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Mean Companies Suck – How To Drive Cultural Change Even If You’re Not The CEO

3 questions anyone can ask to create the business culture we all want, even if you're not the CEO.

Mean Companies Suck

Imagine you are hired as a marketing manager at Company 123. One of your first tasks is to analyze the ROI of digital marketing campaigns from the past six months. You look at the numbers and think your eyes are fooling you. Few of the campaigns resulted in a revenue increase.

This scenario is exactly what happened to me. In “Mean People Suck: How Empathy Can Lead to Bigger Profits and Better Lives for Everyone,” I recall the story of what happened when I encountered that situation and how it sparked me to try and change the company culture. I also give advice based on my experiences and that of others on how anyone can drive cultural change, even if they’re not the CEO.

Putting the customer first

Ten years into my career, I was hired as the first head of digital marketing in North America at the world’s largest enterprise software company. Similar to the scenario described above, I was asked to assess the company’s campaigns to see what was working so the company could optimize their budget.

It was then I discovered millions of dollars had been spent on marketing campaigns, and there were no results to show for most of them. Their approach was not working and things needed to shift. The marketing team were smart, driven, and well-intentioned. So where did so many of them go wrong?

I knew from my dozens of previous jobs that if you focus your marketing efforts on helping your customers, then you should be able to show better business results. That was when I decided the company needed to focus more on what our customers wanted, not what we thought was important.

So I gathered the budgets from those campaigns into one centralized marketing program that focused on delivering the content that our customers wanted. And I worked tirelessly with my team to make sure they were getting what they needed (leads and sales.)

As a result, we saw millions of dollars of revenue flow into the company. In fact, for every dollar we spent, we gained $18 in revenue. My story is in no way the only one.

Rebuilding LEGO with empathy

In the late 1990s, toy company LEGO was on the brink of extinction. The company had rounds of layoffs and millions of dollars in debt. This difficult era began to change in 2001 when they hired Jorgen Vig Knudstorp as a junior consultant. He took note of what was happening in the company, not what senior management wanted to believe.

Two years later, he asked for a meeting with the senior leaders to tell them the end was near and the company was losing nearly $1 million a day. He pointed out the company had too many products, too many vendors, and the situation was about to get worse. He then said these famous words:

“We are on a burning platform, losing money, with negative cash flow and a real risk of debt default. Which could lead to a breakup of the company.”

He left that meeting; sure he was going to be fired. Instead, the current CEO and grandson of LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen named him CEO. That was the start of LEGO’s rebirth.

Jorgen’s vision for bringing the company back to life centered on empathy. He accomplished this by studying children as they played with LEGO’s signature bricks. He brought in psychologists to study children at play. He even asked his designers to spend a week living with families of children who liked playing with LEGOs to learn how they built, and unbuilt, LEGOs. He also instructed them to learn how children “played well” together. By sticking to the company’s core customer base, and its original successful message, LEGO adapted to the changing business landscape without going under.

It created a domino effect with his leadership team and employees. They recognized the value in Jorgen’s research and his vision. As a result, they began to champion ideas to correct the problems they had yet to figure out how to solve. His ability to champion his employees’ ideas shifted LEGO’s changed the way employees thought about challenges and customers. By taking an empathetic, customer-centric approach, they saved LEGO from the brink of destruction.

How you can drive cultural change at your company

These stories demonstrate you do not have to be the CEO or even part of the C-suite to instigate change in your company culture. That said, I know the perceived difficulty employees face when trying to affect change.

After all, empathy seems to be in short supply in many corporations these days. This is especially true in fields such as digital marketing, many CEOs and C-suite executives lack understanding. They not only hand out big-picture goals but also counterproductive tasks. This scenario is what I refer to as “The Illusion Point.”

To get past this potential stalemate, I recommend employees take a page out of Jerry Maguire’s book and show managers the money. Also referred to as “The Push Back,” employees should ask themselves the following five questions when working to change their company culture.

Step 1: Examine the way ideas have been presented before

Think back to the last few times you took an idea to your manager. How did they receive it? Perhaps until now, you have done what you’re told but you’re bored with your work. He urges us to think strategically about the best way to approach our boss without going too far or caving in too quickly.

Step 2: Ask the right questions

Before pushing back on the status quo, I recommend having your questions prioritized. The organization will help as you challenge your boss about why they’re not receptive to your ideas. If and when your boss pushes back with counterproductive suggestions to accomplish a goal, ask these three questions:

Question 1: Why does this matter?
This question demonstrates that you care about your work and want it to be worthwhile of your time and energy. Your manager should be able to explain how something you’ll be tasked with supports the mission and goals of your team. If he or she is unable to do that, there’s something flawed in the plan.

Question 2: What’s the impact?
By asking this question, you are keeping the needs of the customer in mind and also demonstrating you are aware of the expectations. It also gives you a chance to see if there is a disconnect between what your manager wants and how the anticipated customer reaction.

Question 3: How will this be measured?
This question seeks to not only understand the ultimate goal but what milestones need to be met along the way. Knowing the details of what your manager expects when you’re executing that idea in real time matters. The end goal might be admirable, but what good is executing an idea well without a measuring system to track that success?

A win-win-win situation

Shifting the company’s culture with strategic questions means our days will be filled with meaningful work and a happier work environment. It’s a win-win-win situation. Not only will we be more satisfied as employees, but we will, in turn, create a better customer experience. Happier customers translate to higher profit margins and a happier management team. Let’s face it. No one wants to work for a mean company.

This article originally appeared on MeanPeopleSuck.com

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