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  • Writer's pictureJames Massa

Culture is a Verb

Culture is the foundation on which Mission is executed and Vision is realized. However, “culture” is not a noun. Culture is a verb.

Three John’s, John Nordstrom, John Morgridge and John Chambers, CEO/Chairman rock stars in their industries, taught this lesson the same way. They lived it out in front of their people. Two showed me how.

John Nordstrom is legendary for instilling the culture of customer service. Books have literally been written on such while countless stories abound. If you google the “Nordstrom tires” you’ll get nearly 2 million results detailing how Nordstrom exchanged snow tires it had never sold and never carried to ensure a customer was satisfied. Although may disagree, the over 10 million hits when you google “Nordstrom Excellent Customer Service” indicates that many of the stories are true and that the common thread is that to John Nordstrom the culture of customer service was a verb that he lived out daily.

My personal experience with the other two Johns of my introduction has to do with the culture of “frugality and value”

Despite soaring profits and cash, as Cisco crossed the $2B yearly revenues mark, the culture John Morgridge wanted was one of frugality and value. When John was CEO and came to Atlanta to meet with Coca Cola, Delta, and others, he stayed downtown, not at the Marriott Marquis, but at the Red Roof Inn. I kid you not. The only compromise he made was after someone was shot in a nearby location. I pleaded with him to stay elsewhere and he agreed to stay at a hotel which had only inside access to the rooms.

Culture is a verb. Lesson lived out. John only needed a place to sleep and he expected me to be conscientious of expenses.

Fast forwarding 4 years, John Chambers is at the helm of Cisco visiting me as VP of US Federal organization in Washington DC to engage the highest level of government customers. We have a large event scheduled at the Marriott Westfields, a resort hotel now surrounded by urban sprawl. I have a new division Director with me as we escort John to check in. The front desk clerk says they are oversold and no rooms are available. I’m embarrassed. John politely asks if there is a suite or other room not normally rented to business travelers. The answer is a polite “No. I am sorry”, and they are going to walk John to another hotel, a Residence Inn, late in the evening, without any evening food services, about 5 miles away. I’m mortified.

Then I see the twinkle in John's eye. John is relishing in the opportunity to live out the culture of frugality and value. He graciously accepts the FREE ROOM, making a point to note such to us, and we take him over to what was adequate accommodations, but far below what I felt was appropriate.

Culture is a verb. Lesson lived out. John only needed a place to sleep and he expected me and my management team to be conscientious of expenses.

Postlude….Taking a page out of John Nordstrom's book of Customer Service, I grabbed the division Director who reported to me and we took the initiative to ask John what he wanted for dinner. As he settled in, we hurried over to a nearby restaurant and ordered a light salad with chicken. By “creative means” we were also able to provide John with what I recalled to be one of his favorite bar drinks. We delivered this personalized and unexpected room service with a combination of humility and flair. The event and meetings over the next few days went well. Later that week I implemented a policy that for all future executive/VIP visits, that someone would check in at the hotel for that person earlier in the day prior to their arrival so as to avoid the possibility of the oversold situation occurring.

All of us can stand up in front of our teams and say what the culture of the company is. However, those are nouns. Culture is a verb. You have to live out daily the culture you want your company or organization to have.

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