Jun 20, 2016 | Leadership

At 11:21 a.m., Pacific Surfliner 763 glided into the Amtrak station in Ventura, California. The train was 12 minutes late.

As I gathered my things to step off, I worried that the delay would put us behind schedule. I was escorting five team members from San Diego-based Stone Brewing Company to the headquarters of Patagonia. We were on a culture field trip to study this 43-year old outdoor clothing and gear company. We wanted to learn about its mission and purpose, its values, its recruiting and onboarding practices, and about its commitment to social and environmental sustainability. We had four hours.

But as soon as we stepped onto the platform, I felt that we had been transported to another world.  A world where Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, first set up shop in 1966 in a rented tin boiler room of an abandoned meat packing company 65 miles north of Los Angeles. A world that coexisted beside the rolling Pacific surf, not obsessed with squeezing every drop of productivity from the day.

We were greeted at the station by Betsy, a company paralegal who padded alongside a well-loved, communal campus bicycle. Betsy escorted us on the 10-minute walk from the station to the Patagonia campus – a variety of repurposed buildings that included the company’s oldest retail store and Chouinard’s original blacksmith shop. She dropped us at the on-site café where we began our visit with an organic lunch. Over the café doorway hung a wooden sign inscribed with the company’s purpose statement:

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Throughout the afternoon, we spent time with employees who were passionate about being part of the still unfolding story of Patagonia, and excited about being a part of something bigger than themselves. Here are some of the top takeaways from the day:

1. Get clear about your purpose.

Not only did we see the purpose statement hanging in the café, we also heard it echo in the words of every employee we met. Employees like Heather in Quality and Logan in Environmental Responsibility understood how their jobs are directly linked to the company’s purpose.

Heather works in the company’s in-house lab to ensure all of Patagonia’s fabrics meet rigorous testing to backup the company’s pursuit to build the best product. “’Make the best’ is a difficult goal,” writes Chouinard in Let My People Go Surfing his book about the history and purpose of Patagonia. “It doesn’t mean ‘among the best’ or the ‘best at a particular price point.’” Heather uses a variety of machines, each with an affectionate nickname, to perform tests for things like pilling and elasticity. “Dale,” for example, is a machine that puts fabrics through abrasion tests. Patagonia guarantees its clothes for life. Heather takes that guarantee very seriously.

Logan’s team helps Patagonia codify and quantify its mission to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. The team ensures that the company meets B Lab standards and Benefit Corporation reporting requirements. B Lab is a nonprofit organization that certifies a company’s social and environmental benefit (hence the “B”) in the way TransFair certifies Fair Trade coffee. Benefit Corporations give directors the legal protection to allow a company to do more than return profit to shareholders. Logan is proving that doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive business objectives.

2. Hire people who want the same thing as you.

Chouinard describes his leadership style as MBA – management by absence. He started the business over 40 years ago as a way to pay the bills so that he and his friends could earn enough to go on mountain climbing trips. At today’s Patagonia, candidates for an open position must have not only the skillsets and experience for the job, but, more importantly, a passion for the outdoors and for environmental sustainability.

Chipper acted as our tour guide for the afternoon. He peppered his talk with surfer terms like “rad” and “gnarly,” and spoke with passion about Patagonia’s support of the organic cotton industry and alliances with mega-buyers like Nike and Walmart. Chipper walked us through the company’s 43-year timeline, and gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the production process. By the end of the tour, it was clear that Chipper was a highly knowledgeable and passionate advocate for Patagonia’s mission. What we did not learn until later, was that he was also a 13-time World Freestyle Frisbee champion, and had spent the entire morning surfing with summer interns – the living embodiment of Chouinard’s ‘let my people go surfing’ policy.

3. Hardwire your culture into the DNA.

By the end of the day, it was evident that Patagonia’s culture was part of its DNA. Our conversation with Dean in Shared Services gave us a picture of how culture was hardwired into its infrastructure.

He started with how Patagonia hires for culture fit. “It doesn’t matter what skills or experience someone has,” he said, “if they don’t fit our culture, their presence can act like a drag, weighing the entire company down.”  The company will hold positions open for several months to a year, if necessary, to make sure they find the candidate who is a culture fit.  Next, Dean emphasized that, while getting culture right in the customer-facing positions is important, it’s even more important with the infrastructure positions like human resources, legal and finance. Those are employees with touch points to every part of the company. Their decisions and behavior must reflect the company’s values in action every day.

Finally, Dean advised that we “lean in on everything to make sure it supports the culture, from the ridiculous to the sublime.”  Once you are clear about your culture and you have carefully vetted people for fit, scrutinize everything – policies, procedures, benefits, systems – to ensure they support your stated culture.  “Your core values drive business,” said Dean, “don’t let busy-ness get in the way.”

At 4:15, Betsy’s familiar face met us outside of the company store. We were full of stories and insight from the day’s field trip as we walked back to the train station. As we waited for the southbound Pacific Surfliner, we said our goodbyes to Betsy before she hopped on her bike and rode toward to shore to pickup up her 3-year old grandson for some afternoon paddle boarding.

Question: Do your employees understand your organizational culture and their role in supporting that culture? 



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