Teach and Enforce

Team sitting in a circle

In his book about the founding of the United States, historian, Joseph J. Ellis noted that the seven founding fathers faced a serious and delicate situation, recognizing that “If the infant American republic could survive its infancy . . . [and] endure long enough to consolidate its natural advantages, it possessed the potential to become a dominant force in the world.”[1] This is the challenge faced by enterprise leaders at two critical points in the evolution of a company: (1) during its founding and (2) when trying to change its culture in major ways.

While the situations appear to be polar opposites – one where there is no culture to guide the founders and the other where there may be culture that blocks change – the challenge is the same: establish the necessary values, beliefs, and mindsets that support success. The skills required for this task are those of the teacher-enforcer.

In their role as teacher, leaders must present an inspiring picture of the future they want to create, why it is important, how to get there, and what is in it for employees if they commit to the journey. What leaders teach is a shared understanding of the “what” and “why” of the right thing to do. There is more than a lot of cheerleading and coaching demanded by this task as well as enthusiasm for making tie-breaking decisions.

I remember the founding of Outback Steakhouse and CEO Chris Sullivan’s commitment to “fresh,” including fresh cut french-fries. Anyone in the restaurant industry knows that fresh cut fries are a pain to consistently execute. Nonetheless, Chris committed his company to doing it, one fry at a time from one restaurant through the company’s growth to 1200 restaurants. At the time, I did not recognize that what he was doing was building and protecting the company’s culture, one detail at a time.

For the first twenty years of the company’s life, just about everyone else in the company wanted to shift to frozen fries because of their ease of handling. The discussion came up often in the open forums common to the company at the time. Chris would listen to the discussion, say he heard them, and then say something along the lines of “who wants to get fired for a frozen fry!” Chris had a way of ensuring that he always had one more vote than the opposition. There were five or six things that were foundational to the company’s culture and, like it should be with all cultures, the person with ultimate responsibility for its heath and strength has to have the last say.

When your chief responsibility is the health and strength of a company’s culture, having the last say is a good thing. One of the lessons from Chris’ laser focus on the few details that signaled Outback’s culture was that just because everyone wants to do something does not mean it is the right thing to do for the culture. What he had done was to send a less than subtle signal that details mattered, that quality mattered, and that culture mattered. Another lesson is that a company leader who teaches has to have high standards and be unafraid to impose them on the company. One of the challenges for any leader is to identify the signals of the company’s culture.


[1] Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers. Alfred A. Knoph Publisher, 2000, page 7.

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