Why Should Employees Work for You?
In an interview with Gigaom, Pixar’s Brad Bird, creator of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, noted:
In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale. (Hawn 2008)
What’s true for a movie production is also true for just about any organization. Companies need to nurture a healthy culture, bringing people together for a common purpose and keeping engagement as high as possible.
To attain a solid, competent workforce, you must first promise them an attractive culture and workplace. Just as you attract customers with your promise of better products or services, you do likewise with potential employees—whether you are aware of it or not. You keep employees, sustain them, and support their—and your—success, based on how you deliver on these promises.
Typically, before considering employment, a potential employee becomes familiar with an organization from a variety of experiences, including being a customer. Know that the savvy employees—and aren’t those the ones you want to hire?—are doing homework on you long before you do your homework on whether they are a right fit to hire. There are many resources, such as Glassdoor, you can use to see what current and past employees say about their workplace. Your potential future employees are accessing raw, unfiltered opinions about the experience you deliver. There are natural consequences for the culture you encourage—fair, equitable, and engaging, or not. How do you want to invest your efforts?
When a new employee begins their first day with the organization, they are there as the result of a further series of interactions with the company—a classified ad, phone call, interview, collateral material, and the like—all of which have helped the person to form some perception of what working there should be like and how good a fit they are for the job. Once on the job, there will be countless other interactions—orientation, fellow employees, customers, internal collateral, work processes, employee-only locations, and so forth—that will reinforce or undermine the new hire’s perception, or the promise they believe the organization made to them.
Every day, organizations communicate new information about their culture—whether by design or by default—to employees. Employees make important daily decisions that affect their jobs, and ultimately their careers, based on these company promises.
Like external customers, internal customers (employees) expect promises to be fulfilled. Employees have another expectation: to align themselves with an organization that actively supports the values and ethics of which they can be proud. The only way to have a healthy, long-lasting working relationship with your employees is by fully supporting your promise. This effort involves four initiatives:
1. Implementing beliefs and philosophies. Ensure that the values at the core of the organization are obviously supported and actually implemented in day-to-day operations.
2. Cultivating an attitude of excellence. Align employees’ mindsets with the unique personality of the company, with a commitment to the higher standards necessary to achieve World Class Excellence.
3. Speaking the language. Sharing a purposeful “best-in-class” language, represented through words and symbols, is a powerful manifestation of the intended culture.
4. Keeping customs and traditions. Every group has customary practices that keep its cultural history alive—meaningfully connecting it with its promise.
Here’s a story that illustrates these aspects of supporting your promise. One interesting cultural norm at the Walt Disney Company is that leaders must stay connected with the real-time operation. Walt knew that his managers needed to be out in the theme park, not behind their desks, so he purposefully modeled that responsibility every day.
Walt had an apartment built above the firehouse at Disneyland so he could have a place to stay during his frequent park visits. In the evenings, he would walk the park during the third shift, pouring coffee for the workers at midnight. During the day, he was out in the park, interacting with cast members (employees) and guests (customers) alike, experiencing things firsthand.
One day, a Jungle Boat pilot failed to notice that he had a famous passenger. When Walt stepped off the boat, he walked up to the Frontierland supervisor, Dick Nunis, and asked, “What’s the trip time on this ride?” Dick replied that it was seven minutes. Walt responded. “I just got a four-and-a-half-minute trip. How would you like to go to a movie and have the theater remove a reel in the middle of the picture? Do you realize how much those hippos cost? I want people to see them, not be rushed through a ride by some guy who’s bored with his job.”
Dick wisely responded by asking Walt if they could share the next ride to discuss details. Dick and Walt rode one of the boats through Adventureland, and Walt explained how to conduct the trip. For a full week, the Jungle Boat pilots were timed with stopwatches, until they perfected the ride experience. When Walt arrived for his regular visit to Disneyland the next weekend, he walked through Adventureland without stopping. He did the same the following weekend. After three weeks, he finally took another ride on the Jungle Boat. When the boat returned to the dock, Walt surprised everyone by entering the next boat for another ride. He went around four times on each of the boats, eliminating the possibility that the operators had stacked the deck by planting the best boat pilots up front. After he emerged from the fourth and final trip, Walt provided his only comment: a thumbs-up sign to Dick Nunis.
Since then, the thumbs-up gesture has been a sign of great service in the Disney parks.
This story has numerous lessons for building the promise of your culture:
• Managing by walking around the workplace. This was a hallmark of Walt Disney’s philosophy even before Disneyland was built. He often spent time walking through the animation studios at all hours. Animators would arrange their in-process artwork in such a way to see if Walt had come by the night before. Walt anguished over spending money on offices because he wanted management in the park. Even today, Disney’s leaders are expected to work in the theme parks performing frontline duties during peak seasons.
• Training and development is a priority. The story reflects the importance of training others as an investment in future excellence. To that end, Disney University would eventually become one of America’s first corporate universities.
• Promote from within. Dick Nunis, the Jungle Boat frontline supervisor, went on to become the chairman of Walt Disney attractions worldwide—so the previous story wasn’t about some obscure employee. It’s a tale about how cast members can contribute from anywhere in the organization and become part of its leadership.
• Thumbs up. This remains an informal, nonverbal gesture throughout the Disney organization, meaning “well done” or “great job creating an excellent guest experience.”
Implementing Beliefs and Philosophies
Organizations are in business because they believe in the importance of providing a particular product or service in a certain way. Employees join these organizations because they share these beliefs. A world-class organization simply takes concrete steps to ensure that these common causes are brought to life for the benefit of its employees and the organization. Let’s look at a few brief examples of how beliefs and philosophies can be implemented in action.
Two of Google’s corporate philosophies are, “You can be serious without a suit” and “You can make money without doing evil.” As Google grew and became a publicly held company, its founders established the position of chief culture officer, whose purpose is to develop and maintain a corporate culture that is nonhierarchically flat and collaborative (Mills 2007).
The idea of IBM’s open-door policy stems from Thomas Watson Sr., who instituted the program back in the 1920s, largely to deal directly with employee grievances. This well-tested concept is still being successfully implemented by other firms, with impressive results. Adobe Systems uses an open-door policy to maintain a culture of communication. The CEO answers emails within 24 hours, and employee councils provide management with ongoing ideas for improvement.
At Facebook, the CEO’s office has no door; he sits among the employees at a desk like other software engineers writing code, rather than occupying the traditional executive’s corner office.
Airbnb is a relatively unique business. The company doesn’t sell its own products, but helps customers sell their products to other customers. Airbnb’s stated mission is, “Create a world that inspires human connection.” To bring its value of connection to life, Airbnb decided that the best way to connect with customers was to help them connect with one another. To do this, it provides a platform for customers to tell their stories. In fact, Airbnb has a whole section of its website dedicated to “stories from the Airbnb community.” This campaign uses imagery and short videos that provide insights into the lives of Airbnb hosts and what a guest might expect a stay with them to be like. Rather than a typical business focus of houses and rooms (commodities), they chose instead to showcase stories that bring both host and locations to life, emphasizing belonging to the Airbnb community. Positioning your values and customers at the center of your brand—in effect, letting them be the brand—is essential to the Airbnb philosophy.
Giving back to communities in need is a primary value that drives TOMS Shoes. Since the company launched in 2006, TOMS has matched every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. It adopted the same commitment with eyeglasses when it started TOMS Eyewear in 2011. The company encourages employees to experience the “One for One” strategy firsthand, so they can see how their efforts are helping those less fortunate around the world. This approach resonates with employees and targets customers who are more altruistic, creating a strong sense of purpose that drives high levels of engagement and advocacy.
Red Frog Events is a fast-growing event production company that has landed on several “Best Of” lists in recent years, including Forbes’ “Most Promising Companies” and Outside’s “Best Places To Work.” As an organization that revolves around people and experiences, Red Frog identifies as being in the people business; it just happens to also do events. Its philosophy of creating amazing events that draw a team closer together with new and innovative experiences begins in its practice of engaging everyone as kindhearted, creative team players who can laugh while learning and leading through new situations every day. This is obvious not only in the services they provide, but in their corporate culture as well.
Cultivating an Attitude of Excellence
Winston Churchill said that “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” No words could be truer when it comes to creating a corporate culture. Employees are often attracted to certain organizations because of the attitude employees convey to their customers. For instance, it’s hard to work effectively at Harley-Davidson if you aren’t in sync with its very independent-style culture. It has achieved excellent results by manufacturing and selling motorcycles while still embracing that edgy “biker” attitude.
Contrast that with the Ritz-Carlton hotels, where there is an illustrious and sophisticated culture. This legacy is rooted in Cesar Ritz himself, a celebrated hotelier who sought to define himself as the “king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings.” His philosophy of service was refined by his luxury hotel experiences in Europe. In the early years of running his hotel, guests were regularly checked to see if they were in the Social Register or Who’s Who lists to distinguish the hotel as a uniquely elegant brand. In fact, potential guests writing to the hotel requesting reservations were sometimes turned down if the quality of their stationery was not suitable.
Another unique attitude, though still maintaining a standard of excellence, is embodied by the work style of Southwest Airlines. According to Southwest, what sets it apart from all other airlines is its people, yet if you took all their employees and transferred them to another airline, the passengers wouldn’t have the same superior flying experience. The attitude of Southwest Airlines’ employees is the key. Its creed, known as “Living the Southwest Way,” consists of three values (Barrett 2008):
1. A warrior spirit: This is demonstrated through courage, hard work, and doing your best.
2. A servant’s heart: This is demonstrated by following the Golden Rule and treating others with respect.
3. A fun-LUVing attitude: This is demonstrated by having fun and being passionate about what you do. It also celebrates Southwest’s roots originating flights at Love Field in Dallas, whose airport code is LUV.
People who apply to work at Southwest Airlines know what kind of culture to expect, because they have experienced a Southwest flight. Often, a person’s motivation for working for an organization is grounded in their response to its corporate culture.
Speaking the Language
What’s in a name? According to world-class companies that understand the value of communication when building their culture, language is critically important. Whether it is words, phrases, or even symbols, the style of language used has a tremendous impact on the organization’s culture.
Like other airlines, JetBlue refers to all employees as “crew members,” but the term isn’t simply a standard industry label. JetBlue places a strong emphasis on being a member of a team. Reflecting the company’s playfully engaging culture, all aircraft have blue as part of their names—even the training simulators have the word blue incorporated into their titles. JetBlue’s crew members participate in the creative process and, ultimately, in selecting the names.
W. L. Gore & Associates provides fibers, cabling, fabrics, and filtration and pharmaceutical casing products to a wide variety of industries, from aerospace to healthcare to manufacturing. The firm was recently recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the 100 best organizations for which to work. Its philosophy, known as the “Gore Method,” has always been to be a team-based organization that fosters personal initiative. Its supervisors are referred to as “sponsors” rather than bosses. In light of this title, there are no traditional organizational charts and no bureaucratic chains of command. Even performance reviews are based on a peer-level rating system.
At the Walt Disney Company, the language reflects the very business the company is in—entertainment and hospitality. At Disney, everyone is part of a show, whether “onstage” or “backstage.” Employees are referred to as “cast members,” and are “hosts and hostesses” to “guests,” not customers. All 195,000-plus people in the organization refer to each other on a first-name basis, largely because Walt Disney preferred it that way.
Keeping Customs and Traditions
Traditions are the rituals that keep the corporate culture and morale alive. They manifest themselves differently depending on the organization. At Google, employees have an ongoing tradition of creating outrageous announcements around April Fool’s Day. And you don’t have to wait for spring to find Easter eggs inside a number of its software services. Clever surprises pop up as you navigate them.
Speaking of holidays, Southwest Airlines has several notable customs and traditions, like its infamous Halloween celebration and its chili cook-off day. Though management will admit that little work gets done during these experiences, the benefits of these special traditions are an invaluable part of the Southwest culture.
Of course, there is more to organizational improvement than delivering a tradition such as a company picnic. One organization told us they nearly had an employee rebellion over their company picnic—and not just because they didn’t like fried chicken or potato sack races. It was because the picnic had come to represent decisions made only at the upper management level without the input of the employees.
Traditions and customs are not a quick fix that will offset poor performance management issues, but they are proven tools for building effective organizational cultures that get world-class results. For instance, UPS, like Disney and other organizations, still promotes a significant number of its frontline staff members to the executive ranks. Typically, world-class companies promote about 70 percent of all leadership positions from within their frontline ranks. Other organizations, like Starbucks, require newly hired executives from outside the company to work for weeks in frontline cafe positions before beginning their leadership role. This action ensures that the new leader is fully aware of the organization’s culture and can relate to the issues at frontline levels.
Every organization has a corporate culture, whether on purpose or by accident. The real question is whether what you promise your employees is what you consistently deliver—every day. Culture, by design, suggests that you look at your traditions, attitudes, language, and philosophies and make certain that they are what you really want to be.
It was Abe Lincoln who said, “We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot.” No words could be truer as we move forward into the next chapters. The people, place, process, and product must all deliver on the promise. World-class organizations ensure that what they deliver is equal to or greater than what they promise. Moreover, the price must not be greater than what we promise or deliver.
Next Steps for Building the Culture Through Promise:
What philosophies describe the culture you are promising your employees?
Describe the espoused attitude of your organization. Can potential applicants see this attitude in what you say and do?
What vocabulary, expressions, or ideas underscore your culture?
What traditions celebrate your history and culture?
What stories do you share that underscore what your culture is all about?