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How To Safeguard Your Company Culture

By Linda Heuer and Andea Burkholder

Photo by Christian Sterk on Unsplash

I know it was cancelled, but I did like watching the reality show Undercover Boss.  On every show, without fail, the owner or boss of the company would have no idea what was really going on.  It wasn’t that these executives weren’t showing up for work every day or didn’t have a set hierarchy in place.  If you were to break down each and every episode, the real root cause could always be explained away with bad decisions, lack of communication or a failure to listen.

Many of the “Bosses” had lost touch with the day to day operations and with the people who were tasked with carrying out those duties.  They believed they were making effective decisions without realizing how those decisions were affecting every person down to the lowest level.

In essence, they had somehow gotten in their minds that they knew everything.  After all, these CEO’s and Bosses were the ultimate decision makers.  They were supposed to know all the answers…. that’s what they’re supposed to do and why they get paid the big bucks, right?

Wrong! – The moment you, as a leader of the business, believe you know everything about a something, is the exact moment you not only begin to fail yourself, but everyone around you.  These CEO’s and Bosses believed they knew it all or thought they had a good grasp on their business prior to their undercover site visits.  Not only had they failed themselves, but their company, their employees and their customers.

Why Site Visits Are Essential To Long Term Success

Numerous company CEO’s focus on their financial bottom line and assume that the culture of the business is right because the balance sheet looks good and they are exceeding their financial results.  Many of these companies have been living on a financial high, a bubble that could burst at any time.  That’s a real issue when the bubble burst, as they are left with diminished sales and growing financial cost associated with turning the business back around.  It can take a tremendous amount of time to determine root cause.  Many companies eventually figure out that the finances were managed so tightly that they lost their company culture.

When company culture slips, that makes it easier for other companies to enter the market, for the competition to catch up or for new technologies to successfully launch.  After all, company culture is what sets many companies apart from their competition.  Their customers like the attention they get, they like how they feel when they visit, or shop and they feel like they have a personal relationship with the business or brand.  Customers can feel the “vibe” and if your employees are giving off a positive vibe, your customers will react positively to it.

Think about what Apple does, they over staff their stores, allowing their employees to wear jeans and to have fun hair colors among other things.  They let, actually, they encourage their employees to show their personality.  They work to keep their employees in the “zone”, so they are feeling good and emanating that positive vibe.  Think about the last time you shopped at an apple store, you probably noticed most of their employees were in a good mood, you felt welcomed, you felt special and you felt the fun vibe.

Apple has a customer centric marketing strategy.  This strategy assures their customers have a positive experience before, during and after their engagement with the company.  Their strategy drives repeat business, drives customer loyalty in a positive direction and has a strong potential to increase their profits.

The true point of your site visit is to assure your company culture is in line with your expectations, to assure its customer centric.  To assure you aren’t so focused on your financial goals that you have jeopardized the culture you worked so hard to build, to protect your brand.

You want to know if your employees are living the mentality, if they are energized and how you feel when you visit the location.  There should be a buzz, your customers and employees should be intertwined, they should be truly engaging with each other, there should be a warm, friendly feeling…. If you can feel it, so can your customers.

The Importance Of Having A Student Mentality

In the Undercover Boss, many of the company CEO’s had not maintained a student mentality, they had ceased to learn and grow. Maintaining a student mentality is key to long term business success as it builds trust with your workforce and expediates transitional periods within the business.  Whether you are a start-up or and experienced entrepreneur who has been around the block, there is always something to learn.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, understands the importance of maintaining a student mentality.  While CEO at Microsoft, he encouraged the launch of a Twitter bot named Tay.  Tay was designed to advance artificial intelligence communication.  According to Anthony Petrucci, Senior Director of Corporate Communications & Public Affairs at HID Global, “Artificial Intelligence will bring a new level of trust to information, improve the way information is delivered and provide better insights and predictive analytics for decision making by corporate communications professionals.”

Microsoft’s plan for the Bot was to do just that, build trust and expediate communication with the customer base.  Within 16 hours of launching Tay, the public experiment went horribly wrong.  As people began to take advantage of Tay, they bot started tweeting racist and profane comments.

Microsoft quickly shut Tay down and of course apologized for the Bots actions.  The engineers responsible for Tay had no idea how the CEO was going to respond to the embarrassing launch of Tay.  Shortly after learning of the disaster they received an email from Nadella simply stating, “Keep pushing, and know that I am with you… (The) key is to keep learning and improving.”

Keep learning and improving…  This response is an important statement because it exemplifies a number of attributes you should incorporate to help keep your maverick’s creativity going.  It conveys faith, trust and true leadership.

In my years in retail sales, I’ve seen the value that can come from conducting corporate site visits, I’ve also seen how they can negatively impact your company culture and eradicate trust.  So, deciding how and why you are doing your site visits is crucial.  If you are just doing the visit to check off that box in your job description, stay home save both you and your employees valuable time.

Corporate Visits Defined:

There are typically three primary visit types of site visits that can be incorporated into your business model.  The three types of visits surround learning what’s working or not working, assessing or auditing previous findings and teaching new business practices or strategies.

Before you get to your location, decide which of the three visits you will be executing.  With each of these visits, it should go without saying, the opportunity for you to gain trust and to develop a culture of open communication with your staff is there for you to cultivate and take advantage of.

The 3 Types of Site Visits:

1 – Learning visit

The primary objective is to learn for yourself the who, what, when, where, why and how’s of whatever is occurring at the location.  This visit is a chance to put your detective skills to work so you can improve on current methods, fix known issues or learn best practices that can be expanded beyond the office location.  This can be done as a planned visit, surprise visit or as a secret shopper visit.

I was at a John Maxwell leadership conference a few years back and had the opportunity to hear a company CEO, I don’t remember who, speak about his site visits.  He was big on getting in his daily run, so he would intentionally book his hotel a few miles away from the site he planned to visit.

On the day of his visit, he jogged to the location and immediately started picking up trash in the parking lot, something he had be taught to do as a child by his father.  Once finished, he went into the location and worked with the dining room clean up staff to clean the dining room.  While both picking up trash in the parking lot and cleaning the dining room, he conversed with customers and staff about their day, their experience at the location, what they liked, what their opportunities were and just worked to learn about them.  From there, he worked his way to the back of the house to talk to employees.

This is a great example of a learning visit and exhibits the CEO’s student mentality.  He was clearly focused on the culture within his organization and on identifying what was working and what wasn’t.

2 – Assessment visit

This is the most commonly misunderstood and executed types of visit.  The point of an assessment visit is to use what you already know about the operation from prior learnings, to evaluate the situation and/or complete an audit, assessment or review.

When working in corporate America, we had an external office that had very high cancellation rates, we identified the root cause based on customer feedback and had confirmed the behaviors thru a site visit.  As a result, we conducted training sessions to clean up the behavior driving the high cancellation rates.  We waited about 30 days and then returned to the location to perform ride days to assure the behavior had been properly corrected.   This is perfect example of an assessment visit.  We had prior knowledge, had already trained the corrective behavior and were assuring the corrections had been implemented.

3 – Teaching visit

This is where most of the issues within your organization will be identified.  Uncovering what the organizations opportunities are generally occurs randomly thru open conversion during these training sessions.  These sessions normally occur prior to launching a new product or system, performing refresher trainings or after things have gone wrong. Often these visits are where you learn the most.

In this type of visit, it’s important to ask open ended questions to assure your team has proper understanding of what you are teaching.  Open ended questions are the key to identifying opportunities.  An open-ended question is a question that requires an answer other than “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”.  The extended answer they provide is where the nuggets of information will present themselves.

Breaking it Down

Setting clear objectives before you get to your location and remembering that you are there to analyze the culture, to help build your team up and not tear them down, should be the first items on your list.  Look for what your team is doing right, then inspect what you expect.

Ask questions, respect opinions and above all else, listen for what is working and what is broken.  Find out everything they are doing right, not just looking for what they are doing wrong.  Pay attention to each individual’s personal thoughts and find out what is going on in their lives.  I’ve found that personal issues are accountable for a majority of problems occurring in a location where once everything was seemly perfect.  You might be surprised to learn who is taking care of a family member with cancer, who has an ill child or any other number of issues negatively impacting the performance of the location.

When I’ve come across these issues, I typically offer time off, in a caring manner.  I never offer it as an ultimatum.  When they return, I’ve found that I have increased the chances of them becoming a life-long dedicated employee that will be more productive than you could ever imagine.  I’ve also found that when I help an employee in need, other employees respect the actions I took.  Remember:  People first, profits will follow.

From time to time you may have to combine 2 or all 3 types of visits into one.  Just remember the 3 types of visits:  to learn, to assess and to teach have their own distinctive elements and depending upon how you execute your visit, will either contribute to or diminish your effectiveness.

Communication is Key

How you present your visit is also a major factor in successful site visits.

  • Have you defined your company culture?
  • Do your employees have a clear understanding of your culture?
  • Do you know your audience well enough to determine what the repercussions of a surprise visit would be?
  • Would you gain a better picture of what is going on in the day to day operations by not giving them time to prepare?
  • Is this type of visit necessary or would it create an atmosphere of distrust among your current team?
  • How are you going to convey the reasoning for your site visits? Are you even going to convey the reasoning?

If you don’t know the answers, then you still have some work to do on your open communication and listening skills before your visits can reach their full potential.


I’ve found over the years is that if your team needs to prepare for your visit, then they are not executing their jobs correctly on a day to day basis or the company doesn’t have the trust of the employee base.  If the location is over performing and are taking time to over prepare for your visit, they may have found a better process they are working to hide out of fear of repercussions.

Your ultimate goal should always be that whether your visit is a surprise or planned you must LISTEN, develop trust, promote communication, create an environment of empowerment for your people.  New and fantastic ideas or learned habits should be formed and everyone should come out better for it in the end.  That’s really the only way to protect your culture….

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