You know what doesn’t work but we keep hoping it might? Grassroots culture!
The kind of culture where you want your employees to establish. The kind of culture that vendors keep telling you that you must have to be sustainable. The reality is a grassroots culture is mostly chaotic and differs wildly between managers, locations, etc.
The greatest work cultures that we can point to all come from a great leader deciding what culture they want, then living it! Completely living it! You can’t have this cool, flip flops, ping pong, and free beer culture, then your leader walks around all day in a suit and tie, sipping an $12 bottle of water. It will fail.
Case in point. T-Mobile was the #4 cell phone carrier in the U.S. It’s a super-competitive marketplace. In 2012 when the new CEO John Legere was hired, he looked and acted like every single big time CEO you see on Wall Street. Suit and tie, said all the right things, always under control.
The problem was, that was not going to get T-Mobile and their #4 culture to move up. So, he decided to make a change:
This would require T-Mobile to behave like a startup disrupting the industry run by giants AT&T and Verizon, who Legere dubbed “dumb and dumber.” He may have already been in his mid-50s, but he needed to look the part. He began experimenting with different combination of loud clothing options, eventually settling with long hair, a bright magenta T-Mobile T-shirt and accessories, and usually a black jacket of some kind.
Accompanying this came the penchant for dropping f-bombs and hurling no-holds-barred insults at the competition (which occasionally got out of hand as he pushed the boundaries).
“On my very first day at T-Mobile, I demanded that every time I spoke publicly to the company, all employees across the country would be invited to watch,” he said. Legere also initiated a stock program with employees, and made sure to not omit any performance details from his speeches to employees. He said he tells them, “Listen, if some of this doesn’t make sense to you, what should make sense is the reason I’m telling you — I respect you as an owner and as a partner and I’m going to tell you this all the time. Feel free to tune out.”
Legere also has a section in his calendar book that contains a color-coded list of how many times he’s visited each of T-Mobile US’s 18 major call centers. When we spoke, he was about to finish his fifth round of trips to each of them.
“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “I go in, they meet me outside, we take selfies as I stand like a piece of furniture, I tell them about how things are going — but most importantly, I say thank you and help them see that their behavior and their work has driven the culture of the company that’s changed the industry and the whole world. It’s a bit of a love affair.”
I know so many culture consultants will say it’s not about long hair and crazy clothing. I disagree. If a leader truly wants to change their culture, to whatever that vision is they have, they must live that vision 100%. They can’t fake it! You’re either all-in, or your culture continues to be flat and goes nowhere.
So many executives try and live two lives as leaders. The leader they believe the board and the public want to see, and the visionary leader they believe their employees want to see. Most of these folks fail. The ones who succeed are the ones who live one life as a leader. They’re the same person to their board and investors that they are to their employees.
It doesn’t take ping pong and snacks to make a great culture. It takes a great leader will to be 100% invested in a vision, and allow those around them to follow that vision with the same passion.