Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend time with the chief executive of one of America's most successful companies, a legendary organization known for its employee and customer satisfaction, as well as its financial performance. I attended the company's management conference, listened to various presentations about its culture and the extraordinary, homey, and sometimes slightly wacky practices that distinguish it from competitors.
Overwhelmed by the organization's simple and powerful behavioral philosophy, I asked the CEO a semi-rhetorical question. "Why in the world don't your competitors do any of this?" The CEO thought about it for a moment and said, "You know, I honestly believe they think it's beneath them."
And right away, I knew he was right.
After all, every one of those competitors, the vast majority of whom are struggling, knows exactly what this company does, how it works, and how much these actions have driven its financial success. More than a few books have chronicled the company's cultural approach. And yet no one tries to emulate it. In fact, based on numerous interactions I've had with employees who work for those competitors, I'd have to say their attitude is often dismissive, even derisive, toward this successful company and its enthusiastic employees.
Unconventional Activities That Work
To provide an example of the aforementioned innovative company's quirky practices would be to give away its identity, so let's look at some other businesses that operate on the same principle. A fast-food company I know, for instance, has remarkable customer loyalty, as well as unbelievable employee satisfaction and retention, especially compared with the majority of its competitors. The leaders and employees of the company attribute most of their success to the behavioral philosophy and attitude they've cultivated within the organization and the unconventional yet effective activities that result.
One example of that philosophy: The CEO shows up at new franchise openings, where he stays up all night with employees, playing musical instruments and handing out food to excited customers. Few CEOs would be happy, or even willing, to do things like this, but this executive relishes the opportunity. These, and other activities that most MBAs would call corny, are precisely what make that company unique.
This happens in the world of sports, as well. A well-known high school football team where I live ranks near the top of national polls every year. It plays the best teams in the country, many of them with bigger and more highly touted players—and beats them regularly. The secret to their success, more than any game strategy or weight-lifting regimen, comes down to the coach's philosophy about commitment and teamwork and the buy-in he gets from his players. That philosophy manifests itself in a variety of simple actions that speak to how the players treat one another on and off the field. For example, players pair up every week and exchange 3x5 cards with hand-written commitments around training and personal improvement—and then take responsibility for disciplining one another when those commitments aren't met.
Stooping to Silliness
And yet, whenever I explain this and similar practices of the team to other coaches who are curious about their success, I encounter that same dismissiveness. They give me a look that seems to say, "Listen, I'm not going to do that. It's silly. Just tell me something technical that I can use." As a result, few teams actually try to copy them.
Some skeptics might say, "Come on, they're successful because they're good at what they do." And they'd be right. Those organizations undoubtedly display extreme competence in their given fields. But plenty of other organizations are just as competent and don't achieve great levels of success. I honestly believe it's because they refuse to stoop and do the simple, emotional, homespun things that all human beings—employees, customers, players—really crave.
What's at the heart of this unwillingness? Pride. Although plenty of people in the world say they want to succeed, not that many are willing to humble themselves and do things that might seem unsophisticated. Essentially, they come to define success by what people think of them, rather than by what they accomplish—which is ironic, because they often end up losing the admiration of their employees and customers or fans.
The good news in all of this is that for those organizations that want to succeed more than they want to maintain some artificial sense of professionalism (whatever that means), great opportunity exists for competitive advantage and success. They can create a culture of performance and service and employee engagement, the kind that ensures long-term success like no strategy ever could. But only if they're willing to stoop down and be human, to treat their customers and one another in ways that others might find humbling.