Strategy

Now hear this: Isadore Sharp, founder, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Company culture matters. That's the message from Four Seasons' hotelier Isadore Sharp and he says it's not something you can reduce to slogans, theories and memos.

Founder of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts Isadore Sharp has spent decades developing a culture in which all employees — right down to front-line staff — are empowered to take responsibility and make decisions, rather than exclusively relying on orders from management. Sharp tells Joe Castaldo the hardest part of selling culture internally is enforcing it.

There’s going to be fallout from people who aren’t able to abide by the culture. You have to be prepared to not compromise. You have to part company with those people who don’t buy into it, because culture is not something you can preach. The actions of the senior people determine how people below them will behave.

Building a culture requires a firm belief that what you’re trying to do is worth pursuing and that you understand what the purpose is behind it. When you have an understanding of what the culture means and how it will be helpful, you can slowly get people to buy into it, provided they’re comfortable with the value system that every culture stands on.

Culture has to start from the top, the person who really is able to control and make the decisions to reinforce it in a meaningful way. And that’s not done by sending out a lot of memos and reading books about what people should be doing. It’s really acting out how you expect people to behave. It’s that old expression of “walk the talk.” And that has to start from the top and work its way down through the organization at every level. If you can’t get down to all levels, you’ll never get it done. In other words, all the senior people in the company at each level have to accept the culture and believe in it in order to abide by it.

With our culture, what we end up with are people who will not do just as you say, but will take on a responsibility and try to do more. You encourage people to use their own initiatives to rise to their best abilities. It’s just a style of leadership where people do things not through fear, but through influence. It’s more of a team effort that we succeed. It’s not what one of us does; it’s what we all can do together. There’s a great expression by Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s chain, and I think it was something like, “None of us is as good as all of us,” and that’s really our principle.

I’m not saying our culture is the one that works for everybody. It doesn’t. Whatever the organization is doing, people have to determine how they can make it succeed. It’s not one size fits all. It takes a great deal of perseverance and a long time. The bigger the organization, the longer it will take, and the more difficult it will be if it’s a change of culture.

To change the culture at a big organization is a very difficult task. I don’t know anybody who’s done it successfully. You might get things happening at different points in time, but in order to speak of something as a brand, it has to be performed every time. It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s a question of how successful it will be. Is it 100% buy-in from employees? Or is it 50% buy-in? Maybe 50% buy-in is good enough, it’s better than what it was. And if that creates a better work environment and more productivity, even though everybody doesn’t have the same attitude about it, it might be better than the status quo.