Culturally Speaking, The Grand Canyon Is Still Being Made

I was searching for solutions among the challenges one morning, and my music choice – “Music of the Grand Canyon” – reflected the mood.

Nine year-old Nikolas came into the room, careful not to disturb the sanctity of a home office (“you can see me, but I’m not here”), but inexplicably drawn to the music as if it were being played by some ethereal Pied Piper.

Nikolas sat and carefully studied the photo on the CD cover, a beautiful image from the bottom of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. He then broke the silence with a subtle question:

“Dad, there’s water in the bottom of the Grand Canyon?”

“Yes, Nik” I responded, careful not to shatter the curiosity of a child whose questions numbered in the millions, “The Colorado River runs through the Grand Canyon.”

“So”, he paused, then stated almost searching for confirmation,

“The Grand Canyon is still being made.”

I turned to respond curtly at first, then just smiled and said,

“Yes, Nik, the Grand Canyon is still being made.”

I scribed this passage several years ago, when I was indeed faced with the challenge of reminding employees that every interaction, every daily accomplishment was shaping our organization’s future. They could relate to the concept of a river reflecting our culture, flowing through the organization, quietly at times, not so quietly at others.

Over time, it has taken on a deeper meaning.

Some will say, “Tall Tim, people have been using a river as a symbol for organizational culture for centuries”.

True. They all sound something like this, “Culture is like a river that flows through an organization, its ebb and flow reflecting changes and growth over time.” I have even used similar statements.

This insight was different, though. It had depth and dimension. There was a vibrancy to the images portrayed, as if it possessed a certain Call-to-Action for leaders within an organization.

For if you have an opportunity to raft along the Colorado River, you cannot help but be immersed in the history of the Grand Canyon. Its all around you, everywhere you look, embracing you with its massive accomplishments over time.

The true value of the experience is when you realize that you continue to move forward. The river is progressive and does not rest on what it has accomplished. It is a silent, persistent quest to create a new future, one stone, or one experience at a time.

When you have achieved a balance between these two perspectives, you will begin to understand your responsibilities as your organization’s Cultural Attaché.

Becoming a Cultural Attaché

Show me ten different organizations, and I’ll show you ten different organizational cultures. That’s the beauty of it – every organization has its own story, its own unique culture that guides strategic thought and practical application.

The challenge lies in how well the organization utilizes that culture to influence and engage its workforce. I have worked with companies that can tell great stories, colorful histories that describe their genesis moment, depicting growth and changes over time.

When you look around their work environment, its like “What gives?” There is little, if any, evidence of the company’s past to inspire us to power onward and create a fabulous future.  Culture ties a person’s day-to-day efforts to the higher purpose of the organization. As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure our employees remain immersed in that culture.

While organizations will remain diverse, there are a few aspects universal in your commitment to becoming a Cultural Attaché:

Size Doesn’t Matter

Fortune 500 or family-owned business, every organization can embrace their unique culture. If you are just starting out, this is a great time to gather a collective focus, when you first determine who you are, and how you will be conducting business. You are creating your future from this moment on.

Larger organizations, with more storied histories, will want to evaluate their cultural strategies periodically, to maintain relevance to today’s workforce. We refer to our example of the Grand Canyon, where you strive to strike a balance between what you have done, with the potential of a bright and prosperous future.

I know first-hand how hard it can be to establish a workable culture when you’re just starting out. When we had our restaurant, the best way to describe any presence of culture would be “Desperation”.

While I had a small core of loyal employees, I never took the time to share my visions, thoughts, and dreams about the future. The type of service experience expected, elements of behavior, an approach to daily tasks that would identify our restaurant as a unique Brand.

The result was constant turnover among the kitchen staff, which accounted for 75% of my employee roster. Part of it can be attributed to the nature of the business, being a neighborhood restaurant. I can remember when one of the dishwashers did not show up for work on a Friday night.

“He said he made enough money to pay for his car stereo and speakers, so he’s not coming back to work.”

Like I said, nature of the beast. Please invest the time to share your visions and aspirations with your team. Solicit input, since nothing says engagement quite like asking “What do you think?”. Remember that your culture will guide and influence strategy over time, but your staff will be interacting with your customers and guests daily.

Let The River Flow

Make your culture visible and relatable to everything you do. This is the secret behind some of the world’s most successful Brands – the ability to emotionally identify with and understand the connection to the organization’s higher purpose.

The Ritz-Carlton, for example, is the world’s most recognized, iconic Luxury Brand. While their legacy dates back to the 19th century and the visionary Cesar Ritz, the modern-day organization operates around five specific, and detailed Gold Standards.

Every element of hotel design, menu planning, guest service experience, heart of house and guest facing behaviors, including verbal and non-verbal communication, refer to those Gold Standards both directly and intuitively. This culture permeates a property, inspiring each Lady or Gentlemen to think innovatively, always questioning “What more can I do to exceed my guest’s expectations?”

That’s the power within a culture.

Consider ways that you currently promote your culture. Breakrooms and cafeterias are great places to display items of cultural relevance. These could be quotes from previous leaders, statements or objectives that describe and define your culture.

This can also be the platform to reinforce your organization’s Core Values, which provide guidance and influence the behavior of both individual employees and the organization in general.

It has become popular to have pocket-sized cards produced that either reflect some of these objectives, or highlight company standards, service basics, a motto or mission statement. These cards then become part of a employee’s uniform requirement (or to be kept on their person in the case of non-uniformed staff).

If this is a chosen direction, it is important to repeatedly refer to the information on the cards at daily meetings, staff briefings, call-times, etc. Simply passing the cards out during an on-boarding process will not enhance the individual’s connection to your culture.

It must be a living, breathing process that is part of your overall routine. Like any aspect of your business, it is the process that will produce results. The more consistent you are with reinforcing culture, the more influence it will carry among your work force.

Weave In A Great Story

As a leader, you should be well-versed in your culture and what it represents to the overall success of the organization.

“Well-versed” includes being able to evaluate events and experiences, then describe how they relate back to your culture. This is like an experiential learning process, wherein you are describing ‘what’ happened, ‘why’ you took specific action, and ‘how’ you can apply these lessons moving forward.

This doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult, but it will require vigilance on your part to “catch people doing something right”, then provide the appropriate analysis. The more you practice, the more natural the process will become.

I can recall a simple example. One evening, I was Lobby Ambassador at a large resort in Central Florida. It had been a very steady evening, nothing overwhelming, yet always something to do.

The performance of the Front Desk Supervisor that evening had impressed me. Although working through a constant flow of arrivals, she never lost her warm, genuine smile. Her behavior and attitude were reflected in the demeanor of her guests, each of whom walked away from their interaction smiling, with a noticeable air of positivity.

Arrivals had slowed to a trickle, and I wanted to seize the opportunity to provide her my impressions and feedback. She was walking toward the end of the desk when I asked if she had a moment.

Well, I was going to grab a coffee before Starbucks closed”, she said, but true to form paused and asked, “How may I assist you?”

We laughed and I began to share my feedback with her. Admittedly, with the pace of the evening, I thought this was my one opportunity to highlight the many positives of her performance.

Just then, a late shuttle arrived from the airport and guests began to pile into the Lobby.

The Supervisor glanced briefly toward Starbucks, then excused herself as she moved back to her station to assist with the new batch of arrivals.

I felt awful, and jubilant at the same time. Awful in that the only thing she wanted to do was grab a coffee before Starbucks closed, a last-minute pick-me-up to help power through the rest of her shift. Looking back, I acted so selfishly, consumed in my determination to provide in the moment feedback.

Jubilant in the fact that when faced with a choice, the ultimate Moment of Truth, the Supervisor chose to serve her guests, placing that commitment above personal wants and desires. I was overcome with pride, having witnessed a living application of the organization’s Culture of “making guests who are away from home feel welcome, and among friends”.

My shift ended before I could reconnect with her. I wanted to share this secondary recognition and promise that the coffee would be on me next time we worked together. Never had the chance.

Two months later that Supervisor became my Learning Manager, helping to spread the value of our Culture and Core Values to both new and incumbent talent.

Although I probably still owe her that coffee, it hasn’t stopped me from sharing this story with service professionals across multiple Brands and properties. Great examples, great stories are invaluable to the efforts of any Cultural Attaché on a mission to improve performance.

One Stone At A Time

An organization’s Culture is a precious commodity. Able to withstand the twists and turns of time, it stands as a constant among the chaos, reassuring every employee of what the organization represents. It provides a glimpse into the past, while slowly forging a bright and prosperous future for everyone involved.

Leaders act as an organization’s Cultural Attaché, leading the process of Cultural Awareness by referencing elements of performance and achievement back to cultural touchpoints, such as Mission Statements, Vision, or Core Values. This process is enhanced through Great Storytelling, the art of catching people doing something right, then turning that into a lesson that others may learn from.

Thank you for spending today with Tall Tim Talks!

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