The strategic divide: Why your employees aren’t delivering what you envision

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Lots of people in a crowd.

Brand managers, customer experience executives, and marketing VPs, I need to tell you something. And it might hurt.

Your strategies and innovations may be brilliant, but whether they’ll come to fruition is entirely up to some employees who are quite far down on the corporate totem pole. Most of the time, they aren’t even hearing about the “new direction” the company is going in, and if they are, they’re rolling their eyes at it.

I know, because I’ve been there. And I’m pretty sure it all started with a Beanie Babies calendar.

Customer disservice

It was Christmas season 1998, which started right around Halloween that year, and I was working as a part-time cashier at a franchise calendar kiosk in perhaps the most mind-numbingly boring job of the century. (To a teenager, anyway.)

The manager, who was probably a normal enough guy outside of work, was notoriously cheap. Because he hired mostly money-starved teenagers, he could afford to break a few labor laws here and there. So we had no bathroom breaks. Only one employee was scheduled to work during a given shift, which posed quite a problem several hours in.

There were no chairs. No real responsibilities, other than to pick up fallen calendars and ring up the occasional purchase. Just endless hours of standing and staring at the displays, waiting for something to happen.

And as you can probably guess, that can only spell trouble when you hire teenagers.

At first, we were just subversive. Someone had enough of standing and brought in a chair, which remained at the cash register thereafter. Another anonymous associate placed a glass jar on the counter with a little card that read, “Tips, please!” All of the employees began bringing books to work, with the hopes of passing the long, quiet weekday hours.

Then, we ran out of Beanie Babies calendars.

So each week thereafter began with an elaborate ritual. On Mondays at approximately 2:30pm, the manager would make his weekly visit with a new box of Beanie Babies calendars. (Or not. This would determine the number of crazed customers we would encounter over the course of the week, thereby influencing the level of deviant behavior from the employees.)

Because of the minor “adjustments” we’d made to the workplace, it was of paramount importance to make some rapid changes around 2:00 each Monday. So the chair would be stashed in the adjacent shoe store, an unofficial exchange for pretending to laugh when the shoe salesman (a red-faced man with greasy black hair and impeccably shiny shoes) came around with his latest joke. The tip jar would be tossed under the counter, along with whatever book the cashier was reading. And for thirty minutes, the unfortunate teen on duty would stand up a little straighter, dust off a calendar rack or two, and wait for the manager to arrive.

One day, the inevitable happened. He showed up an hour early. During my shift. And I’m pretty sure there was steam coming from his ears.

Between hauling away the chair and throwing away the tip jar (but not before pocketing the change), he ranted and raved about the need to uphold a corporate standard, and about being ambushed by a secret shopper a week earlier, and that we should know that we were probably going to get him fired. It’s hard to remember exactly what was said, because it was traumatic and also because I really, really had to go to the bathroom.

The reformed and the rebellious

After the incident, the employees went in two different directions. Some rebelled and went on to do nefarious and retaliatory deeds while wearing their calendar aprons. I will omit the details for the sake of the guilty, who (for the most part) over the next decade did manage to become productive, responsible adults.

Others (myself included) were sufficiently chastened, and resolved to try and be model employees thereafter. (Ok, it might have been just me.)

So I put on my apron, straightened up calendars, smiled brightly at customers, and for a whole week tried approaching customers as I was instructed: “Hi, can I help you find something?”

Most of them backed away nervously, and the rest just ignored me until they were ready to pay. One or two muttered, “I’m not stealing anything, geez.”

My attempts at carrying out the corporate vision were understandably short-lived.

The brand promise

For fun, I looked at the corporate website just now. As you can imagine, it espouses many corporate ideals and goals that I never heard anything about as an employee on the ground. And those that did sound familiar were kind of silly and misplaced.

As a minimum-wage employee, I had little motivation to uphold corporate values. I had a manager who clearly didn’t care about anything beyond his performance review, and whatever was happening in the marketing or customer service departments was a world away from what it was like working at the mall.

If you think my teenaged self was an anomaly, think again. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Bill Taylor’s recent webcast was that there is an enormous strategic divide between those who set the vision for a company and those who carry it out.

Beyond making some obvious changes (like giving your employees bathroom and lunch breaks!), the best way to bring your vision to your customers is to bring it first to the employees who interact with them. Not just by telling them the vision, but by transforming their relationship to the company in a way that they align themselves with the company vision.

Suppose the calendar kiosk company’s vision is to be a bright, cheerful corner of the mall where people are inspired to buy gifts for their friends and families. The typical way of doing this would be to provide the employees with bright-colored aprons and place cheerful signage around the kiosk.

But the transformational way of doing this would start with the employees: during the interview, looking for cheerful people and telling them that your company hires only the friendliest and most outgoing people to work at your kiosks. It would mean hiring similar managers, and training employees on how to present new calendars and open conversations with questions like, “Is there someone in particular you’re shopping for? I might be able to point you in the right direction.”

Maybe it means you make a list of responsibilities for sales clerks and create a system that quickly extinguishes negative behaviors. Perhaps managers bring treats for the employees when they come to check on the kiosk.

Ultimately, both my experience at the calendar kiosk and Bill Taylor’s webcast suggest that your “ground” employees need to know and believe in the corporate vision, no matter what kind of business you run. In Bill’s stories, these are the employees who don’t know why a potential customer should choose their bank over another. They’re the ones who drive customers into the arms of the competitors. And most importantly, they’re the ones who can be inspired to carry out the transformational vision you have for your company.

So maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them.

Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.


Enjoyed reading this and can definitely relate to it!

Totally agree. Apart from just communicating brand values, managers need to engage and establish conversations with customer facing employees. For global organizations, social media tools such as chatter, FB, Youtube etc offer excellent opportunity to achieve this in a very friendly manner.
Brands have to move towards conversations than mere communication.

I love this! Another good thing for the folks setting the vision to do (at least in this mall kiosk situation) would be to actually visit kiosks and interact with the employees on-the-ground. Or even role play for a day or two just to get a better handle on the reality of the situation? There was a show I saw last Christmas - I wish I could remember, I think it was on CBS' 60 minutes - where a business owner flew out to one of his company's factories and applied for a job on the floor - he actually ended up getting fired from his own company in a matter of hours :) He went to different parts of the company trying different roles to better understand what was really going on so he could better plan a strategic vision that had a chance of happening!

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