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How Famous Is Your Culture?
by Jackie & Kevin Freiberg

A few years ago, we drove into the parking lot of Southwest Airlines and saw a young man in front of headquarters holding a sign that read, "Will Work For Peanuts!" He certainly appeared willing to do whatever it took to become a part of Southwest's nutty culture.

On another occasion -- this one a San Diego Business Journal event to launch the publication of our book Nuts! -- a clever pilot put a placemat with his resume printed on it on Herb Kelleher's place at the table. His hope? To land a job flying for Southwest. Not surprisingly, Kelleher noticed, and assured the young man that he would at least get an interview.

Think about it: If people are working that creatively just to get an interview, imagine what they'll do once they're a part of your organization. Even more important in the long term is that companies create what we call branded cultures—places where the culture is as well known as the company’s products and services. Branded cultures are famous for being sought out by extremely talented people who both want to work and choose to stay. Having a branded culture is critical to winning the upcoming war for talent (see our article on GUTSY Leaders Anticipate the Future and Hang on Tight to Talent) and establishing yourself as a formidable competitor.

Your people are the ambassadors of the culture. They are a business' most visible and powerful sales and public-relations tools, much more so than any new advertising campaign, logo or slogan. Companies with branded cultures aren’t filled with merely "satisfied" employees. They are filled with people who are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their work—people who are evangelistic about their companies.

Would you be content to create a culture in your workplace that simply satisfies people? We hope not! Gone are the days when employee satisfaction was the target to hit. It's time to get rid of those surveys that measure employee satisfaction -- or, at the very least, rename them. We believe employees need to be far more than satisfied.

Consider this: Are satisfied employees likely to go beyond what's required to serve colleagues or customers? Are satisfied employees likely to strive to drive costs out of the business without compromising quality, service, or safety? Are satisfied employees likely to engage with their hearts and minds to come up with innovative approaches to doing business? Are satisfied employees likely to be great ambassadors for your company, your brand?

Instead of a satisfaction survey, we have created an opinion survey and loyalty index that enables our clients to measure all aspects of their culture. The objective here is to create a culture that inspires a healthy level of fanaticism about the company and motivates people to become 100 percent engaged in growing the business.

What are you doing to become an employer of choice? In other words, how are you creating a branded culture that inspires turned-on, passionate and loyal, rather than merely satisfied, employees?

We know from experience that when your employees are dedicated to their work and their workplace, they will enthusiastically showcase your brand. And predictably, customers and investors respond whenever a culture becomes so attractive and powerful that it constitutes a brand, in and of itself. For example, Starbucks is famous for having one of the best work environments in the world for part-time employees. Southwest Airlines is world-renown for being a fun, whacky and irreverent place to work. The people of USAA are fanatical about serving those who serve. Whole Foods is known as a place where fully informed employees are given inordinate amounts of freedom and autonomy. In each of these organizations it’s more than the product or service that generates interest; it’s the company’s purpose and values, as well. The people, the work environment, the purpose and values, all contribute to branding the culture. Culture then assumes a life of its own and becomes synonymous with the brand.

Bottom line: A branded culture separates an organization from its competition and places it in a league of its own. Famous cultures create and reflect emotional, moral, and social bonds among people. Potential employees seem to be saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes to work here no matter what you sell.” Customers are emphatic about not doing business with someone else. And communities say, “We are extremely proud to have this company in our area because of who they are, how they treat their people and what they stand for.” For example, the ice cream purveyor, Ben & Jerry's, is famous for tithing its revenues to environmental causes. For any customer sympathetic to such issues, spending a few dollars at Ben & Jerry's buys more than delicious ice cream, it also makes a small contribution to the health of the planet.

Richard Branson, Founder and CEO of Virgin Airlines as well as a host of other cool companies, has built a culture known for being wild at heart. People who are adventurous and entrepreneurial are attracted to it because they know the culture encourages risk taking, innovation, and flamboyance. Got an idea for a new company? At Virgin you have the freedom to pursue it without the fear of repercussion if it fails. That’s because Virgin knows if it unleashes enough creative ideas, over time the company is eventually going to have a blockbuster. We think Branson gets it when he says, “High standards of service depend on having staff who are proud of the company. This is why the interests of our people come first. In the end, the long-term interests of the shareholders are actually damaged by giving them superficial short-term priority.”

A branded culture attracts the "right" kind of talent -- people who are drawn to the culture as well as to the work. Since it establishes its own reputation, recruitment is easier because potential hires know much more about the company than just what it produces. Southwest Airlines averages over 200,000 applications a year from which the company hires approximately 6,000 people. Because their culture is so famous and attractive, they are able to be incredibly selective about who they let in to the family. How famous is your culture?

If you’re committed to building a world famous culture and looking for a road map to make it happen, next month we will outline some of the major questions you need to address.

Copyright Jackie & Kevin Freiberg. All Rights Reserved.

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