WHAT I KNOW: Principles Must Be L-I-V-E-D

Posted on April 19, 2022

What I know is that over 90% of leaders don’t angst over who they are, and how they want to show up as people in their business behavior. Why I know this is through my work over the 35 years of doing work inside of organizations and coaching companies. But why I know this is important is because of something that happened in the late ’80s.

WHY I know what I know: lessons from my time at Lands’ End

When I was at Lands’ End, we were growing very, very quickly. Over 80% a year. We had exploded;  we had moved the business from the Chicago tannery district to Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Yes, we all chugged out to Wisconsin. But we were growing so swiftly and separately that there weren’t guardrails that defined who we were, how we were to behave, and how we would collectively be united in the decisions that we made as we grew.

So one day, Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End—I remember this very distinctly—went into his office or his house, or wherever his cave was that he used to go, and he came back with the Lands’ End “Principles of Doing Business.”

Now, we’ve seen a version of this kind of thing, in many companies. They call them mission statements, or whatever they might be. But what has to happen—and this is what I don’t see in almost 90% of companies is living those things—is translating them into behaviors into modeling those behaviors. And in making them so understandable and simple that people could take action on them.

Let me read a couple of them to you. I have them in a booklet that we created and sent out in boxes at the time called, “Out our way.” This is something that we sent out in incoming shipments to say, hey, here’s who we are. I’ll talk a little bit more about the purpose of that and how we did or did not measure that in another time. But at the end of this is the “Principles of Doing Business,” because it was important for our employees and our customers to know what those guardrails were: what those non-negotiables were around what we would do, but also what we would not do to grow the business.

#1. We do everything we can to make our products better, we improve material and add back features and construction details that others have taken out over the years.

So the specificity of this is important because it said to the buyers, “Our buyers source everything. They build everything from scratch, don’t cut corners.” This is a principle of who we are as people and how that manifests in your job, as a buyer and a builder of product.

We price our products fairly and honestly, we do not, have not, will not participate in the common retailing practice of inflating markups, to set up for a phony future sale.

In fact, what was fascinating—and again, something important because you have to translate, if you believe in this, you have to live it—there was a situation, in many times a situation, where we were sourcing product and the product price for example, Shetland wool, might have gone down. And so in that period of selling the sweaters—that next period after we got the wool from the from the sheep—the price of the sweater went down. So we pass that on and we explain that the principle has to be able to be lived in action. Otherwise it’s a bunch of great words on the wall.

We accept any return for any reason at any time. Our products are guaranteed. No fine print. No arguments. We mean exactly what we say. Guaranteed. Period.

Now what’s interesting about this is that you’re always going to have people who push against those kinds of things. And we got a lot of pushing, because people are just—you know—human.

I remember, we had this one guy who returned a pair of socks 10 times, and the the people on the phones—yes, we had phone people back then; we had over 2500 phone operators; this was before everything went internet—they would feel violated a little. That the customer was taking advantage. But part of what the teaching was and living the principle was this was the perception of this person that they needed to return this item.

Now again, when it when it when it goes crazy, you manage the situation.

But what we needed to do, and what we did with these principles was: we use them to lead. These are not just baseless sayings that were put on a wall or written. They were leadership behaviors that we lived in that we could all model let me give you another one.

We ship faster than anyone we know of. We ship items in stock the day after we received the order. At the height of the last Christmas season, the longest time an order was in the house was 36 hours, except for monograms, which took another 12 hours.

Okay. You’ll like this story because: my job was to continue to build the experience, and one of the things that we did, as we were building out the holiday season every year was I said, “Look, people need to know, they’re going to get their box in time.” And so because I pushed and pushed—I’m a little pushy, if you didn’t know that—we created the very first Christmas guarantee in the industry.

And it was, “if you ordered by this date…” Now you’re used to this, but that didn’t exist before. “If you ordered by this date, we guarantee that you’ll get your order by Christmas.” And we even put our money behind our mantra and said, “If you don’t, we’ll give you your order back.”

Now, there were a couple people that were worried—a couple of the bean counter people. But again, we lived it. Gary and the leadership team said, “No, if we’re gonna…if we’re going to live this, we need to live it. And we need to prove it.” I think we gave away maybe 20 orders that year. And we there were hundreds of 1000s of orders that were shipped up.

You want another one? Okay, I’ll give you one more.

We believe that what is best for our customer is best for all of us. Everyone here understands that concept. Our sales and service people are trained to know our products and to be friendly and helpful. They are urged to take all the time necessary to take care of you—even pay for your call—no matter what reason you call.

Again, another principle that track to operating practice. We had no talk time. Lands’ End still has no talk time. If you are putting a tracker on people’s, you know, cubicle or their computer while they’re talking, they’re going to be paying more attention to meeting that metric than to really listening to the customer.

Connect Operationally

The other thing that we did: Gary was genius; he moved Land’s End to Wisconsin where he found beautiful, wonderful farm people that got up at four in the morning and hayed the fields and plucked eggs from warm hens. And then came to Lands End’ and clocked in and talked to all of the great people out there. But it was this practice of saying to them, “We’re giving you everything you know, and then take the time to have the conversation.” In fact, we had a lot of people who called in the middle of the night, who would just wanted to hear a friendly voice.

But again, it had to connect operationally. Lands’ End was growing very fast as many companies were. And we were bringing in people who were operationally diligent around running a call center, but who were not connected to our way of doing business.

So one day I was wandering around as I usually did. And the the VP of Operations for call centers had just come in from another big, big, big, big, big call center company. And he started hanging the talk times on the systems that the call center folks were in, and I—shocker—walked right behind him and yank them down. This guy was livid, as you could imagine.

And he’s like, “What are you doing?” And I said, “This is not how we do things here.” “Well, let’s go to talk to the president.” Dick Anderson was our president at the time. He said, “Let’s go.”

We went in the office. He pitched his importance of talk time. And Dick said, “No, this is not what we do. We look at it. But we manage to the outcome. We manage to the person. We lead for the behaviors that earn the customer feeling they’re taken care of.”

So what I know is that over 90% of the companies that I encounter, in both my practice as a leader and also in my experience as a customer, haven’t done this hard work: to define the guardrails and then to live them, to model the behavior, and to enable the people to live it.

And again, this goes back to leadership. You need to create clarity about what you will and will not do. The specificity in those principles? It established clarity and established a path. It led leaders to believing in what we did, but it also united them to the behaviors that we all had to take in a common way. And then that defined who we were as people. That was a big thing that we talked about, “Based on that return or that call, what are the attributes that you would have?”

So that’s what I know for today: the majority of the companies aren’t angsting about their guardrails, and they’re not then defining and translating that into leadership behaviors.

You can find more at customerbliss.com/WhatIKnow. Thanks, everybody.

More on “Principles Must Be Lived”: