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Are You Empowered to Succeed?

Why building a strong culture is the gateway to business nirvana
Photograph by Francisco Gonzalez

CHICAGO — In Buddhism, nirvana is a transcendent state of being in which one achieves peace and harmony. For a retailer, achieving nirvana—and its full business potential—requires a people-centric culture, said Jim Knight, a professional speaker and former senior director of training and development for Hard Rock Cafe. But getting a handle on culture is tough.

“It is this nebulous, esoteric concept because you can’t see it,” Knight said. It’s easy to confuse culture with heritage, which is similar but celebrates the past. It is a company’s history.

While the convenience-retail industry has an undoubtedly rich heritage, it does not guarantee a similarly rich culture. “People love the past, but you know what they care about more? The here and now,” he said.

Current-day employees who have not been with the company since the beginning should honor and recognize the company’s heritage, Knight said, but those employees ultimately do not affect that heritage. They do, however, affect a company’s culture. “At the core, [culture is] just a collection of people,” he said.

And if people are a company’s culture, then turnover should be avoided at all costs.

“Turnover is the root of all evil in so many ways for this industry,” he said. According to the NACS Compensation Report, c-store associate turnover in 2018 was 118%, which is double the baseline total retail turnover of 59%.

Knight likened the convenience industry’s constant turnover to a hamster running on a wheel. The industry is putting in enormous amounts of effort to fill and refill positions, which takes time and energy away from building a healthy company culture. “You never get to nirvana,” Knight said.

The key to Hard Rock Cafe’s ability to open locations around the world—in 75 countries—is limiting turnover. “They hold onto people and awesomeness occurs,” he said.

To squash turnover and develop a nirvana-worthy culture, companies need to hire employees with what Knight called the three C’s: solid competence, strong character and culture fit.

Of the three C’s, competence is the least important. For example, Knight oversaw the opening of about 80 Hard Rock Cafes in 40 countries. He asked the leaders of each new location which two employees they would take if they started a new business. They never picked the people who were the most competent, Knight said. They instead chose employees who best exemplified the company’s character and culture.

Are You Experienced?

The importance of character and culture stems not from the company but from customers and their experience with the brand.

“I am an experiential-starved consumer,” Knight said. “I am on the hunt for anyone doing something different.” While he still cares about clean restrooms and the other basics of retail, the most important part of interacting with the brand for him is the overall experience.

His experience is shaped by unforgettable encounters with employees who take risks to make his time there more enjoyable. He used Wawa, QuikTrip and Sheetz as examples of what he called “culture warriors,” or brands that have a clear culture that excels at exciting customers and employees alike. “Do you think it’s because of the product?” Knight said. “I like [Wawa] because of the people more than anything else.” These retailers empower their employees to satisfy customers.

For example, Knight went to a Wawa to buy a soft drink. When he approached the checkout counter to pay, the employee asked, “Is that all you’re getting?” and then waved his hand and told Knight he could take the drink for free.

“I fell in love with them,” Knight said. “They get an extra six months of my business.”

Finding True North

Another secret of cultural success is having a team of managers that is unified in the direction in which to take the team. To illustrate this concept, Knight asked the summit audience to stand up and point to the direction they thought was north. Because the presentation was in a large, windowless room, attendees pointed in every direction. There was no consensus on which way was north.

As Knight explained, every leader must point employees in the same direction and know the goal of the company. Otherwise, the employees will be directionless, and the company will spawn what Knight called a culture of confusion.

Pushing a company in one unified direction takes more than simply standing up and pointing. “You know how you can get there? Communicate, communicate, communicate,” he said. “I don’t think you can ever overcommunicate.” If proper communication occurs, employees have a shared mindset, which produces what Knight called aligned actions and spawns a culture of organizational productivity and sustainable growth.

“You can’t put out a memo on Monday and say, ‘Everyone have a cool culture now,’ ” he said.

“People join brands. They leave individuals.”

Sometimes, sustaining that constant direction can be boring. Knight cited the rock band U2 as an example. Just about everyone can identify the lead singer Bono and guitarist Dave Evans, also known as The Edge, but the rhythm section is less well-known. That does not mean U2 bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. are any less important, Knight said. “Everybody has a part to play in the band—everybody,” Knight said. While Bono and The Edge do their best to make every U2 concert different than the last, he said, Clayton and Mullen Jr. provide consistency each night.

How does that translate to businesses? Knight played a Hard Rock Cafe promotional video depicting a man who looked like a bona fide rock star, wearing leather clothes and a ring with a skull design. He strolled out of a car and walked into the back door of a building. But once he walked inside, he threw his leather jacket on a chair, donned a chef’s coat and began preparing a hamburger. At the end of the video, a caption read, “Meet our other rock stars.”

He framed the video as an effective way to recognize employees who are not often the brand’s focus. Hard Rock arranged for the video to be shown on Super Bowl Sunday.

“It changed the dynamic of the entire brand,” Knight said. After the video aired on TV, Hard Rock played it in its restaurants. When it did, the kitchen staff would walk out into the restaurant with their hands in the air, basking in the glory of their recognition.

“The heart of the house doesn’t get a lot of love,” he said, and this video changed that pattern.

For Knight, recognizing employees and treating them well is akin to a rock band that maintains its gear. He said employees amplify any brand, just as a guitar amplifier allows an electric guitar’s sound to reach its full potential. “We need [employees] way more than they need us,” he said.

When it comes to treating employees well, their direct supervisor is the first line of defense, Knight said. Gallup surveyed more than 2 million employees at 700 companies worldwide over a 25-year period. The survey found that immediate supervisors are the single-largest influence on an employee’s decision to leave a company or stick around.

“People join brands,” Knight said. “They leave individuals.”

Retaining the best talent and fostering a culture that allows employees to take risks in the name of customer service is what spawns brand superfans, Knight said. He displayed pictures of customers with tattoos of popular brands such as Apple. He also recounted stories of Hard Rock Cafe employees who tattooed the Hard Rock logo on their bodies. When asked why, they said they intended to stay with the company for life.

Building that level of loyalty among customers and employees is not easy, Knight acknowledged. “This is the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” he said. But it’s never too late to start. To quote a Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.”


How to Create Culture that Rocks

Jim Knight, former director of training and development for Hard Rock Cafe, offered 10 tips brands can use to foster amazing customer experiences.

  • Celebrate heritage but focus on today.
  • Aspire to be one of the most admired company cultures.
  • Be like U2— everyone singing off the same sheet of music.
  • Service trumps product, price, theme, tech—and convenience.
  • The one true path to cultural nirvana is through the right hiring.
  • Strive to hire “three C” associates but push for cultural fit.
  • Only rock stars can amp up the band. They are the show.
  • Treat associates like volunteers: Love the ones you’re with.
  • Bring the flame thrower every  day … and light it  up. (In other words, choose a strategy, commit to it and go big.)
  • Position your business to be tattoo-worthy.

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