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Polish your company’s culture

Before launching Sorbet, which grew to become one of South Africa’s top beauty salon groups, I developed the culture framework around obsessive customer service that would be the cornerstone of the business and which has been recognised as central to its success. 

Sorbet became the testing ground for my concept — were my theories right, and could I put them into practice?

The answer to both of these questions was yes, and when we exited Sorbet years later, I formalised the framework we used into a methodology that any business can embrace. We call it “Cultureneering”, and it is the foundation of my coaching and consulting philosophy. It represents everything a business needs to put in place in order to build a successful culture. 

Here’s how it is broken down:

The socio-political context 

This is the soil on which your house sits. I learned early on in my career that what happens outside the business affects what happens inside the business. Employees don’t leave their feelings and experiences at the door when they arrive at work each morning. South Africa has an extremely complex socio-political context, and it informs the way we all live and work. It affects how colleagues interact and how employees engage with customers. For example, we’ve seen time and again that businesses and brands which remain tone deaf to the racial realities that our country still faces, do so at their peril. Instead of ignoring the socio-political context, face it. Encourage open and transparent discussion throughout the organisation. It’s your choice — you can build your house on quicksand or rich, fertile soil.

Reason for being, core values and purpose of work

These are the foundations of any business and they must be in place before you can deliver anything of value to your customers.

Your reason for being is why you exist. It’s very easy to get this wrong, mainly because businesses tend to look inwards instead of outwards. I made this error myself when I launched Sorbet. I wanted us to be the number one beauty and salon brand in the country, and so that was the narrative we told our staff (and ourselves). It took my daughter, Jade, who was marketing manager, challenging me on the relevance of this outlook. I soon  realised that I’d been looking at it backwards. No one cared whether we were number one or number 50; not our staff nor our guests. Instead, we had to refocus on what they cared about. This shift allowed us to find a reason for being that actually mattered: touching people’s lives.

Core values and purpose of work are the other two elements that work in tandem with your reason for being. Core values determine the way you support your reason for being — what does it mean to you and how does everyone in the business live the values? 

The purpose of work is simple: it is to serve the needs and wants of your customers. It should never be about money or profit. Those are the rewards for good service. Service should always come before reward. If your entire business can get behind these ideals, you will automatically begin to build a service culture.

Personal development, culture-driven leaders and community building 

These pillars support each other. For example, before a leader can create and support a community, they need to work on themselves and understand how they are standing in their own way. If you can’t experience personal growth, it’s impossible to develop a team. We also all come with our own baggage, paradigms and unconscious biases that need to be challenged. Leaders who address these in themselves are able to walk the journey with their employees.

Once a leader has focused on their personal growth and shown the ability to transform themselves, they can begin the journey to becoming a culture-driven leader. Culture-driven leaders don’t believe that culture affects the bottom line — they know it is the bottom line. Get it right, foster and protect it, serve the people who serve your customers, and the rewards will follow. Great leaders get people to follow them to places they would never have gone by themselves. They inspire people to motivate themselves.

Finally, community building can take place. A business that becomes a community is a place of safety, where people can speak without fear, where unpopular views are tolerated and accepted, and conflict is perceived as constructive. 

Communities can only be built by leaders who have undertaken a journey of self-discovery and shifted the paradigms that could have undermined it.

When you have all of these elements in place, you have built a culture that supports a common purpose of “obsessive customer service”.

Obsessive customer service

The natural state of people is to serve each other and our communities. When we tap into our reason for being, we feel most fulfilled when we are adding value. Great business cultures don’t need to convince people to be of service — they remove all the barriers to what comes naturally to us. 

Follow the steps above and you will be giving your employees, your business and your customers a great gift.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Ian Fuhr
Ian Fuhr is the chief executive of The Hatch Institute, a personal and business leadership coaching company. He is known as a serial entrepreneur who founded the Sorbet beauty salon chain

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