Friday, May 15, 2009

Why Culture is Important

By S. Max Brown

Tom Long recently had a client that asked why culture is so important. Specifically, they wanted examples of organizations that were suffering because of their culture. Immediately, I thought of Home Depot and their former CEO Bob Nardelli. During his tenure – or his reign of terror – the stock went sideways and they lost market share to LOWES. He cut out recognition, railed on his employees, and slashed expenses in every direction. At the same time, they lost huge talent (100% of 100+ leaders left), and they started having trouble recruiting new talent.

In the end, Bob’s efforts to cut costs really wiped out morale, engagement, and retention. Their reputation got out in the market and qualified people stayed away.When he was fired, Newsweek magazine reported that employees were cheering in the stores. Since his departure, the new CEO has reinstituted many recognition efforts (including hand written thank you cards to store employees).

In the aftermath of this whole snafu, Inc magazine (April 2007) asked a panel of experts the following question: “Bob Nardelli’s departure left customers, shareholders, and employees of the Atlanta-based retail chain wondering whether it will ever recapture the entrepreneurial zeal that the co-founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank worked so hard to develop. How can the company go about refurbishing its good name?”

Tom Sternberg, the founder and former CEO of Staples and a partner at Highland Capital in Boston answered by saying:“First thing the company has to do is hang Bernie Marcus’s and Arthur Blank’s pictures in the lobby. They’re the two greatest entrepreneurs in American business history. They built the single best CULTURE of any business that I’m familiar with, and they built an extremely people-focused business in regard to both Home Depot’s customers and, even more important, its employees. Now you have Nardelli, this brash, abrasive egomaniac who destroyed the terrific culture in the name of efficiency, and that’s going to take decades to fix. I would try to hire back many of the phenomenal business leaders that Home Depot lost because of Nardelli. These are the folks who made Home Depot such a unique brand. I’d ask them to help put back in place the people-focused culture in order to get the company back to its prior standard of operating excellence.”

We all know that culture is important, and that is exactly why our business is so critical. Recognition drives cultures of excellence, and provides opportunities for people to appreciate one another. When you think of the havoc Bob created at Home Depot, it is easy to see how recognition is a crucial component in building a people-focused culture that really produces results. Are their costs associated with supporting a people-focused / recognition culture? Of course! Are their costs for destroying a culture? Ask Bob Nardelli or the hundreds of people he ran out of the company. Which strategy actually gets results? Is there any question?

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