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BirdsEye View

high performance corporate culture

 During introductions at a recent Forum, one newcomer spoke of a previous employer he had.  He sounded both wistful and longing, and he clearly missed life at that company.  The ensuing conversation focused on winning corporate cultures.  It brought forth some salient points I’d like to share and comment on.

The company in question is no longer in existence.  It was acquired for a huge premium several years ago.  Here is how it was described by its alum, who was a low-to-middle level manager in the enterprise.

1. A complete campus.  Even before Silicon Valley perfected its “live-in” campus, this company offered day care, car service, broad food services, dry cleaning, a gift shop and other benefits to its employees.  There was no reason to leave the campus, and the benefits were of high quality. 

2. Bright, inviting buildings. (inside and out)  The work environment was well-lit, spacious and bright.  High ceilings and lots of natural light permeated the space. The grounds were meticulously landscaped, and attention to detail appeared everywhere.

3. Gamification galore.  The company went to great lengths to bring fun into daily drudgery by creating daily positive tension through games, challenges and symbolic prizes.  You were driven to do more because you wanted to win, even if the prize was inconsequential.  It was more about the competition and the opportunity to do your best.

4. Meaningful recognition.  One story shared at the meeting spoke to a recognition event for the best sales people in the company.  The CEO presided over the festivities, and, when the time came to unveil the grand prize, he acknowledged that three people could have won the prize.  “Alas”, he said, “I have in my hands the keys for only one red Grand-Am car”, and he proceeded to give the keys to one employee.  As everyone else’s heart sank, two more cars were brought forth – he gave cars to all three outstanding employees.  The impact of the story on the people in our meeting room was electrifying.  I can only imagine how it felt in a room full of hopeful employees.  The CEO didn’t follow the contest’s rules; he did the right thing.  The fairness principle could not have been demonstrated more clearly.  What a tremendous opportunity to show the entire team that Management will do the right thing, and that Management cares.

5. Collective pride.  Employees felt they were part of something worthwhile, a customer-centric company whose ideal was “make the customer feel special at every touch point, every interaction”.  The company motto was “relentless pursuit of positive customer experiences”, a goal that resonated with almost all employees.  Phone bank employees, for example, truly felt that the company’s success depended on whether you were able to satisfy the particular customer you had on the phone.

6. A CEO that personified the ideals.  The CEO was a meticulous person, incredibly detail-oriented, with low tolerance for sloppiness.  Through his “walking around” practice he’d see the reality of the company he was running, and by picking up small bits of paper off the floor or answering a phone ringing on someone’s desk after two rings he modeled the expected behavior.  Every little thing mattered to create the right experience for both employees and customers, and he was committed to demonstrating this on a daily basis.

7. A perception of caring.  Employees throughout the company felt that they mattered; that Management wanted them to stay and be happy and successful at work.  It’s such a difficult feeling to inculcate, yet, at this company, it was a palpable feeling that unified the workforce – WE MATTER.

8. Willingness to be different.  In a customer-centric company, the constant question asked was, “How can we be different and provide the customer with a better experience?”.  Even the collections department, notorious for an adverse customer relationship, chose a different path.  They understood that, once they get involved, the customer is highly stressed, so sincere empathy was an important element to their approach.  The company found different ways to show both customers and employees its appreciation, both of which became central to executing on its motto and value proposition.

In addition to all these and other wonderful attributes, the company had incredibly high expectations from its entire team, and folks felt close to a breaking point all too often.

1. Extremely high expectations.  Behaviors, leading and lagging indicators, were all measured and reported frequently.  They were to lead to exceptional corporate-level results, which they did.  But such high expectations come with a heavy price:  daily anxiety, uncertainty about job retention, and overall emotional exhaustion.

2. Creating unnecessary adversity.  Management believed in Baptism By Fire, and created additional pressure by placing obstacles to test employee resilience, especially prior to promotions.  An example that was shared was how a newly promoted VP made an important presentation for the first time to the leadership team.  The slides didn’t work, so, instead of giving the person an opportunity to collect themselves and figure out the technical issue, the CEO asked them to leave the room as they are obviously not even able to work the PowerPoint projector.  This, in my mind, borders on cruelty.  Interestingly, the person collected themselves, returned to the room and made their presentation successfully.  But is “all well that ends well” really true here?  I’m not sure.

3. If you quit you will not be hired back.  As we all know, the grass often seems greener in other pastures, and even good employees leave for other, seemingly better, opportunities.  Many return, disappointed, to the original company after realizing how good life was before they left.  In this company desertion was a one way street.

4. Building resilience.  As the song says, “If I Can Make It There I’ll Make It Everywhere”.  This company was not headquartered in New York but it might as well have been.  There is a unique sense of satisfaction from overcoming huge obstacles time and time again, from exceeding your Big, Hairy, Audacious goals and from realizing you can do even more than you thought was possible.  But the price for this gratification is high.

This company’s culture combined seemingly contradictory elements to yield a unique experience to both internal and external customers.  It adhered without exception to its goal – the relentless pursuit of positive customer experiences – and offered a work environment that should support effective execution of this goal.  At the same time, there were oppressive aspects to the corporate culture, which must have scarred some people.  As I reflected upon this unusual combination of values, I couldn’t help but notice how nostalgic our attendee was about this difficult work environment.  When asked, he said he will implement a less stressful version of this culture in his new place of employment.

My quandary is:  Can you be a high-performing, do-the-right-thing, zero-defect, customer-focused company without the immense performance pressure imposed on the employees?  Is it possible to achieve the desired work environment and the special satisfaction that comes from being the very best and conquering all without a sense of oppression by many of the rank-and-file?

I am not sure what the answer is, and would love to get your perspective on this issue.