San Francisco Author and Strategist Stan Slap Sees a Rare Opportunity for Success in a Climate of Survival
“This banana ain’t gonna peel itself.”
- CategoryMakers + Entrepreneurs
- Interviewed byRich Thomas
“This crisis is an amplifier.”
Those five prophetic words, emblazoned over the top of a VU meter, are the first things you encounter when you visit the Slap Company homepage. Click play on the audio file and you’ll hear a poignant, two-minute call to arms from CEO and lead vocalist Stan Slap about how COVID-19—and all the dominos it touches—is polarizing the behaviors of CEOs, politicians, and everyone in between. Make no mistake: we are in the suck. The battle is on, but according to Slap, the good guys are gonna win.
For over two decades, Slap has helped companies like Microsoft, Banana Republic, and Four Seasons invigorate and inspire their business cultures through an innovative, rock ‘n’ roll approach that has produced nothing less than explosive results. His two books, Bury My Heart at Conference Room B and Under the Hood, are roadmaps to the Holy Grail that is understanding one’s manager culture and one’s employee culture; how they are the same, how they are uniquely different, and how they both must be fed a nutritious, 100% BS-free diet in order to thrive.
As the ripple effects of this global pandemic turn businesses upside-down, it’s more important than ever that companies accelerate through the turn to keep from fishtailing into a wall of regret and self-pity. We hopped on a Zoom call with the best-selling author and renown corporate strategist to gain a deeper understanding—and appreciation—for what “culture” really means…and what companies need to do in the midst of this pandemic to retain their edge.
Let’s start with the word “culture.” What do most companies overlook when they’re trying to figure out what their culture is?
Stan Slap: There are a few things, and they’re all equally critical. First of all, an understanding of what a culture is. Culture was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2014, so according to the most popular dictionary in the entire English language, culture was the most newly searched-for word. In my company, since this is all we’ve focused on for the last two decades, we like to say if “banana” made Word of the Year instead, by now companies would understand what a banana is and recognize that it’s not going to peel itself just to feed you.
Every company has three cultures: manager culture, employee culture and customer culture. They work fundamentally the same in terms of what a culture is and what its concerns and operating methodology are about. A culture happens whenever a group of people share the same basic living circumstances and they band together to share common beliefs about the rules of survival and emotional prosperity. What does it take for us to survive living in this jungle in this tribe with this chief—or in this company on this team with this manager—and then knowing that we’re going to be okay and how do we get rewarded emotionally and avoid punishment. If you look at an employee culture, for example, it’s an independent organism living right inside the enterprise with its own purpose and all the power to make or break any management plan or any manager. Its purpose is to protect itself. Even though it’s obsessed with its survival, it does not necessarily connect protecting itself with protecting the company. So, the key to its commitment isn’t saying, “Hey, we’re the company. We’re staying right here. Come to us, we gave you the job.” You have to come to the culture, because unless the culture can align for itself protecting itself with protecting the company, it’s only going to give you a fraction of its commitment. Culture is extraordinary. It will give you whatever you want, but you have to give it what it wants first, and companies tend to not understand that. And if you don’t understand what a culture is, you end up blaming the culture for how its treated.
Culture is an information-gathering organism designed to assure its own survival, so it’s actually pretty objective. Its motives are entirely predictable. When companies talk to their cultures, they talk about what, how and why. “Here’s what we gotta get done, how we get it done, and why we gotta get it done.” And if the culture doesn’t just quiver in response and prostrate itself on the ground, then the company talks louder…because clearly the problem is that you didn’t hear us. When that doesn’t work, it’s campaign time. When that doesn’t work, it’s assumed that your culture has all the intellectual agility of a small soap dish and just can’t appreciate the elegance and sophistication of the grand plan. But when you’re talking about a culture, it’s not the what, how and why that matters. The only thing that matters is why not? Why, given the corporate logic and urgency of anything that you want your culture to do, would it not fully commit? If it’s not fully committing, it believes it’s not safe and sane to do so and it believes it has empirical evidence for that. So you have to focus on the why not and understand that if you are working a cultural commitment, you are working on business performance. It’s not some ethereal, fluffy, secondary road. It’s the mainroad. And when it comes to a consumer culture, the protection for any company is when it transfers sustainability of the company to its customers. When a company can do that, you get your customer culture to advertise and sell for you. And if you can do that and get those protective evangelists, that’s a brand. That’s the real definition of a brand. Brand isn’t a verb. You can’t brand or rebrand yourself. It’s a tribute. It’s gotta be given to you, but for your culture to give it to you, both internal and external cultures have to give it to you and they can’t just trust you. They have to give you faith. “I believe…but I don’t know.” And that unfounded trust is the rarest gift a culture will get. So not understanding what a culture is, blaming it for its reactions to things that it empirically believes are not safe, minimizing “working on culture” as not working on business performance, and not recognizing that you have three cultures and you have to get certain things from all three of them.
The process of building that trust and that faith can take years, maybe decades. Over these last two months I’ve seen a lot of companies destroy all that hard work because they have gone into survivalist mode and divorced themselves from those principles. How and why do you think they’re doing that? It can’t be a conscious decision.
SS: When attempting to solve any problem, including one as complex, nuanced and omnipresent as this one is, you gotta start identifying the right problem to solve. If you look at it as an equation, you want to be on the right side of the equals sign. “If we can get this to happen, then we will be okay during these tough times.” Then the left side is all math. “We have to stop doing this, start doing that, multiply this.” It’s a series of finite problems. If you just hang out on the left side you’re never gonna solve it. I would argue, for any company that still has a chance to remain in business now, it’s to pass the right test, which is not to survive these tough times, but to succeed in these tough times; for you to have your best year ever, which may seem like a lunatic proposition at this point. But if you just say we’re gonna survive you’re gonna hunker down, stay in your lane, and you’re gonna flinch when you should be punching. If you say, “You know what, we’re gonna have our best year ever, that’s the bench,” then you work backwards from there. That’s an entirely different mindset that opens up an entirely different level of possibility. But passing the right test isn’t the problem that needs to be solved. It’s how do we get our cultures to solve it for us. You can’t pass this test by yourself. You have to get evangelism from these cultures, and where it starts is creating a culture of accountability. When you say you’ve seen things just get diluted and lost, this is what’s happened. For every company there’s no question that this pandemic and subsequent economic depression happened to you. No question at all. But once it’s happened to you, what happens next is up to you. You’ve been served, and if you allow, as a company, to allow your culture to end up blaming external circumstances for internal performance, you better give it up now because you are sponsoring a culture of apathy and victimization that will haunt you long after the crisis passes. That’s what I see companies doing. “We’re basically victims here.” That’s a very dangerous message to a culture.
When you were talking about culture earlier it finally dawned on me why so many people get it wrong. You describe culture as though it were a living organism, and I think most people think of culture as an impenetrable slab of marble with some prophetic slogan chiseled into it that’s mounted next to the entryway to an office.
SS: The idea of culture as a living organism is something that my company pioneered over 20 years ago and have proven to be true in the two decades since. It’s like in those old comic books where they have the x-ray specs. You can see everything, you can predict everything, and you can see why a culture just does what it does. So, the ultimate recommendation for any company is that it’s not the responsibility of your culture to understand the business logic; it’s the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic. If you get that, you remain unbeatable in any market you choose.
Many companies are having to furlough their employees. Some scenarios are clearly temporary while the business rides out the financial implications of the storm, while others are clearly permanent vacations given the impact of COVID-19 in their particular industries. Is “furlough fear” something businesses need to be mindful of if and when people come back to work? The fear that, after finding a way to operate with less headcount or not having certain people in the building, the company will realize they don’t need them in this new world?
SS: I think this starts with how people are let go in the first place. When it comes to a culture, you have to bury your dead with dignity. Even if it was a performance issue and not a force majeure issue, the rest of the culture is closer to the person or people leaving than they are to the company. If you have to furlough people, there’s all kinds of ways of doing it. There’s ways of doing it as a message to your analysts to say, “We took these cuts to improve the revenue and survivability of the company”—which just positions the culture as line items on a P&L—or you can actually go out into the world and say, “We put very, very fine people on the street, and we are telling you that we want them back, but if you happen to have any opportunity to hire somebody with our company’s name on their resume, we urge you to not miss that chance.” If you’ve been furloughed, you have to go home. You have to explain oftentimes to your partner or parents or children what happened. For a company to send a letter home with you that says, “Listen, we want to make it very clear…your mother or your father, they were prized by us. They’re fabulous people. The company serves a lot of different masters and we are legally and financially responsible for making tough moves, and this was the last thing we wanted to do. They did nothing wrong.” Just to give them that as the gift; otherwise they’re on their own just trying to explain this. So, it’s generally not the furloughs, it’s the sense that the culture has been told over and over again “We’re one team!” And then all of a sudden, we’re on our own, and if we’re on our own the safest thing to do is detach and take care of ourselves. That’s the genetic memory that will haunt people coming back in.
What advice would you give to those who are out in the job pool searching for opportunity and wondering how they might fit in this new world? People wondering if their skills will translate if businesses begin to pivot.
SS: The relationships between companies and their customers and employees and the supply chain will change for some time—some of it likely for a long time—but the fundamental construct of business has been around for 3,500 years and is not going to just be replaced by some new frontier where you can’t even find the signpost. A lot of the way business works and who is considered valuable will stay the same. The upside of this horrible downside is that the problem is so big, affecting so many people, that there is a sharing of solutions. There are new communities being formed where strangers are helping strangers and neighbors who didn’t even know one another are helping each other. I think for somebody in that position who says “I just don’t know what to do,” I would say reach out. The communities are there where they may not have been there 6 weeks before. It used to be if you were on the street in an up economy there was something wrong with you. That’s not the case now.
If anything, it seems like a buyer’s market right now for strong talent.
SS: It is. Look, you may just need a job anyplace you can get it, and there’s no disgrace in that. But if you’re going to look for a career move, I would say even if the companies are not hiring right now, present yourself to the hiring authority as an alternative. I’ve hired a lot of people and worked with a lot of people who are hiring authorities, and even if you have people who aren’t performing you think twice about pulling the trigger. Because it’s the devil you know, right? So, if somebody said, “I recognize you don’t have anything. I’m asking you for 15 minutes to present myself”…now I’m thinking about you when I’m thinking about that person. Now it’s like not a mystery. If I have to make that move, I actually have somebody on the bench. So, don’t wait for the opportunity. Present yourself as an alternative, and if somebody in a hiring position says to you “no”…well there’s your litmus test. You don’t want to work for that person anyways.
The last thing I would say is, when you’re selling something to anybody it’s important to understand what your customer would buy from you if they could buy anything. Generally what companies sell is not what a customer would buy if they could buy anything. They’d buy something deeper and more meaningful. They have to use that product to create that meaning for themselves. When you think about presenting yourself, think about what the company would really want. They don’t want to fill a position, they don’t want your technical expertise. Those are commodity aspects. Think about what that company really wants. Where is this company? How is this company going to recover? Companies are going to see the folly now of assigning a leadership title by position only, because leadership is not a position. It’s a purpose and a process that falls from that purpose. There are a lot of mangers in a lot of positions who are going to default on applying real leadership now. You’re not a leader by position alone. Leadership is going to spring up from all over the company, and companies are going to need people who can do that because they’re going to find that the people they turned to in the management hierarchy in many cases are just collapsing on them. You chance to position yourself as “I am somebody who can gather people around me for a united focused goal.” That wouldn’t necessarily appear on a resume, but when companies are in this comeback mode trying to keep people amidst this panic, the people that can do that, no matter what your position, now you have my attention.
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