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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