All I Needed Was a Lamp

We recently helped our youngest daughter get settled into her final year of university which we hope will be the last time we set up a student, having done it for six consecutive Septembers. For complicated reasons, every year was a new place to live so we are well-practiced with purchasing and setting up all the necessities of student life in distant cities.

We had two items left to buy – a desk lamp and a storage unit, staple items in 'big-box' stores. In just such a store I easily found the lighting department but not a light of the right size with sufficient wattage. Seeing an 'associate', notable by his distinct colored apron emblazoned with his name, I approached Kevin. But he was busy on his mobile phone, speaking animatedly to a friend about their weekend plans. Once I realized his call was not work related, I had no hesitation in interrupting him. I was persistent but it took a lot to finally get him to finish his call and turn his attention to my search for a suitable lamp. As it turned out, there were none in the store.

Undeterred, I asked him where I might find the storage units. He waved vaguely muttering that they might be "around aisle 25 or 26". At the suggested location I found another employee, engrossed in a stack of paper. He did not even raise his head when I asked for help, gesturing instead towards the nearest aisle where I found a mangle of up-ended items strewn everywhere. It was the end of a long and tiring day; If the storage units were there, I did not have the energy to pick through the mess to find what I needed.

Because we were in an unfamiliar city we had no idea where else to go. That was when in desperation I suggested we try to locate another well-known big-box store. With the help of Google, my Blackberry and our GPS I was soon at the front door of this massive retailer.

I approached the first person I saw, a young man wrestling buggies. He immediately stopped to cheerfully and carefully explain where to find the lamps and storage units. Minutes later I triumphantly left the store with not one, but 2 perfect lamps, lightbulbs and the exact storage unit I had been seeking.

The employees in the two stores were both of the same age, were actually receiving similar wages and their employers are huge companies with a global presence. What made one employee so helpful and the two at the first store so disinterested? While it might be something inherent in the young man at the second store, based on what I noticed, I believe culture and leadership are the more likely explanations.

Culture is varied described as the implicit knowledge of 'how things are done around here' or the consistent set of values, attitudes and norms of an organization. What is most important about corporate culture is the fact that it has a powerful effect on performance and the long-term success of an organization.

As frustrated as I was by my experience in the first store, I sensed that there was little value in trying to express my concerns to the manager. Everything in that store suggested that people were dispirited and just going through the motions of their job, including including the store manager. The culture was on full-view and it was not a pretty picture.

What picture does your corporate culture paint?


Walk the talk: Culture and leadership are inextricably entwined. Leaders not only have a significant role in the development and nurturing of the culture, they are also the visible face of the culture. To paraphrase Gandhi, as the leader you must be the culture you want to see in your organization. Participatory and empowering leadership behaviors will be reflected throughout your group resulting in improved performance and innovation.

Customer service starts at home: How you do anything is how you do everything. We all interact with others in our organizations; treat your colleagues like customers you care about to create a culture that values ​​excellence. Just as social contagion theory suggests that good behaviors can be catching amongst friends, behaviors that create trust, collaboration and respect can be infectious among collections.

Overcome the status quo: Cultures that encourage an external orientation are more innovative, manage change more successfully, accept new challenges, encourage risk-taking and respond more effectively to changes in both the internal and external environment. That's a big pay-off for making sure you pay attention to the world around you.
Cultures arrise because of what leaders focus attention on, what they value, how they react and most importantly how they behave. It's not what you say that matters most, it's what you do. What do your behaviors say about your corporate culture?

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