Check the Vending Machine

Why the LITTLE Things Matter: A Lesson in Leading with Compassion

It’s no secret that “culture fit” is a crucial part of any hiring process in an organization that must not be overlooked. According to a July 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review, the result of poor culture fit due to turnover can cost an organization between 50–60% of the person’s annual salary! Hiring leaders based on their experience, relevant technical depth, and pristine track record are table stakes these days. Paring the core values and drivers of the leader with the ethos of the business are arguably the most important factor in predicated future success of an executive. It’s so important that investors and companies allocate significant capital on intensive cultural assessments and evaluations such as the Myers-Briggs, Hogan, StrengthFinders, and a host of others at the end of an interview process. Candidates may even be removed from consideration in the final stages, after they have already been vetted and approved by the entire leadership team, based on the results of these somewhat subjective assessments.

Ok, I get it! Culture is important. Is just understanding the culture of the organization you are walking into enough? How do I successfully impact, change, or improve the culture once I begin? How do I gain trust in a broken culture? For any leader who is transitioning into a new environment, these may be some of the questions you are asking. Does success in a new culture require the creation of inspiring manifestos that ignite a fire in the belly and an esprit de corps in your inherited employee base that would otherwise lay dormant? Does transformative change in an organization require painting motivational quotes on the wall of your company, or delivering motivational speeches that rival Al Pacino’s “Game of Inches” speech in Any Given Sunday? While these big concepts certainly can’t hurt when delivered in the appropriate way, it’s the sometimes-overlooked LITTLE things a leader can do that have the biggest impact when transitioning into a new organization.

In a recent Founder transition we were engaged to execute, we were dealing with a technology business in a small town location, with highly tenured employees, challenging pre-existing allegiances, and more politics than an episode of House of Cards. The incoming CEO inherited an overly skeptical employee base and had the obstacle of replacing a Founder who led through non-traditional tactics and closed door policies. How does one overcome these hurdles and gain the appropriate trust required in the first 90 days to drive change in a private equity-backed environment? While the experience, credibility, style, and authenticity of the incoming CEO contributed greatly to his early success, it was a LITTLE change rooted in compassionate leadership that made all the difference.

During one of his first weeks as CEO, he was walking the halls and made a trip to a vending machine in the office for a soda in between meetings. To his surprise, the vending machine prices were curiously inflated. After some appropriate due diligence, the CEO made the decision to decrease all vending machine prices drastically. Initially, the employees thought there must be some error or temporary price drop that could only have been triggered by ripple effects from Brexit, or something more analogous to a Black Monday crash. Either way, word spread quickly and the employees scrambled to stock up and capitalize on the limited time arbitrage opportunity before prices returned to their normal inflated levels. To their surprise, the CEO explained this was a permanent change. The eruption of joy and gratitude expressed even surprised the new CEO. Ultimately, this simple act broke down walls, earned trust, and increased communication between employees and the CEO.

While the simple act of lowering vending machine prices alone, is relatively insignificant, the key is that this act was rooted in compassion and empathy. What you may think is too LITTLE to matter may actually be all the difference. Take time to assess and understand the new culture of the organization through empathetic eyes. Operate from a place of compassion, authenticity and awareness. Show vulnerability, and check the ego at the door. Environments where employees can feel open to communicate, share opinions, and express ideas leads to progress and eventual success, but to achieve that, you must first gain their trust. Whether they know it or not, employees are craving a reason to run through a brick wall for their leader. So before you deliver that motivational speech, present the new 9-point plan for success, or paint that new inspirational motto on the wall, lead with compassion and be sure to check the vending machine!

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