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Aaron Graft, CEO, Triumph Bancorp Inc. on Investing in Culture

A purposefully crafted list of company values shines proudly as the centerpiece in Triumph Bancorp, Inc.’s office lobby. Rather than lifeless, framed words hanging on a wall, Triumph’s values came to life as we walked past all-glass conference rooms and smiling faces to meet with Triumph’s founder and Chief Executive Officer, Aaron Graft.

Triumph is a financial holding company with interests in community banking, commercial finance, and asset management. With the acquisition of several subsidiaries, Triumph has experienced explosive growth over the past two years. They have been recognized by Dallas Business Journal as one of the Best Places to Work in North Texas both in 2013 and 2014 and continue to attract top talent.

When we toured Triumph’s office it was hard to miss a gaping hole in the ceiling near the elevators. Graft enthusiastically explained that they were in the process of doubling the size of their office space. The construction was in preparation for a large staircase that will connect their current office with the new floor above.

Matt Levy and I sat down with Graft to find out more about his company’s inspiring corporate culture. We were interested to know how Triumph has maintained a healthy company culture in the midst of rapid growth.

During our time together, it was obvious Graft is passionate about exhorting his team toward a unified, purposeful vision. Company culture is one of his favorite topics.

“It is the most important thing I do,” he stated emphatically. “I have to model it, talk about it, and prioritize it.”

A Culture Ready for Change

With the acquisitions of National Bancshares, Inc. and its community-banking subsidiary, THE National Bank in October of 2013 followed by the acquisition of Doral Healthcare Finance in June of 2014, Triumph’s employee base has more than tripled in size in one year. The company’s rapid growth has added extra challenges in maintaining a healthy company culture.

Graft explained that building a team who can tolerate change is central to a fostering and preserving a great company culture.

“To be successful, you have to have a team that can react to changing conditions. That’s where culture is really important – how do people react when things don’t go as planned? Do they finger point or come together? How do people react to the idea of re-examining a workflow process? Do people cling to control or invest in the improvement of the team?”

Only by prioritizing culture can culture be preserved through growth and change. Graft alluded to the law of entropy (i.e., the tendency to move from order to disorder), saying that it is dangerous to assume that good culture “just happens”. While he agreed with Jim Collins on the importance of ‘getting the right people on the bus,’ Graft mentioned that it is dangerous to assume good people automatically “ooze good culture.”

Although capability and character are paramount when making hiring decisions, employing the right talent is only one part of building a great culture. Especially in Triumph’s quickly growing environment, Graft has learned that it is necessary to invest in culture in a variety of ways.

“It’s not one big thing. It’s a thousand little things,” Graft said about culture.

Investing in the Culture Bank Account

When asked about the greatest challenge of maintaining a healthy company culture, Graft answered quickly with, “the tyranny of the urgent.”

Using the analogy of a culture bank account, Graft explained, “we make deposits and withdrawals through our behavior. When we are running from fire to fire (or even opportunity to opportunity), it makes withdrawals. If we go too long without making deposits – taking time to communicate with the team regarding the vision, to hear their concerns to address their issues – it starts to hurt our culture.”

Throughout our conversation, Graft shared several ways he and his leadership team are making deposits into Triumph’s culture bank account. Each month Triumph hosts a company-wide “Break to Communicate.” These meetings are an opportunity to openly share updates, answer questions, and re-communicate the company’s vision with the entire firm. Additionally, Triumph allocates resources to allow team members extraordinary opportunities to invest in others. One of the most impressive ways they do this is by sending a group of employees to dig water wells in El Salvador for Living Water International each year.

In fact, Triumph’s philanthropic focus areas are on display throughout their Dallas headquarters: training leaders, establishing viable communities, serving the less fortunate, and giving people a second chance. These inspiring displays act as daily reminders of Triumph’s mission to, “deliver superior value to our stakeholders… through the application of biblical principles and sound business practices including integrity, good stewardship, and excellence.” According to Triumph, their stakeholders are not only owners and customers, but also team members and the community.

Their thoughtfully designed office space is a great example of an intentional deposit in culture. Graft indicated when he initially proposed the move from their original, dated office space to a class A high-rise, he received some push back. Three years later, Graft has witnessed the payoff. The move has been catalyst to higher morale and marked a turning point for a decaying culture.

Servant Leadership is Paramount

Matt Levy often says that leaders receive the company culture they deserve. Aaron Graft is a leader who works hard to model values that he hopes to see reflected by his team.

During our conversation the concept of servant leadership came up repeatedly. Graft shared an important lesson he learned from Triumph’s Director and Chairman, Carlos M. Sepulveda, Jr., that “servant leadership is powerful.”

“You will always get further with moral authority than positional authority,” said Graft, “and the only way to earn moral authority is to live and communicate in a way that resonates with people.”

Graft recently posted a candid blog on Triumph’s company website that illustrates his desire to pursue moral rather than positional authority. In the disclaimer, he boldly stated, “I have found…that the Christian values of servant leadership, humility and integrity resonate universally, which is why we work so hard at maintaining that in Triumph’s corporate culture.”

When asked what advice he has for other leaders striving to cultivate excellent company culture, Graft answered with a profound list of recommendations:

  1. “Gratefulness and humility are character traits everyone appreciates, so internalize and practice them
  2. Be positive no matter the circumstances
  3. Prioritize the needs of the team over your own
  4. Talk about your vision and connect it to what the team members are doing every day”

Learn more about Triumph Bancorp by visiting their website: www.triumphbancorp.com

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About Triumph Bancorp, Inc.

Triumph Bancorp, Inc., based in Dallas, Texas, is a financial holding company with interests in community banking, commercial finance and asset management. Members of the Triumph Bancorp, Inc. group include Triumph Savings Bank, Triumph Community Bank, Triumph Commercial Finance, Triumph Healthcare Finance, Triumph Capital Advisors, Triumph Business Capital and Triumph Insurance Group.

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