Organizational Culture – Are you holding out for a hero?

A cruise ship on the water

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game. In the end, a company is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”   – Lou Gerstner

I just returned from a cruise in Hawaii, and besides providing some much needed R&R, my experience was a vivid example of how companies thrive – or fail – through teaching and enforcing their culture.

We define culture as the shared values, beliefs, and experiences that guide the thinking and behavior of an organization, and believe its sole purpose is to support the success of the organization.

With 950+ crew serving more than 2,000 passengers across numerous entertainment and service venues each day, each crew member’s alignment with the organization’s culture and standards has significant power to influence the passenger experience.

Vacation Heroes

While on vacation, I noticed several crew members wearing “Vacation Hero,” pins.  While this is an admirable term, and we all need heroes, I wondered what this term meant to corporate leadership, cruise ship leaders, and crew.  Further, how do you hire “Heroes” and develop them once they are on the job?  Here are two experiences that got me thinking about these questions.

Experience One: At dinner one evening we were seated at a well-appointed art deco restaurant on one of the lowest levels and farthest aft (aft means the back of the ship).  This means we were close to the engine and propellers and could feel movements and turns easily.  Our server arrived and was eager to help us with the wine selection.  I was impressed with his positive demeanor and excited about our dining experience.  Before we could give our drink order, however, my mother asked to be reseated as she was starting to feel nauseous because of the movement.  Our server said we needed to return to the host station (a hundred or so feet away) and ask to be reseated – not a great move – especially for someone feeling ill.  Because of his initial impressive demeanor, she asked if he could still be our server to which he replied, “Sorry – I have a difficult enough time keeping up with the tables in my area.”  We were quickly reseated, by a somewhat puzzled and harried looking hostess, in a section where, we soon found out, the server had not yet begun his shift so we had a 10 minute wait until we received water and beverage service.


Experience Two: Most memorably, on the final night we had a reservation at a Brazilian Churrascaria – a restaurant that serves 12 (yes, that is correct) courses of meat.  I only eat fish; however, there were few openings that evening to use the last of our dining package.  The reservationist we spoke with said they would be able to bring me a vegetarian or fish entrée from one of the bordering restaurants without a problem. However, when I told the server I needed a vegetarian or fish entrée – he gave me an annoyed look and said, “This is a meat only restaurant – no fish.”  We explained the situation and noted that the reservationist said: “all restaurants will accommodate dietary restrictions.”  He cautiously explained he would need to speak with his manager to determine if there was a way to accommodate me.  The manager was responsive, apologized for the inconvenience and lack of alignment between the reservationist and the servers, and (curiously) took care of me exclusively for the remainder of the meal – while the server took care of my mom.

Culture is the shared values and beliefs of an organization that influences behavior and expectations.  While relatively minor, these small lapses in heroic service, and a few others I experienced, make me wonder how the intended passenger experience, and core values are communicated and enforced.  Each touchpoint, or event that influences customer thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, affects customer loyalty and future buying intentions.   I remember how these gaps in service made me feel almost as well as I remember the Vacation Heroes: the staff members who made learning the dance routine to Thriller fun and surprisingly easy (significantly increasing my dancing confidence!) and our caring and attentive room steward who was always around to answer questions, created a fun environment playing off my mom’s unique sense of humor, and immediately knew us by name.

Building a Culture of “Heroes”

Heroes accomplish impressive feats, often sacrificing their own needs for others. This goal of heroism, however, is only useful if operationally defined, developed, and enforced.  What can crew members do in Guest Services, at the bar, while leading games, or serving passengers in their rooms to earn the title of Vacation Hero?  After this is identified, you can define the core competencies, and skills, abilities, and personality traits required for the acts of heroism needed to achieve the passenger or customer experience, and create an environment that develops and engages these heroes to build passenger loyalty and referrals.

What's Next?

As Lou Gerstner stressed, culture is foundational to staying competitive.  To become best-in-class, you must have a clearly articulated vision, and processes and procedures that ensure you are maintaining your culture and delivering you intended customer experience.  One of the most important processes is how you hire.  We believe that your hiring managers are your culture’s gatekeepers – as the people they bring into your organization have to be aligned with your culture and standards.  If they aren’t, your customers’ experience will suffer. Tools such as pre-employment assessments and structured interviews help identify people who are ready to live your values and consistently provide your intended customer experience.

What are the biggest gaps between where your culture is and where it should be?  With your customer experience and core values defined, you can identify the competencies and traits you need to hire and develop for – building a consistent customer experience that will build loyalty and market share in the process.

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