This Strange Life We Lead

Editor's Note: I just finished a fascinating assignment. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

The 2016 Presidential Election
I just wrapped up a rather offbeat assignment into the world of workplace culture. One of the best things that came out of this engagement was not necessarily the results, but, rather, the unintended consequences and their relationship to the recent Presidential election.

Big Box Retailing
I happened to meet a Senior Vice President for the Rocky Mountain Region of a big box retailer at a social function recently, and we started talking about workplace culture and its importance. I shared my experience in assisting businesses and organizations in creating the culture they wanted to create or change and my observations on same. He was intrigued and suggested we talk further during the following week.

We met at his office, and he expressed his concerns about how he felt that the company had "lost its way" and had become stagnant since its charismatic founder had died some years before. As we talked, I asked him how interested he really was in finding out the reason for this occurrence and shared that, in my experience, most of the ills that any business suffered from stemmed from leadership and rolled downhill from there. 

I proposed that we first perform a test sample of two stores in his region and that one would be the most recent one to open and the other to be the oldest, which turned out to be one that had opened in the past six months and the other had been in operation for 26 years. (One of the factors I was looking for was for was the impact of the founder on the most recently opened facility and the other that had opened during the founders tenure as the captain of the ship.) We landed on five success factors and planned to see if, upon the completion of my work, if these five elements would be replicable in further work with a broader sampling of stores in the future.

Here's How We Did It
To make this a truly blind study of these two stores, I suggested a methodology pioneered by anthropologists called a "participant observation study" to measure the culture through the five critical success factors. To do this, I would apply for jobs at these two facilities and go through the entire hiring process and, go to work for a brief time at each of the two locations, to which he agreed, and I got busy.

Getting Hired!
As a consultant since 1990, I haven't applied for a job since 1987, and it certainly was a strange process. Going through the company's website, I selected a few jobs that I thought I could do and demonstrate some experience for (the VP coached me a little on which jobs they had difficulty hiring for, too). Within 48 hours I received calls from both stores asking me to come in to interview for two different positions, in one store as a night restocker of merchandise and in the other as a sales floor assistant. Within 24 hours, I was offered positions at both locations and started the process of drug testing and criminal background checking, but neither references were asked for nor required. Following that, I accepted their offers after some negotiation on hourly pay and the first of two 8-hour orientations were scheduled for the next day at each store. (I also found it odd that there was no communication between the two stores in the same region that they had hired the same person twice!)

The Scarcity Mindset
The first alarm bells went off for me immediately during these almost identical orientation sessions which may go to a fundamental flaw in the company - the vision. When the first store in this chain opened in 1985, the quality of life in the workplace wasn't anywhere to be found in any business bibles or any M.B.A. curriculums. It was all about quantity back then, and many business leaders were only worshipping the almighty dollar in their approach. Virtually unknown in the US at that time, W. Edwards Deming's approach to business had made its most significant contribution in Japan's rebuilding post WW2.  In a nutshell, Deming's equation is:

    (a) When people and organizations focus primarily on quality,  then quality tends to increase and costs fall over time.

   (b) However, when people and organizations focus primarily on costs, costs tend to rise and quality declines over time.

It seems like the founder fell into the trap common in his time in the business world and solely focused on the bottom line, especially on the expense side. In fact, now an old joke, his motto could have been, "don't worry about the small margins, we'll make it up in volume."

Fast forward to November 2016 and I am looking at the results of the founder's vision, still very prevalent in all signage and quoted everywhere in print - "watch your expenses!" What worked in 1985 probably worked well then, but in the ensuing 30 years the world has changed and they have not. The entire 8-hour orientation (x 2 stores for me) was focused on saving money by eschewing overtime, being alert for shrinkage (theft), avoiding workplace accidents, avoiding seduction by union representatives, watchdogging fellow employees (associates) for signs of slacking, stealing time, merchandise, or money, and even a 30 minute segment on what to do in an "active shooter" scenario. Wow! There was nothing contained in the 8-hours of orientation focused on how to enhance the customer's experience except for 20 minutes of quoting the founder's advice on how to engage a customer when they first enter the store.

One of the most telling interludes was when the (2) Store Manager's addressed us during a 30 minute Q & A in each store. Although separated by 30 years in age and experience, their messages were essentially the same and felt like they were heavily scripted by the corporate entity. (NOTE: Looking around the room at my fellow inductees, I noticed "eye-rolls" and sly grins, so it wasn't just my perception.)

Following that sobering experience, we were assigned to take many hours of online education before we were allowed to start doing the job we had applied for, each curriculum somewhat unique depending on the position description. Fundamentally, the same theme followed throughout the online learning and testing protocol; scarcity, fear, and a pervasive feeling of parental supervision (from management) on everything we would do while on the job. The other tipoff for me how outdated the program was that the online learning curriculum was MS-DOS-based! (NOTE: Someone that works in one of the stores shared with me that the online learning curriculum hasn't changed in years even though he is required to renew his education annually.)

The People and the Culture
After ten days of interviewing and orientation, I finally was assigned someone to shadow and learn the ropes of each job in each store. Since labor is a significant piece of each store's budget, and everyone is still worshipping the founder's mantra, there are never enough people (expense, remember?) to do all of the work required to accomplish the tasks required. The pace was brisk, and people worked hard at their assigned functions because you couldn't leave from your shift until the planned work was completed. I asked my supervisor about overtime and was told that there was none! He said it all balanced out in the end because some days were lighter in the workload than others and he just had people stay home if they were approaching 40 hours. I mentioned that it sounded like that the remaining people would still have to work at a very rapid pace to get the job done and he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Hillary or Donald?
Here is where I can bring in the relationship between this retailer and the recent Presidential election. The people I worked with were all splendid people and to a person, willing to jump in and help a fellow team member if they were falling behind, but not for the good of the store and its vision, mission or goals. They did it for each other. Much like you will hear from any combat veteran; they were willing to fight and die for their comrades, but not for the mission or the Army. In fact, a pervasive adversarial attitude toward management ran through all of the conversations during breaks and mealtimes; sometimes humorous, sometimes sarcastic and often laced with bitterness.

It will probably be no surprise for my readers that all of the people I encountered voted for Donald Trump. The people with which I worked were not very educated, well read, or even that interested in anything beyond their immediate needs, which was mainly centered around a scarcity mindset; i.e., "never enough."

They heard Donald Trump because he knew how to push their hot buttons and Hillary didn't. He was able to seem like he was one of them and she came across as too snooty, so they didn't believe her because they couldn't relate to her. When I challenged them on their opinions by offering that a billionaire was certainly not one of them and that he had a strong (bad) track record of business failures, racist and anti-women attitudes, one of them replied, "And your point is?" A more intelligent response, "But Hillary is a crook" seemed to outweigh anything Trump had said or done. I now believe all of the post-mortems that I have read that say that Hillary was out of touch with a good chunk of the real America.

Next Week: My Report to Management