Old Man

When Actions Don’t Match Words

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We are unfolding the 5 dimensions of the “Identity as Culture” model through this series of parables that bring culture to light through fiction. “Origin” in the Identity as Culture framework is captured by the questions: What is the source of our company’s cultural identity–“shared, implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions?” From where do we get our sense of who we are?

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, sanctioned as a company-approved 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 his 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 and just shy of a full pension. He was angry, angry enough to have 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 posting that morning, and knew it would not be long before a number of Wallender stalwarts heard the news of Billy’s dismissal, whether over their morning coffee in the company towns or through other means. “Vera and a handful of others probably already know,” he thought. Vera and a group of other long-term employees, including Billy, had a longstanding card game on the first Wednesday of the month – which happened to be just yesterday.

Vera had heard the full story and had seen the tides of emotion buffet her long-time friend as they all grasped for the reprieve that their usually jovial game produced before, almost in unison, giving up on the game only a few hands in so they could commiserate with their friend. The cover of official protocol was what seemed to sting Billy most, and punctuated the whole messy and confusing affair with the air of indignity. As if the dismissal itself wasn’t enough, management had conveyed the news with a cold, impersonal and unsigned letter.  Vera knew that Alex Wallender, the founder she had known for years before his passing 10 years earlier, would have never have wanted his company run this way.

Jamie knew it too. 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 by (or more appropriately, in) its founder. Alex Wallender had simply lived out a clear and deeply held consistency of action and belief system that had become the basis of the 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. Wallender’s was losing its way.

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 lately, 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 what if a few Billys got letters of termination? Wallender’s didn’t owe him a job. And it wasn’t like he was volunteering anyway. It was nothing personal, just business. Or, on reflection, it may have extended a little bit beyond “just business”. His follow up call with Billy after the dismissal had rattled him a bit. He had expected all the bluster about age discrimination and disloyalty, but he wasn’t sure what Billy meant by “in violation of company culture?” Alec recalled that his HR representative hadn’t even mentioned the subject of the cultural impact when they were discussing the terminations.

With a sigh, Jamie Westover leaned back from the desk. In many ways, since joining the company, he had taken on with gusto the mission to codify the unrecorded but deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors that guided the company’s actions since its early days. And yet the whole saga involving Billy suggested that the goal, which the small team he had assembled believed they were getting closer to accomplishing, remained 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.

So what had happened? The guidelines were clear and yet the company was adrift. Why?

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. Jamie was sure that the documents the HR team had worked on captured the right words, but he was beginning to come to a fearsome realization: they just didn’t match the way most people in the company behaved anymore.

And Jamie knew that actions and decisions are what make corporate culture real. “For a healthy culture to hold fast to its origins,” he thought, picturing a sailboat fastened to its mooring, “it must be actively stewarded; tied through a legacy of chosen, consistent and courageous habitual actions.”

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.

Going about this whole personnel issue the right way wouldn’t have cost much—even on a company-wide basis. Jamie knew 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.

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