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Lessons from Wavelength USA 2016

What happens when you take 20+ leaders from around the world on an intensive six-day trip across the USA, a trip full of inspiration, ideas and insights from some of the world’s most successful, innovative and people centric companies? Every year Wavelength’s flagship USA tour seeks to find out.

Wavelength USA gives participants unique access to the board rooms and shop floors of iconic companies such as Apple, Andreesen Horowitz, Google, IDEO, LinkedIn, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, PARC, Southwest Airlines and Tesla as well as hidden gems such as Silicon Valley Bank and Umpqua Bank. Below are some of the lessons we’ve learned over the past few years, organised around the framework of thinking that we call the Wavelength 10.

1. A Clear and Compelling Purpose

At the heart of every organisation we have ever visited on the USA programme is a clear and compelling purpose, something that answers the question ‘Why do I work here?’ The featured companies understand that energy and passion follows purpose, not the other way around.

At Southwest Airlines they talk about connecting people to what’s important in their lives. As former Exec Team member Dave Ridley explained it “Southwest motivates its employees with a purpose bigger than a pay cheque”.We recognise that everybody gets on board a plane for a reason – it might be a birth, a business meeting, a death, all of them are important in our customers’ lives”.

The Tesla team are driven by their commitment to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport. UK & Ireland country director Georg Ellpainted a vivid picture of how, as a London cyclist he one day looked down to see a completely blackened mask, it made him wonder (with horror) what his lungs must look like. Tesla believe that they have a big and critical role to play in creating a clean, green and sustainable future.

At Intuit, the company behind Quickbooks and Turbo Tax their purpose ‘To improve our customers’ financial lives so profoundly… they can’t imagine going back to the old way’ is a wonderful manifestation of their customer-obsessed culture.

2. Leaders who talk and walk – brining purpose to life through authentic personal action

The leaders at the companies we visit don’t hide behind big doors on executive floors, they are visible, often on the frontline, acting as the ultimate role-models for the people that they lead.

At the The Ritz-Carlton leaders go into every new hotel to deliver the two-day orientation. The President of the organisation can be helping to run orientation at up to a dozen new properties in six to eight different countries every year. In addition, all senior managers in each hotel have to stand in the lobby and serve customers for at least two hours every week.

The Ritz-Carlton motto is ‘We are Ladies and Gentleman serving Ladies and Gentleman’ – and this practice of ensuring every senior manager performs this role, ever week, demonstrates what they want from their people and models the way.

3. Uncompromising on cultural ‘fit’

The companies showcased on the USA programme are relentless about hiring the right people. They are ruthless about people being the right cultural fit for the business and unwilling to compromise.

At Apple we learned it’s not unusual for someone to be interviewed 20 times before being offered a job. While over at Google former VP of Global People Ops, Liane Hornsey told us about a role that she left vacant for over 18 months interviewing more than 130 candidates in the search for the right person, such is the commitment to getting it right. Googlers are hired by consensus with all candidates having a minimum of four interviews. All four interviewers must agree on the hire before the candidate can be hired or progress any further through the hiring process. To this day every new hire is signed off by co-founder and CEO Larry Page – that’s a total of 44k sign offs!

4. Align relentlessly, using structures not wish-lists

The companies leave nothing to chance, they understand that culture is not something static, it is constantly evolving and is always in danger of stagnating and worse, becoming toxic. These companies put a lot of work into keeping their cultures healthy.

The Ritz-Carlton take genuine pride around the very deliberate structures and processes they have in place to preserve their culture. One of the company’s best-known structures, and one they describe as their silver bullet is the Daily Line-Up. Every day, in every department, of every property in the world each new shift begins with a 15 minute team huddle during which the team will not only discuss property-specific numbers and guest information, but more crucially, some news, a service basic and a ‘wow’ story celebrating great service, disseminated from head office – this ensures that all 40k+ employees are discussing the same service basic and hearing the same news on any given day. On the face of it the Line-Up is simply a powerful communication tool whereby consistent messaging is shared across the entire company, but the Line-Up is also a mechanism to deliver 15 minutes of training to everyone, every day.

At Southwest Airlines there is a Customer Care Team who are charged with commemorating the major life events of its employees. Last year the team sent out close to 25,000 cards, gifts and messages to commemorate marriages, births, etc. This structure helps to ensure that no major life event of any employee goes unmarked.

5. Brilliant Basics & Magic Touches

Wavelength USA companies know that little things matter just as much as the big ones. These companies understand that it’s no use surprising with a big gesture if they can’t even deliver on the small basics of service and delivery. When staying at a 5-star hotel chocolates in your room are an empty gesture if your room has not been cleaned or if you’ve got a filthy bathroom.

Southwest Airlines are famous for their ‘positively outrageous service’ but they know that has to run in parallel with safety, reliability and low prices or else their model doesn’t work. Some of the key factors of their operational excellence include a 30 minute turnaround time for flights and a rule of maximum air time – with all their planes being in the sky for at least 10 hours a day. On a recent visit to Southwest the Wavelength USA team were allowed access to their Network Operations Centre – sometimes jokingly referred to internally as the ‘situation room’. While in the NOC we were informed that on that day the airline was expecting a passenger load of 487k passengers and were operating an on time performance of 92%; that kind of efficiency doesn’t happen by chance!

But it’s not just delivering on basics that the USA companies excel at, they are also unique for the care and attention they put into little details – things that may not even get noticed.

The Apple stores are a living testament to Steve Jobs’ obsession with excellence and detail. Every Apple store is constructed with only 4 materials – stone, wood, glass and steel. But not just any stone – the floors are made from an Italian stone that Jobs sourced from Italy, Apple ended up buying an Italian quarry to ensure consistency of quality and delivery. Many chief execs would dismiss this attention to aesthetics as lunacy but it gives the Apple stores their very distinct, high-end look and feel.

6. On first name terms with customers and their people

Great companies are obsessed with their customers. They never forget that there is a human being at the end of every transaction – they never see their customers as simply numbers on a spreadsheet. Going hand-in-hand with that is the fact they allow their people to be human – they not only recruit people with the right attitude but they allow those personalities to shine through.

Umpqua – the self proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Bank’ with 350+ branches across the western United States is led by a CEO who believes in the human touch. In every branch customers will find a retro landline phone with a directory that lists which numbers to press for Loan Information, Private Banking, Investment Services and the President! Press 8 and you will be put directly through to President and CEO Ray Davis, this isn’t just a mechanism for Davis to stay close to his customers but to his people as well, on our visit he told us “Ask any question you want and I promise you’ll get an answer”. What’s more impressive than Davis’ promise is his follow-through, the fact that he actually does speak to people. Gestures like this only work if they are genuine, gimmicks never take long to expose.

At Tesla Jon McNeil, President of Global Sales and Service told us “We don’t do focus groups. We staple ourselves to our customers”. McNeil starts every day studying Tesla net promoter scores from around the world and spends one day a week in a Tesla store. These stores are not located in big, out of the way, just off the dual carriageway showrooms but in places with high footfall, places where people actually want to go and be, such as large shopping malls.

7. Take a bold stance on innovation

Many of Wavelength USA companies are masters of innovation. They have mindfully developed cultures in which new ideas are generated, nurtured and harvested. These companies are equally good at the tricky balancing act of giving ideas space to grow but quickly killing ideas that aren’t fit for purpose.

Tesla believe in first principles thinking where you boil things down to basic, fundamental truths (in Tesla’s case the laws of physics) and then reason your way up from there. At Tesla almost anything is possible. As Mark Lipscomb VP for HR explained it “You don’t say no. You don’t say it’s impossible… The only thing that is not debatable is physics… If Elon is going to try to land a rocket on a small landing structure in the middle of the ocean, I can’t go back and tell him that we can’t complete a spreadsheet”.

Crucially, Tesla’s big innovations always tie-in to the company’s bigger aim – of creating a sustainable future. Take the recently announced plan to acquire roofing solar installer SolarCity Inc. Some commentators are already predicting that the acquisition will lead to Tesla Solar which could become the “Apple Store for Electricity”.

Moreover at Andreessen Horowitz we learned how “Software is Eating the World” and no sector is now immune to disruptive new technologies and business models. In response we learned how an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies are setting up corporate VC units, incubators and accelerators within Silicon Valley in a bid to get closer to the start-up community.

Others are partnering with organisations like PARC who have a clear line of sight and deep understanding of the tech landscape to help them create new business models whilst some like Umpqua Bank have decided to go it alone – creating a new Silicon Valley based division called Pivotus Ventures with the explicit remit of ‘Pivoting’ the existing retail based bank in a digital one.

In a increasingly disruptive, fast paced world CEO’s are becoming increasingly aware that ‘business as usual’ is not a sustainable plan, and enlightened companies like Umpqua are figuring out what’s their ‘Business as Unusual’ structure is.

8. Use environment consciously and productively

The Wavelength USA companies are very clever about the way they use their space. Offices are designed to encourage collaboration, bring to life their history, vision and values, keep customers top of mind or encourage certain behaviours. The walls at Southwest Airlines are used to celebrate the company’s history but also to celebrate their people. You get a palpable sense of fun when walking the buildings at Southwest – over 40k photo’s in corridors and meeting rooms celebrate every marketing communication and party in the companies 40+ year history whilst giant hanging airplanes and playful murals painted on the wall as well as mannequins that showcase how the company uniform has changed over the years. The buildings are brightly lit and coloured and frowning faces feel decidedly out of place.

At PARC a highly impactful ‘history wall’ immediately brings to life the organisations incredible heritage as one of Silicon Valley’s foremost technology innovators famed for bringing the world the personal computer, Ethernet and Laser printing. Whilst at TESLA a huge Plasma in the lobby shows a map of the world with live data about KWH’s of power delivered, electric miles enabled and gallons of gasoline saved – serving as a wonderful reminder of their purpose.

We’ve also noticed that a bold stance on innovation goes hand-in-hand with space to innovate. The offices of IDEO are not designed around departments or functions but rather spaces where cross-functional teams can set-up shop for the duration of a project.

9. Relentless communication connected to purpose

The manner and frequency with which companies communicate is a very powerful driver for ensuring that everyone is aligned and connected to the company purpose. The best companies know this to be true and are very deliberate about how they communicate internally.

At Google the company-wide (TGIF) meetings are held weekly. Googlers are invited to ask questions directly to founders Larry Page or Sergey Brin as well as any number of senior execs. The CEO’s annual letter to the board is shared with the entire workforce as Google deem it critical that all Googlers are fully aware of how the company is doing and the direction the company is heading.

At Umpqua Bank they operate a Team ROQ (Return on Quality); it is a monthly survey that every team has to complete about the service they received from every other internal team. This structure not only highlights what is working and not working internally but it helps to start conversations between teams. If any teams falls below a certain score, the team that assigned the low score are obliged to explain why they scored them that way – and the worst performers are discussed at the board. This ensures constant dialogue and feedback between teams which helps to break down silos and cut down on miscommunication and misunderstandings.

10. Resilience and wellbeing

When all is said and done business is always about people. Big or small, high-tech or low-tech a business is only as good as the people who work there and the health of the business is dependent upon the health and wellbeing of their workforce. You can run the fastest growing company on earth but if your people are suffering from burnout and exhaustion then you are operating on borrowed time. The majority of companies that we visit are mindful of this and put in place measures to ensure that their people are physically and mentally fit.

LinkedIn and Google have both created campuses where people can work hard and play hard. There are on-site gyms and spaces to play team sports as well as private spaces where people can go for some peace and quiet. Food is free, delicious and plentiful with an emphasis on healthy choices.

But resilience and wellbeing isn’t just about food and exercise – it’s about creating an environment where people feel valued, respected and happy. A facilitator addressing a roomful of new recruits at Southwest Airlines summed it up nicely when she gave them this advice “We have a tough job, we have regulators to contend with, we have the weather. You’re going to have difficult days. Some days you’re going to be the winner and some days not. But it’s your job to recognise when a fellow Southwest employee is having a difficult day. And you have to help your co-worker out, you’re going to have to cheer them on. Because that’s what we do here”.



Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of the Wavelength Speakers Bureau. To view full biographies and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:

Georg El, UK Country Director, Tesla Motors

Dave Ridley, Advisor to the CEO, Southwest Airlines


About Wavelength USA

Wavelength USA is one of our annual study tours and gives our participants unique opportunities to get inside some of America’s most pioneering and successful businesses and into the heart of the digital revolution in Silicon Valley. Want to know more? Click here

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