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The Earls example: How to reverse corporate culture

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

While speaking at Oberlin College, Martin Luther King said, "The time is always right to do what's right."

Truer words could not have been spoken today as it relates to an organization's purpose and its internal culture.

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An organization is made up of people. For the organization to define and enact a more purposeful mission and strategy, it ought to be actioned by the senior leaders of an organization. The more inclusive and open an organization becomes, the more likely employees will feel engaged operating with a sense of purpose in their roles at work.

But the problem rests with the fact too many organizations are full of disengaged employees and a lack of organizational purpose. In a recent study, Korn Ferry Institute found that only 36 per cent of employees are highly engaged at work. Enacting purpose and an engaging organization is not an exercise in lip service. It takes courage to redefine purpose, but it also requires action to build a more engaging workplace.

"We weren't really putting purpose first. We were almost lying to ourselves, faking it."

Those were not the words I was expecting to hear from Brenda Rigney, vice-president of people operations at Earls when I interviewed her. "We used to make promises about our purpose and culture, and then we wouldn't do it," she continued. "We didn't know how to make purpose intentional, so we consciously decided to change things. We decided to focus on purpose – on our purpose – so that our employees could understand it, and bring it forward to our customers."

Earls commenced operations in 1982, opening its doors in Edmonton as a family-style restaurant. These days, Earls Restaurants can be found in more than 60 different cities. It employs more than 7,000 people across North America, who cook and serve food to more than 10 million customers each year.

When Mo Jessa was promoted to president 25 years after starting at the company as a prep cook, he and Ms. Rigney began discussing what was needed to make Earls the career destination place of choice for young people in North America. It was a tall order, you might say.

In order to attract new employees (and to retain those already working there) they both felt they had to re-establish its purpose. "Until partners see a correlation with what they want in life, with what Earls wants," said Ms. Rigney, "in order to get partners to buy in, we wanted the experience of working at Earls to be real, attainable and something the partners wanted themselves. We wanted employees to feel as though Earls was an integral part of their life."

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One of the first actions the company took was to redefine its purpose through the development of a new purpose statement. It reads:

"We believe in people living large purposeful lives, filled with fun."

Another transitional action the company took was to define new "Leadership Commitments":

  • Integrity: The assurance of an ethical environment for all partners. You can expect this.
  • Authenticity: What we say we’re going to do, is what we do. Authenticity is continuous.
  • Something bigger than yourself: Don’t talk behind the backs of people. Do everything possible to be present in the moment.
  • Cause in the matter: Be the centre of change, the epicentre of doing. Everyone can be a leader.

From there, the company began working with legions of chefs, cooks, servers and managers to discuss, teach and learn about purpose and the organization's bet on improved engagement practices. One particular story Ms. Rigney shared outlined the benefit of restating its organizational purpose, and how it affected the company's engagement and bottom line.

An Earls restaurant in a particular location was really suffering. Sales were declining and the engagement of its employees was low. Customer service issues began to percolate. Tough decisions had to be made. A new GM was brought into the struggling restaurant – one who had recently been educated about the new purpose mission of Earls, who adopted the practices right away – and her work began to pay immediate dividends.

After only three months, sales began to increase sharply. Three months after that, profits began to increase, too. Team member engagement scores went from the low 30s to 75 per cent. Customer satisfaction was repaired as well.

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"This new GM simply believed in a purpose-driven and fun environment, caring about the partners, the guests, the community, and herself," said Ms. Rigney. "She just began knocking it out of the park for us."

Ms. Rigney concluded, "We're always trying to help leaders and partners 'see the purpose light' but ROI and better numbers do not come overnight. Everyone has to be patient. It's about people ... not robots and it's these people who have to choose, learn, and to make mistakes. Purpose is not going to happen instantaneously."

But it was Earls and its senior leaders who heeded the advice of Martin Luther King. They took action on both organizational purpose and employee engagement. The results are potentially a blueprint for other organizations to follow.

Dan Pontefract is chief envisioner at TELUS, where he helps organizations enhance their corporate cultures. The excerpt is adapted from, " The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role, and Your Organization ", published on May 10, 2016.

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