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Culture: What a difference it makes!

The Retail Management Workshop

Having worked for several prominent retail organizations I have seen the impact of both positive and negative cultures on the workforce, the customers and, of course, the success of the business. Have no doubt whatsoever, the head of the organization dictates, through words and actions, what the culture will be. I want to tell you about the incredible culture created by a CEO, and a gentleman, Iíll call Sam.

For three years, I had the opportunity to work for the company that this man headed up  before he decided to sell his successful enterprise to a large, old school retailer. We were all very happy for him. This sale was going to mean a lot more time for he and his wife to travel and generally enjoy life after a lot of years of hard work and dedication to their business. We were saddened to be losing such a great leader but we knew he deserved the rest and we wished him well.

Those three years were perhaps the most rewarding and educational years of my entire career, one that spans over twenty years. The company was managed in such a way that  you had no choice but to feel like an important part of it. No employee was ever treated like a number, unworthy of receiving up to date communication on what was happening within the company. The executive were always aware of the impact their actions would have on store personnel and customers. In this company everyone understood where, and by whom, sales were made and every effort was made to include input from the field whenever important decisions were being made that would affect employees or customers.

The man I speak of did not always have a successful company on his hands. At one time, as I understand, the company had been on the brink of failure. He, and his loyal employees managed to save it. It was quite a feat, requiring dedication, a new direction and a new way of being. Sam did many, many things to move his company in the right direction. To detail all of them would require a book, which I hope he will write some day, and a lot more information than I have available to me. I did not know this man as well as some of my colleagues did but I know, for certain, that he is a man with integrity. If he says it, you can take it to the bank.

By the time I came on board the company was doing very well. A brand new culture had been built. Thatís rightÖbuilt. Culture is something you build with every word you say and every action you take. A positive culture does not come about by accident. It takes a lot of soul searching and checking with people and just when you think you have it all figured out you have to check again. It takes the ability and the willingness to know and admit that you donít know everything and you donít have all the answers. It takes a desire to get input and feedback from the people affected by a given situation. It takes the guts to take action to fix something thatís not working. It takes coaching and loyalty and lending a hand to those who need it. It takes understanding that people donít make mistakes because they want to. It takes a firm, but kind, word to someone who messes up. It takes the ability to foster a feeling of belonging among those who are in your business family. Sam certainly did all of these things and he worked tirelessly to ensure his executive and management teams did also.

Store Managers were invited, and expected, to have an impact on the whole organization and not just their own store. If she made a request there were only two acceptable outcomes. 1) The request was granted and a date for completion was to be given or 2) The request was not granted and the reasons were explained.  It did not stop there if the Store Manager was not satisfied with the outcome. She was never expected to settle for an answer that did not satisfy her. The process that ensued was one of open and on-going dialogue until either the Store Manager became convinced and was satisfied with the reason that her request could not be granted or she managed to convince her Manager that the request should be granted. It wasnít over just because someone said it was over.

And the company flourished. Following the news of the sale of the company, most field management stayed in place for some time. Unfortunately, as with all good things, the culture we had come to know and love ended. It was like a period of mourning. Executive and management moved on to new challenges and the business went straight down, at least for the short term.

The new owners will never understand what happened. There will be reasons and excuses but they all amount to nothing. The truth, that they probably do not even realize, is that the great culture was run out of town; obviously deemed unnecessary and not worth saving. Itís that simple and itís such a shame.

Those of us who lived in Samís environment clearly understand what happened when he and his carefully chosen team were no longer at the helm.

The key to sustaining a successful business is to RESPECT the culture Ė after all, the business is secretly thriving on it; OBSERVE carefully, for a time, and then ACT appropriately.

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