Jann Freed
Jann Freed
By Jann Freed | Leadership development and change management consultant, The Genysys Group


Recently, I wrote a blog post quoting one of Peter Drucker's favorite statements: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

As I was talking with one of my clients, she explained how that resonated with her. "Early in my career I didn't understand what that quote meant ... but unfortunately I have now lived it many times -- the culture of the department or the organization is so dysfunctional and toxic that there is little to no chance that any strategy will be successful. Many leaders operate out of fear -- who instill in their employees who then spend their time defending themselves, their position, or looking for other work instead of focusing their efforts on company goals."

A current and egregious example is the recent resignation of the founder and former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick. He was forced to resign by the company's board because of the toxic environment and harassing corporate culture that was allowed to exist and even thrive under his leadership.

As a leadership development consultant, I emphasize how the tone is set at the top and leaders should create a place where people (including women) want to work. Since culture is the "invisible tapestry" that weaves people together and influences how people think, feel and act, leaders should focus on building a healthy culture because it matters. Wherever I am (e.g., retail stores, car washes, banks) I observe the culture and how people treat customers and treat each other. A good rule of thumb is employee satisfaction is a prerequisite for customer satisfaction.

For my mom's 92nd birthday, I took her to Salon W in Des Moines' East Village for a makeover. We had appointments for her hair, nails, and makeup. Not only was I impressed by the level of customer service provided, but I was equally amazed by the systems and processes in place to make it all happen. Since everyone at Salon W made my mom feel like a queen, we repeated all of this again for Mother's Day. The whole experience made me realize I needed to interview founder and CEO China Wong, the person who created this culture. Elle Magazine has named her business one of the top 100 salons in the U.S. four times. After interviewing China in May, I was not surprised when she was selected as a member of the Des Moines Business Record's 2017 Forty Under 40 class and as the 2017 UNI Woman Business Owner of the Year. She will be recognized among the other 2017 Women of Influence honorees on Aug. 10.

Salon W has expanded twice in its 12 years. In a high-turnover industry, retention at Salon W is very high and I wanted to understand the specifics about the culture. China attended the Aveda Institute in Chicago to learn the technical side of the industry, but she is an entrepreneur at heart. She attributes the success of Salon W to its consistent emphasis on customer service and to its structure. The leadership team consists of China as CEO, a director of education, a marketing director, a director of operations for customer service, and three salon floor directors.

China believes that her focus on business education for employees has a direct link to the retention of employees. She leads "Taking Care of Business" staff meetings every Tuesday where they discuss what is trending and make sure everyone is on the same page. They have "5 to Thrive" meetings, which are daily five-minute meetings to celebrate performance and reward good behaviors that align with goals and successes.
Since people behave in ways that are rewarded, I wanted to know more about how China recognizes and rewards people. She said, "The rewards can be silly and fun or more grand. We set team goals, reward the team for reaching them, and find ways for them to celebrate together. For example, we rented a trolley to take the team to Von Maur and everybody got to select a new pair of shoes and had fun together."

Competitions are structured to be fair throughout the year so everyone has a chance to be in the game. A popular reward is the opportunity to earn an all expenses paid trip to participate in New York Fashion Week. China also schedules professional photo shoots with employees so they can build their own portfolios and use the images for advertising.

The hiring process is crucial, and Salon W explains the benefits of staying with the company and building a career because of its level system and its ability to specialize in services since practice enhances skills. There is room to grow, and growth is expected and rewarded.

To support this growth, professional development is emphasized with an educational budget allocated for each person annually. They have identified three main categories that new initiatives need to fulfill: beauty, joy and excellence. This has resulted in more than 20 percent  annual growth, and China said, "People like to be part of something that is growing rather than stagnant, status quo or declining." But she makes sure the team is included in the growth goals because it motivates them for what is next.

To support the team atmosphere, Salon W offers flexible schedules, rotating time off and a bonus structure based on team performance. The goal is to meet the needs of "clients/guests" through customer service. She uses the metaphor of three buckets: happy employees, happy guests and happy bottom line.

While China benchmarks salons in larger cities for the latest and greatest trends, she does not really monitor the competition. This reminded me of John Wooden, basketball coach at UCLA when they won 10 NCAA national championships, who said the goal was to focus on the team by being in the best shape and playing at full potential. When this is the case, there is no need to monitor the competition.

China described creating "moments of joy" for no reason -- similar to what Disney does at its theme parks. Employees collect stories and keep files on customers, making notes about services, products or quirky things to remember in order to build strong relationships. For example, they celebrate clients by setting a team goal of 200 random acts of kindness throughout the year.

Based on what I learned and have observed, all organizations (profit and not-for-profit) can learn from the culture China has created. China says, "Our goal is to celebrate the small wins in a big way or in multiple ways. We believe people appreciate public recognition. We celebrate people and their victories because their victories are company victories."

Jann Freed 
, Ph.D., is a leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group.