Lessons From Yogurt on Growing a Culture

Want to build a strong and sustainable business, political movement, or religion? According to John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, the wise leader follows the example of one of the most ancient cultures on Earth: yogurt. 

Want to build a strong and sustainable business, political movement, or religion? According to John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, the wise leader follows the example of one of the most ancient cultures on Earth: yogurt. 


In this excerpt from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake (Alec Baldwin) confronts the employees of a tough Chicago real-estate office:

. . . the good news is – you're fired. The bad news is you've got – all you got – just one week to regain your jobs, starting tonight. . . . Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. 'Cause we're adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture?

What’s the Big Idea?

For John Mackey, neither scaring the pants off your employees nor delivering rousing locker-room speeches is an effective way of building a strong company culture. First, because the effects are strictly temporary. Second, because the bigger your organization gets, the less you can afford the time it takes to continually rekindle that terror or enthusiasm.

People naturally look to their leaders for an example to follow. This is no less true of an office than of a nation. Rousing speeches are good for winning elections, or boosting morale in the wake of a disaster, but what inspires loyalty and devotion to a cause is day-to-day action. Employees want to know that their bosses are passionate about the business, open to new ideas, and committed to furthering the well-being of all company stakeholders, including the employees themselves.

Unless you’re a horrible boss, it’s easy enough to lead by example when you’ve got ten employees. When you’ve got 54,000, as Whole Foods does, it’s a little trickier. How do you transplant a strong company culture to a new branch of the business? How do you replicate that 100 times over?

Mackey likes the yogurt metaphor; just as a dollop of yogurt introduced into a jug of milk will acculturate the whole jug, a star employee or two can be the “starter culture” for a new office or store. Whole Foods places fully acculturated “Whole Fooders” in key positions at each new store. Explicitly (through intensive training sessions) and implicitly (by example), these transplanted insiders transmit Whole Foods’ culture to local employees new to the organization.

What’s the Significance?

What makes any organization sustainable? Lasting political systems, religions, philosophical movements, and businesses are all, at their core, based on a set of principles. In any successful movement we can see the yogurt metaphor at work. A charismatic and principled leader spreads the word. Early adopters of the new idea become community leaders, innovating within the framework established by the founders and transmitting the message to those with whom it resonates. The most talented members of this next generation grow into the future leaders of the movement, and so on.

In a networked world, where ideas can quickly go viral and spread planet-wide, the question of scalability is a pressing one for businesses. They need growth plans that will enable them to grow as exponentially as demand will allow without compromising what made them desirable in the first place.

More pressing still is the responsibility the global marketplace places on innovators to create products worthy of these vast new opportunities and the enormous influence they bring. In other words, to make sure that the yogurt they’re reproducing is not only delicious and brightly packaged, but good for people, too.

This post is part of the series Inside Employees' Minds, presented by Mercer. 

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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

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