Corporate Culture: Deeper than Dollars and Cents

This past Labor Day, Delta Airlines made headlines in the business world by sending out a memo informing employees that they would be receiving an unexpected four-percent raise. A couple of years back, American Airlines gave its employees a comparable across-the-board raise. Do such management decisions, on their own, serve as evidence of an accountable corporate culture? I say no.

Here is why: It is not just about the money.

An accountable corporate culture is one in which people know exactly where leadership stands in terms of its commitments to the workforce, and the people are inspired by those commitments to make and fulfill commitments of their own, to both the organization and its customers. This all ties back to the company’s mission, of course. Delta’s mission statement, for the record, reads as follows:

“We—Delta’s employees, customers, and community partners—together form a force for positive local and global change, dedicated to bettering standards of living and the environment where we and our customers live and work.”

Wow! Now, if you are a Delta employee, it is fair for you to ask just how closely the words and actions of senior executives align with that statement. It is worth noting, then, that when Delta’s CFO Paul Jacobson spoke recently to the Cowen and Company 12th Annual Global Transportation Conference, he made it clear that the “positive local and global change” envisioned in that powerful mission statement started with Delta’s employees. In discussing the recent salary increase, Jacobson said, “The core value proposition is: Am I satisfied coming to work, do I enjoy what I am doing, and am I getting paid for results?”

Jacobson also pointed out that “culture is not something you put on a memo and dictate to the organization that this will be our culture. Culture is ultimately what’s born out of the values of the company. And as we focused on serving others and we focused on serving each other, that’s where the culture is born.”

Notice the emphasis on service. Those are powerful words, words that explain why the company raised salaries, and that serves as a potent reminder of senior management’s commitment to a compelling, clearly stated mission.

What Delta’s executives have created, I would argue, is an environment where the people on the payroll know, by both words and deeds, exactly what senior management believes in and values. Leadership has done an excellent job of demonstrating that they value people. Specifically, their people. Not just the customers. Not just efficiency. Not just clean planes. They really do value their people! And it is because Delta employees know that, and have tangible evidence for it, that they are more likely to strive to be their very best, be accountable, and deliver their very best, day after day.

What I want you to notice here is that the salary increase only has meaning in a cultural sense to the degree that it supports the mission and the vision of top leadership. In Delta’s case, it clearly does.

I can tell you with absolutely no hesitation that the opposite is true in American’s case. How do I know that? Because American has no formal mission statement! The closest I could find was a “customer service plan” stating that “American Airlines and American Eagle are in business to provide safe, dependable and friendly air transportation to our customers, along with numerous related services.”

If I’m an employee at American, and I read that, I get a sense that I am simply a means to an end. Frankly, there is also a sense of confusion, since no one seems to know what American’s mission actually is! Is it identical with the customer plan? Is it different? Is it a secret? No one can say for sure. At least, I couldn’t find it after a long and involved search.

A salary increase at Delta serves as tangible proof of accountability, and that the company is following through on a commitment to make the world a better place, starting with its employees. A salary increase at American, on the other hand, feels more like a capital investment in equipment — or an obligation.

Now let me ask an obvious question. If you had to travel somewhere, and you were given the choice, which airline would you rather fly on, based on your own personal experience–Delta or American? As a frequent flyer, I can tell you without a second’s hesitation that I would rather fly on Delta. And I could also tell you that I am not alone in feeling this way.

That is not an accident. And that is not the fault of the employees at American, either. That is a failure of the corporate culture. That is the result of the decisions made by the leadership. Ultimately, accountability and corporate culture always come back to leadership.

If you are invested in employees for their own sake, as Delta is, that is going to affect the kind of relationship your employees have with customers! Your relationship with your customers can never be better than the relationship between your company’s leadership and the employees.

When you build an organization that creates great relationships internally by valuing the people, supporting the people and appreciating the people, then employees pick up on your commitments and are inspired to match them by delivering outstanding customer service.

The moral of this story is a simple one. If you want to build a corporate culture in which your employees are truly accountable to customers, make sure your leadership is truly accountable to the employees!


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