By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute
In a fascinating Harvard Business Review blog post, Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, says the key to high performing organizations is recognizing that culture matters.
And in an organizational culture, love matters most.
Taylor quotes famous business guru Peter Drucker, who once said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
A sound strategy is fine — even necessary. But leaders need to build cultures that support strategy implementation. Without a sound underlying organizational culture, strategies are bound to fail or at least come up woefully short of expectations.
Then Taylor argues that the most powerful force available to inspire high performance cultures is love. And he cites the teaching of an iconic tough guy to make his point: Vince Lombardi, former coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, who were world champions under his tutelage.
After the Packers won the first Super Bowl, Lombardi was in demand as a speaker to executive audiences around the country who hoped his recipe for success could be used to win in the marketplace as well as on the gridiron. Lombardi offered up seven principles of competition and leadership, according to Pulitzer-Prize reporter David Maraniss in his book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.
His most important principle belies his tough-guy image: Love is more powerful than hate.
Lombardi went on to explain his understanding of love. "The love I'm speaking of is loyalty, which is the greatest of loves." That love is reflected in "teamwork, the love that one man has for another and that he respects the dignity of another ... I am not speaking of detraction. You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader ... Heart power is the strength of your company. Heart power is the strength of the Green Bay Packers. Heart power is the strength of America and hate power is the weakness of the world."
Taylor (apparently no relation to Lombardi's All Pro fullback Jim Taylor) then reached for an example of how the former Packer leader's insight is affirmed into the business world. He outlines the recent history of DaVita, a company that provides about one-third of all kidney-dialysis treatments in the U.S, under the leadership of CEO Kent Thiry.
When Thiry took the helm in 1999, the company was known as Total Renal Care and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It had annual revenues of $1.4 billion, losses of $56 million and a share price of about $2. Less than 10 years later, it had revenues of $5.7 billion, net income of $374 million, and a share price approaching $60. In the same period, its market capitalization rose from $200 million to more than $6 billion.
Taylor, who has much more to say about this in his next book, Practically Radical, calls the DaVita story "one of the great business turnarounds I've seen in a long time."
So how did Thiry achieve this success? His approach was revealed in one of the first messages he sent to worried employees: "We are going to flip the ends and means of this business. We are a community first and a company second."
Thiry's point, according to Taylor, was to send the message: "If the people of DaVita could figure out how to treat patients right, and how to treat each other right, then the business would right itself." And, adds Taylor, "that's precisely what happened."
Today, he says, "Life at DaVita is filled with symbols, rituals, and traditions that bear little resemblance to life inside conventional organizations." Thiry also sent the message that the organization would listen to its associates when he organized an election of the workforce to pick a new name for the company. The name, he explains, is supposedly inspired by an Italian phrase for "he or she who gives life." People who spend their days helping to keep patients alive by administering dialysis to them had no trouble identifying with that image.
Eventually the company came up with an official song, "On Divita" (to the tune "On Wisconsin"). At corporate headquarters there's a wooden bridge that employees cross to signify their passage to a new way of working. The company also schedules a nationwide meeting which Taylor calls "wildly spirited," during which "thousands of employees celebrate awards, mourn the death of patients and connect with the emotional side of their work."
The company does these things — and more — to build a culture of caring. And that matters, Taylor says, "because the demands on the workforce are so relentless." The company's 35,500 employees provide more than 16 million treatments per year — and each one of these is an opportunity "to overlook a symptom, misdiagnose a problem, or otherwise make a small mistake that could have deadly consequences."
In such an environment, Taylor notes that "it's hard to make a purely business case for people to care as much as they need to care in order to deliver great service. You have to be motivated by something deeper — a sense of commitment not just to patients, but also to one another."
Hence, Thiry and his leadership team took the same path to excellence Lombardi took decades ago: Create a culture in which love can grow and express itself.
Taylor concludes that "the make-or-break issue isn't just what separates you from the competition in the marketplace. It's what holds you together in the workplace."
A big part of that is creating a safe environment where everyone can share and express genuine emotions — chief among them the sense that they care about their clients and their colleagues, and "about doing what's right in an environment in which so much can go wrong."
Leaders have to ask constantly themselves: Am I giving my people strong enough reasons to care and ample opportunities to show that they really do?
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