When Actions Don’t Match Words
Chris Houstonon 21 November, 2014 at 04:11
We are unfolding the 5 dimensions of the “Identity as Culture” model through this series of parables that bring culture to light through fiction.
Jamie Westover sat in stunned silence, reading, but not really absorbing, the email on his screen. How was it possible that this could be considered? Or actually happen? And, worst of all, as a company sanctioned outcome?
Jamie had only been at Wallender’s for four years, but that was more than enough time in the executive ranks to know that the actions described in this email would have been unthinkable for the founder, even taking into account a well-earned reputation for being aggressive when it came to business deals. Fine. Business sometimes requires hard-knuckled tactics, but what he read wasn’t just tactically stupid, it was strategically at odds with what he knew this company to stand for.
At the same time, but in another part of the continent, Billy Anton was still fuming about the same thing, but for him this was personal. Just a few days ago, Billy had been let go from Wallender’s after years of service at only a few years shy of a full pension. He was angry, angry enough to have just yesterday done something that for most of his career, he would have considered downright disloyal. With profound regret and seething disappointment, Billy methodically documented his recent dismissal on Facebook for all the world to see, not to mention everyone in the many communities where Wallender’s operated.
Billy had been an integral part of the growing fresh fruit business as it rode the wave of consumer desire for natural, wholesome food, first in its home state of California, and soon thereafter, as it became a household name throughout most of the English-speaking world. And now, after nearly 40 years, Wallender’s had let him go.
Jamie Westover had seen the Facebook postings that morning, and knew it would not be long before a number of Wallender stalwarts heard the news of Billy’s dismissal, whether during their morning shopping in the company towns, or, as in the case of Vera, another long term employee, around the bridge table, where she visited with Billy each month. Just last night, Vera had seen the tides of emotion buffet her long-time friend. It wasn’t just the dismissal; it was the cold, impersonal and unsigned letter that announced it. The cover of official protocol was what stung Billy most, and punctuated the whole messy and confusing affair with the air of indignity. Vera didn’t think Alex Wallender, the founder she had known for years before his passing, would have ever wanted the company run this way.
Wallender’s was losing its way, and Jamie knew it. The business was challenged, to be sure, as new competitors threatened their retail and wholesale market positions. But the malaise was deeper than that. For nearly 50 years, Wallender’s had been rooted in a simple belief system, embodied in (or more appropriately, by) the founder, who simply lived out a clear, and deeply held company culture. Since Mr. Wallender’s death, a number of “professional” CEOs had tried to document and codify the ineffable culture that the founder had fostered, but it never took. Jamie knew the words of the founder were still present, even repeated, but there was no life to them anymore.
Alec Jacobs heard many stories about the founder when he had arrived three years ago, long after Alex Wallender had died. He joined up with a vibrant but slowly declining company that needed a good shake from its lethargy if it was to compete successfully in the only available “growth” markets. Cost rationalization was an essential step and while he had seen the values statements that proclaimed, “respect for individuals”, he was an individual, too, and damn it, he wanted his bonus. So the headcount target would be met, and Billy’s group was an obvious target. Their productivity had fallen off late, and a reduction in force was essential. In fact, it was the only reasonable course of action.
Personally, Alec thought it was time for real change and the sooner the better. So if a few Billys got letters of termination so what? Wallender’s didn’t owe him a job. And it wasn’t like he was volunteering anyway. It was nothing personal, just business. Well, maybe not all of it. The call with Billy after the dismissal had rattled him a bit. He had expected all the bluster about discrimination and loyalty, but he wasn’t sure what Billy meant by “in violation of company culture?” His HR representative hadn’t been much help there.
With a sigh, Jamie leaned back from the desk. In many ways, since joining the company, Jamie had taken on with gusto the mission to codify the unrecorded but deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors that guided the company’s actions since the days of its founding. And yet the whole saga involving Billy suggested that the goal, which they had believed they were getting closer to, was still a long way off. The recently declared “leadership guidelines” should have given ample clarity about how Wallender’s leaders were expected to think and act. The language and tone of the guidelines had even been validated as “dead on” by key long serving employees who had known the founder well, and HR had even managed to incorporate them into performance reviews and recruitment criteria.
So what happened? The guidelines were clear and yet the company was adrift. Why? The documents the HR team had worked on captured the right words, but, as Jamie began to realize with dread, they just didn’t match the way most people in the company behaved anymore.
Corporate cultures do not spring from words, hopes, or even powerful ideas, but from the relentless habits of people who make hard choices demonstrating a long obedience in the same direction. [Tweet That!] Actions and decisions are what make corporate culture real. For a healthy culture to hold fast to its origins, like a sailboat to its mooring, it must be actively stewarded; tied through a legacy of chosen, consistent and courageous habitual actions.
Doing this the right way wouldn’t have cost much—even on a company-wide basis. It was time to send his colleagues a wake-up call. If Wallender’s was going to act on its stated cultural intentions, then it was up to people—people like him—to do so.
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.