Lessons from an Exemplar Company
Updated: Jun 30
The best company culture and exemplary managers - I lucked in with my first corporate job, and I am still reaping the benefits.
I chose the job and the company because I didn’t care about either. I was alone, six months pregnant and, I needed money. 20-years later, I still draw on the experiences at that company as the standard to which others should aspire.
I didn't care about the Job or the Company
In my late twenties and into my mid-thirties, I headed up the online offering for a major supermarket chain, Woolworths. I was a full-time employee and, it was my first ‘real’ grown-up job. Before that, I was a student and free-lancer — artist, designer, activist, general idealistic and pain in the ass.
I applied for the job when I was six months pregnant and, despite legislation that made it illegal to turn anyone down on that basis, I felt I wouldn’t get the job. But I did.
Three months later, on a Friday, I went into labour. After a long three-day effort, my son was born Monday morning. Ten days later, I returned to full-time work.
I chose Woolworths, not for a career choice, but because I didn’t care. I needed a job, and I didn’t care if they rejected me. I didn’t care if I had the baby and decided not to return to work. It was a job, and I needed money.
Up until that time, I’d earned my living as an artist. I didn’t know what I would want to do once I crossed the line to single mum; so I chose a job and a company that I could walk away from without too much grief on either side.
The company didn’t feel the same way; they promoted me straight away, and I moved into a role heading up the project office.
From Unlikely Beginnings come Surprising Opportunities
Being a successful writer, and doing well as an artist requires a very similar set of proficiencies in two distinct areas — time practising the craft, and marketing or distribution.
As an artist, these involve:
Time and practice making art to the point of mastery and the forming of good habits that become a ‘normal’ part of life
Administration, budgeting, getting funding, securing gallery space, marketing, networking — all to the point of making a sale
Some art students are terrible at everything, including making art; some make great art, but cannot deal with rest. I had to work hard to make good art, but I was a natural in all aspects of admin.
As such I was the person who organised group exhibitions for everyone, solo exhibitions for myself; I secured funding and gallery representation and, I herded the cats (artists) to do everything they needed to do. It involved submission writing, report writing, accounting and more.
Without realising it, I’d become a project manager, and this is how I went from Artist to Project Office Manager at the country’s third-largest company in a couple of months.
If the ROI on Culture was Unclear; the Investment in it was not
Just before I moved into my role at head office, I went to the company culture workshop.
A few weeks before that, I had to answer 100s of multiple-choice questions to indicate my psychological preferences around my perception of the world and decision-making. The test, designed specifically for Woolworths, was based on the much questioned Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
I found my results interesting in that way that astrological charts are to some people, but mostly just because people are fascinated with themselves. Who are we? What motivates us? Are we understood? Where do we fit in the world?
Culture was not a thinly veiled veneer at Woolworths; it was of significant and, the company and every individual invested heavily in it
The company workshop was a week-long affair that happened every 2 -3 months, locking in every new manager from Store Deputy to the CEO for the week. This melting pot of newbies provided an instant group of contacts, notably the CEO and a store manager we later nicknamed ‘The Cleaner’ were on my workshop.
It wasn’t just about results, it was also about how you got those results
The workshop started off looking at the history of the company and, the current strategy. We unpacked culture and learned about what was acceptable at Woolworths — ‘put-down humour’, for example, was not.
Woolworths would’ve been a cult were it not for the prevalence of A-type ESTJs in the company tempering any touchy-feely OTT hippie passive-aggressive vibe that may have prevailed.
We looked at our profiles, how they would play out in the general practice, and how the various styles would react to and, perceive each other. Then we were put into groups and given some of Woolworths’ current challenges to solve. Our endeavours were videoed and played back to the room after the exercise.
Looking at the videos was a comic affair, the ‘types’ acted as expected. The ESTJs took charge and set about to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The other types frustrated the ESTJs; they saw the others as hindering progress with their analysis, creative options or desire to make sure everyone felt ok with the outcomes. As such, the ESTJs acting in the name of progress ignored them.
Learning how to leverage the strengths and mitigate any weaknesses across the types was an on-going affair that carried through to daily work.
For example, if I were pitching an idea to the executive team, I’d present it first to each member of the executive in advance of the meeting using their preferred style. Some would require more in-depth analysis and numbers; others preferred top-line information delivered auction-speed.
The solutions from the workshop rolled-out in real life and we participated in the implementation, analysis and adjustment of these new initiatives as appropriate.
No-one was ‘set up to fail’ — I was given a coach to help me deliver a killer presentation
The culture programme at Woolworths didn’t stop with this initial induction; there were compulsory leadership programmes for managers, internships, executive grooming initiatives and much, much more.
Only a few months into my role, the Executive Team asked me to speak at the company conference in front of 2,000 of the organisation’s most senior people. I was terrified but accepted the challenge on the proviso I receive coaching.
The company found me a coach and worked together to build my presentation and, improve my delivery. The latter required more videoing (gah!); it showed me the chasm between how the audience would perceive me and what was going on from my point of view. Even though I was nervous and churning inside, I looked calm. This same thing had come through in the culture workshop, and I learned to use this throughout my career by either keeping my regular poker face or choosing to display some emotion.
The coach wasn’t any backyard variety type; this coach counted the current Prime Minister amongst her clients.
The key things I learnt about presenting:
The audience wants you to be successful; no-one wants to sit in the audience with that ‘icky’ feeling that comes when someone is choking on stage
How to pause in place of the ‘ums’ or any other speech peculiarities
Finding my style; I’m not funny; people look to me as an authority. Leave the jokes to someone else and leverage my strength
The importance of how you look on stage, the colour and style of clothes, whether you stand behind the lectern or walk around, gesticulation — all these influence audience perceptions
Lessons from the best manager I’ve had.
Defining a career pathway and retaining valued team members.
After a couple of years at Woolworths, I was starting to grow restless heading up the project office. I hadn’t aired this, but I was beginning to think about where I might go and what I might do next.
One of the executive team members came and saw me and said he wanted to start a new role in the organisation, ‘Online Services Manager,’ and he’d like me to take it on. There was no interview, only a little negotiation over the remuneration package and that was it, I had a new job and a new manager — let’s call him Carl (not his real name).
Because of the cross-functional nature of the role, it reported directly to the Executive Team, but this one director would be responsible for the daily needs of the position.
Carl headed up the merchandising team. Being the person in charge of all the stock in the stores made him the most powerful person in the company. He had a large group of people under him comprising sales and account management functions, analysts and planners.
I’d find out throughout my career how rare good managers are. I feel fortunate to have come across a few; these are some things I learnt from this great manager:
Get around the team in person every day. Carl stopped by my office every morning and every afternoon. In the morning he’d ask me if I needed anything, in the afternoon it would be how the day went and if I needed anything for the next day. Sometimes Carl would lean on the door frame, I’d tell I’m right, and his visit would take less than 30 seconds. Other times, he’d come in, close the door and we’d spend 30 minutes to an hour on something.
Be a fierce and loyal commander. I could guarantee that no matter Carl had my back. He’d never shy away from doing the right thing or being brave no matter what the popular opinion what might be.
Remove the obstacles and red tape so your team can succeed. Carl would cut through issues to do with budgets, processes or people. He’d coach people where appropriate and, where the matter was beyond their control, he’d sort it.
Trust your team to do their jobs and focus on the results. The individuals in Carl’s team were expert in their given area; Carl trusted them to do their jobs, as long they returned results. He never tried to interfere or question my decisions; if I was sure, he was sure. Carl trusted that if I was unsure I’d let him know and we would figure out a path forward.
Challenge, grow and support your team. Carl’s daily visits connected him with the team, without anyone having to say much, he could see when people were overwhelmed, restless or cruising along. I liked to be busy, over the years I reported to Carl, he found me some great side projects and research opportunities.
Credit where credit is due. Carl would look for every opportunity to promote the ideas and achievements of his team and the individuals within it. He would never allow anyone to think that the results or innovation coming out of his department was his. Carl would go out of his way to deflect he accolades away from him.
A Flat Organisation Structures without Silos in a place that treated everyone as Adult
Woolworths had traditional reporting lines that followed the usual hierarchies — CEO and Executive Team consisting of Directors for Marketing, Finance, Operations, Logistics, Human Relations, and so on.
Even so, Woolworths described their organisational structure as ‘flat.’ Unlike the weird world of Valve with its ‘Flatland-esque’ structure, Woolworths’ structure has hierarchical reporting lines. However, the organisation was ‘flat’ in a different way.
In day-to-day operations, people didn’t treat members of the executive team as special people who were out of touch or out of reach. Everyone was respected.
The CEO’s door was always open, I could knock on the door, step in and give an opinion on matters — and I did.
This setup allowed for a connected organisation and that treated people as adults. The company results in full, line-by-line were made available to anyone who wanted to see them. From the shelf packer and person on the checkouts to the CEO and everyone in between, if you wanted to see the daily, weekly, monthly, annual results you could.
While there were occasional leaks, these were less frequent than in other organisations. The team had a high degree of ownership over the organisation. Everyone in the organisation received a bonus (depending on the results) and, a 10% discount if you shopped in one of the Woolworths’ stores. As a team member, why would you buy elsewhere? You’d only be shopping away your bonus.
Woolworths was very open, allowing employees the freedom to make their own choices about how they went about the jobs, but it wasn’t a free-for-all.
People like to know what game they’re playing, and where the rules and boundaries are. Then they want to be left alone with the freedom to play the game according to their strengths and preferences.
Woolworths also had a zero-tolerance policy on theft. Lick the batter of a spoon in the bakery, eat a raisin when making a ton of scones and you’d be gone. While this absolute might seem harsh, everyone knew where they stood. There was no grey area that people could venture into and find themselves in trouble.
Woolworths took its investment in creating a very healthy and specific organisational culture seriously. The company results showed the pay off; from employee satisfaction and low attrition rates to innovative new product categories and ways of working to bottom-line results.
Bringing about this kind of change takes a sizeable organisational effort. Still, there are things you can do as either an employee or a manager to contribute to a positive corporate culture.
From giving credit where credit is due, to making the daily rounds, there are many things that managers can do to effect a positive workplace culture. Similarly, employees can adopt many of these behaviours in their interactions with colleagues and managers.
When I was with the company, Dairy Farmers International owned Woolworths New Zealand Limited. Woolworths New Zealand was different from Woolworths Australia and elsewhere. Woolworths Australia was interested in the results, culture, technical and other innovations of Woolworths New Zealand and, I visited the Australian head office many times to share our work.
Woolworths was sold in 2001 and the company culture back to the dark ages. Most of the Woolworths employees left, a few stayed on. I moved into a role at Fonterra as Online Services Manager.
How to Build a Positive Company Culture, Allan Kohll, Forbes
Measuring Culture in Leading Companies, Donald Sull, Charles Sull, Andrew Chamberlain, MIT Sloan Management Review
Survey Says Company Culture is More Important that a Big Salary, Natallie Rocha, Forbes
What is the RoI of Corporate Culture? Shawn Overcast, Gotham Culture