, these principles were part of their core response from day one.

Delight and Surprise

Sometimes the best way to get a sense of how employees feel is to hear it directly. When the offices closed, Tom Grealish made it a point to call each employee at least once to check on them. “I didn’t realize the impact that those phone calls would have. People were so appreciative, and the number of responses I got, emails, phone calls, it was great. I think it helped everyone feel like we were all on the same team, which we were since we were all going through this together.”

As the weeks turned into months, and the worst fears about the business impact had been avoided, Henderson Brothers looked for ways to make sure employees felt appreciated for pulling together when stability was low and stress was high. The company sent care packages of local goodies to each employee’s home to surprise the entire team. The response was overwhelming.

“You can’t believe the reaction we got – posts on social media, emails, phone calls – it was amazing,” DeSimone said. “I knew that people would appreciate it, but I don’t think I realized just how much our employees were feeling burned out. It was a huge boost to our team.”

The company sent a couple of additional care packages through the summer months, which helped contribute to the sense that Henderson Brothers truly cared about them.

“Once we knew we were going to be OK, we knew we wanted to do something special,” added Tom Grealish. “The response says a lot about how much our employees needed a boost.”

The Outcome

By September 2021, workers in the United States quit their jobs in record numbers, with each month surpassing the last. Dubbed the “Great Resignation,” more than 20 million workers left their employers, often for better working conditions, cultures, and pay. For companies like Henderson Brothers, this groundswell of available talent has been a boon to their attraction and retention efforts. “We are just not seeing the same effects on our workforce as other companies,” DeSimone noted. “We’re finding plenty of talented candidates, and our hiring brand has never been better.”

As the late James Lane Allen wrote, “Adversity does not build character – it reveals it.” While Henderson Brothers managed the incredible challenges of 2020 and 2021 with exceptional skill, their success directly resulted from decisions made long before the decade began. Long-term planning, investing in future leaders, and building trust at all organizational levels put Henderson Brothers in a position of success, especially when uncertainty hit. And while leaders in the organization are proud of their business results, they tout their stronger relationships with employees and clients alike as their greatest victory. Being named the top workplace in its primary region of operation was just a visible “cherry on top” of succeeding in a stressful time.

“We have been through enough to know bad things are going to happen,” Dan Grealish said. “I’m delighted with the work we did and how our team responded. It says a lot about our people and our culture, and I couldn’t be more proud.”