By Steve Moran

Twice in my life the death of someone I didn’t know rocked me. It happened because that person had a profound impact on my life, on how I look at the world, how I look at leadership. The first was 17 years ago when Mike Yaconelli, an irreverent, passionate youth ministry theologian, teacher, and thought leader died in a single-car traffic accident that was likely caused by a heart attack.

The other was announcement that Tony Hsieh, the revolutionary, visionary founder of Zappos Shoes died at age 46. The circumstances are still a bit of a mystery, but he is someone who showed the world that customer service could be amazing. Even when selling something as pedestrian as shoes online. He also showed us that the foundation of customer service is treating team members like they matter. Like they are the most important part of the organization.

He led by words and by example, manning the phones alongside frontline workers during busy holiday seasons.

The Big Question

Tony is not alone in demonstrating what great cultures can look like. Other examples include Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger, Ritz Carlton, Southwest Airlines, and WD-40. So we know it can be done, on the high end and the low end.  

And yet . . .

Most corporate cultures today, including senior living, range from just okay, to pretty terrible. We have examples of what works. And, while Tony was this huge outside example of leadership, where one might say “I could never be like that”, I bet most of you could not name the CEOs of those other organizations with great cultures.

So here is the question:

Why is it that most organizations fail to have great cultures?

This One Thing

There is one thing that stands out and it is completely obvious and not at all obvious at the same time. The leaders of these organizations are obsessed with culture, though even that is not quite right. They are actually obsessed with giving their team members a great work experience. And even more broadly than that, a great life.

They actually don’t worry all that much about profits. Because somewhere along the way, they figured out that obsessing over people and culture is the surest path to high profits. Their people, their culture, is their “North Star”.

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Backward, Rightward Thinking

If a hotshot, bottom-line-focused CEO were to walk into Zappos, or any of those other companies, they would find massive inefficiencies that, when fixed, would result in an immediate increase in the bottom line; such as taking away perks, and other opportunities. And I promise if they did that, there would be a substantial increase in profits . . . in the short run.

But in doing this, they would destroy the culture and, over time, profits would crash.

Senior Living

I have talked to many many senior living leaders about how big senior living companies purchased small family-run organizations that had a great culture and high occupancy. When evaluating the purchase, looking at the existing expenses, they see massive opportunities to make the community “more efficient”. The sale happens, costs are “right-sized”, and the bottom line soars. Then over time, employees are less enthusiastic, residents are less enthusiastic, and that fantastic bottom line begins to sag, and sag some more.

And leadership is baffled because all they did was bring things into alignment with well-studied, proven ratios.

Here is my question, it is the legacy question from what Tony Hsieh built. What do you obsess about as a leader? Does it need adjustment?