Beth Nilssen
August 26, 2015 / Great Advice

Focusing on product and people leads to success

Company cultures and workplace environment have been hot topics in the blogosphere lately, largely because of a New York Times article about the work culture at Amazon. The article described an organization “obsessed” with putting the customer first, driven employees competing to innovate, and a culture that values thinking outside the box.

The Times reporters also described instances of shocking indifference to employee hardships such as illness or a death in the family, exhausting working regimes of up to 85 hours a week, and personnel feedback (some of it secret) so harsh that many employees cry at their desks.

What makes the article relevant beyond Amazon is the belief that the internet retail giant is at the forefront of a workplace trend that’s spreading: the use of data to evaluate workers’ performance.

“Amazon … has just been quicker in responding to changes than the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously…. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

Since the article was published, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has written that he “doesn’t recognize” the Amazon described in the article, and directed employees to tell him directly if they experience any of the worst abuses the article chronicles. Former and current Amazonians have taken to LinkedIn and other blog sites to either confirm or counter the accuracy of the article, and dozens of business leaders have weighed in with their opinions.

Several of us—Rhoda and others—have written here from time to time about Great Clips’ workplace environment, and the importance of defining and living our corporate values. Those characteristics are, we hope, tightly woven into the fabric of our organization, an irreplaceable part of who we are as a company—and a community.

But it’s common wisdom: An organization’s values cannot be—as a Times’ source said—“a pretty poster on the lunch room wall” if they are to remain meaningful. So I’m taking this opportunity to write again about the values we hold dear at Great Clips’ corporate offices and that we hope are embraced by Great Clips’ franchisees. And I’m going to share an insightful LinkedIn blog I came across that takes an interesting approach to analyzing corporate cultures.

First, I don’t disagree with the first (or even most) of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, outlined on its website, including these:

Customer Obsession
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

We’re completely on-board with that notion. We say it all the time: “Everything we do here ripples all the way to the customer. The core of our values is the knowledge and the belief that every single interaction affects the customer.”

And Great Clips franchisees are encouraged to use data to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their salons and the customer experience they deliver—everything from the length of wait times to the number of haircuts performed on a daily or even hourly basis. Data is an increasingly valuable tool in almost every industry, and it has been essential to our recent growth and success.

Here are two more Amazon principles that I can relate to:

Earn Trust
Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing…

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

As a franchise organization, we know there is going to be debate—yes, even disagreement—among franchisees, and between franchisees and the home office. In fact, we believe it’s what has made Great Clips an industry leader—we are always looking for ways to be better in everything we do. But we also know that we are stronger when we treat each other respectfully and act as one voice, one brand.

Our corporate values begin with this statement: “At Great Clips, strong relationships are at the heart of our individual and company success. The relationships we build with each other and our franchisees are grounded in our core values.”

And our first core value is: “We are kind.”

I don’t have any way of knowing how Amazon’s leaders put their principles into action. In a company with 150,000 employees, I’m sure there is a bit of a bell curve at play. I do know, from personal experience and conversations with many successful Great Clips franchisees, that places where workers feel respected and valued are happier places—not only for employees, but also for customers.

Among the several insightful pieces I have read about the Times’ article, one sticks out for its general analysis of workplace traits. Rita J. King is co-director of Science House, and a strategist who specializes in the development of collaborative workplace cultures. In her piece on LinkedIn Pulse, King writes about Bezos’ belief that “harmony is often overvalued in the workplace—that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas.”

King makes the very valid point that valuing disagreement is not as simple as it seems. The ability to disagree “is one of those ‘soft skills’ that are really the most difficult. Some cultures foster an environment of candor, and some don’t.”

“Those that foster candor usually fail to help people deliver it in a way that won’t alienate or hurt colleagues, or help people recover quickly and move on. Those environments that foster harmony above all else usually don’t know how to productively disagree.”

The italics are mine. The ability to disagree or give valuable but critical feedback isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. Sometimes it has to be taught. Leaders teach by example and, when necessary, through conversation.

“Companies can both make a profit and care about the human beings who help them achieve it,” writes King. “It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.”

King finishes with an insight I think we can all take to heart, one which I believe Great Clips does its best to embrace and embody—that developing a successful business by focusing on profit and people isn’t a “utopian fantasy.” It’s not only possible; it’s also the right thing to do.

Beth Nilssen By Beth Nilssen on August 26, 2015
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