Culture Matters: How Getting the Conditions Right Changes Everything
This was not how things were supposed to happen. How did I end up 21 years old and crying in the back office of a sandwich shop? I was supposed to go to law school and on my way to becoming a star anchor on CNN—not reeking of toasted bread and deli meats. A few months earlier I was laid off from an airline after 9/11. I was living in Chicago, far from home, and needed a job. I did the only thing I knew how to do—went back to working in a restaurant as a manager at a growing sandwich chain.
I’d heard of people having existential crises in strange moments, but never of someone breaking down over turkey and swiss. But here I was, lost, alone, and wondering if my future was really this bleak.
To rewind things, I’d soared through the 12-week manager training, was assigned to one of the chain’s busiest locations, and been given the responsibility of not only managing the shop but also training new leaders who would be working in other locations.
It started unravelling when my General Manager started to hand off areas of responsibility to me. Things I had no idea how to get done, but I kept saying “yes” to because I didn’t see how I could say “I don’t know how to do that.” They weren’t earth-shattering responsibilities, but at 21-years old, I didn’t know how to get things done other than to politely ask the staff—and then do it myself when they failed. So that’s what I did. Every night I’d stay after everyone left to finish the cleaning they didn’t do very well, to recount the bread that was frequently miscounted, and to stock shelves that were neglected. All the while, I was a complete fraud.
I did the thing all 21-year old guys do in these moments—I called Grandma. When I was 15, I worked at a pizza franchise and eventually convinced my Grandma to come work with me. Pretty soon she ran the shop and my sister, uncle, and Grandpa all joined us. Even though we lived in this desert town, the pizza place always had a special buzz about it. It was the place people celebrated and shared important moments. If anyone could help me figure out what to do, it would be Granny. And if not, at least I’d pave the way to move home when this all crashed.
We chatted for a bit about the sandwich biz. I shared stories about how I was struggling to get the staff to give great service and do what needed to be done each day. I told her about how my boss could get things done in the shortterm being stern, and how my friendly, positive requests didn’t get much done in the long-term either. She listened, I talked, and eventually she said “Why not just do what we would have done at the pizza place? Get everyone together, talk about what’s happening now, share a vision of what could be happening, and gather ideas about how to get there together.” I hung up the phone, felt inspired, and sketched out some ideas.
Back in 2001, we didn’t talk about “organizational culture”—it hadn’t made the front pages of business magazines yet. But I realized the power of it as I started to work on changing the conditions for the team. I started sharing my vision for each shift, I paid attention to rewarding great behavior, I made it easy for them to recognize each other. We had a meeting focusing on what was working, what could be better, and how everyone contributed. After that, we created a chart with the commitments and vision, which we used at the start and end of every day to connect, remember, and recognize the work we did to turn things around. I was amazed to see formerly apathetic employees get involved in organizing our cleaning efforts—and even more surprised to see someone I had written off as notso- friendly start to receive positive comments on customer service. As conditions changed, the team improved. We started being more positive, more focused on working together, and better able to deliver results—like real, bottom-line results. All of this because we altered the conditions. We boosted our culture.
Having all the smart people in the room trying to analyze data, develop a strategic plan, and deciding who to “get on the bus” was misguided. The culture matters more than any other variable to get results. Great people in bad environments don’t do as well as they could in a great one. “Bad people” in great environments outperform expectations. To build a great business, focus on getting the conditions right.
As a keynote speaker and advisor, I work with organizations veering offcourse & help shape the culture of emerging brands. I’ve worked with tech companies, real estate firms, retailers, restaurants, health care businesses— and this stuff works. My focus is always on getting people to the table to figure out:
- What success looks like at some point in the future so there is clarity on vision—think of this like an organizational GPS
- How everyone agrees to play (that is, work) together to get there—core values type stuff
- The way you will keep score so everyone knows if progress is being made—just like in a sports game
- Key systems to help with consistently on things you will do often— customer service, hiring, leadership, etc.
Culture matters. Conditions create energy that drives results. If you want a creative team, pay attention to the culture. Want better customer service? Focus on the conditions that create a happy, inspired team. Sales need a boost? Get people involved, share information, gather ideas, and work together to plan a new way forward. Culture is a powerful force that determines not only the individual efforts but the collective behavior that makes things happen. Remember the lesson of my Grandma: together is better.
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