After reading an article about Whole Foods employees looking to unionize, I had to ask myself, is the Whole Foods we knew and loved gone? The ethos of Whole Foods (like all companies, organizations and groups–even your friends and family) is about its people, their beliefs and values. That is the essence of any culture. In any acquisition (or organization) the culture is the key driver of success, but it can also be the key driver to failure.
Whole Foods has been the epitome of the good-for-you, good-for-the-planet culture. When any entity, in this case, Amazon, comes into an existing culture like Whole Foods, and starts to change these beliefs and values, it can cause an eventual breakdown of the historical culture. That’s why I am so afraid this unionization move is a major signal of purposeful cultural collapse, especially as it relates to employees getting Amazon’s attention and letting them know that they have a problem.
In Amazon’s world, it is all about customer satisfaction. Period. Everything they do is measured by this. Obviously, Amazon has built a trillion-dollar valuation company, so they are not wrong, by any means. It is just that they are not purposeful when it comes to causes like Whole Foods has been. My concern is that many of the important causes of our time–that Whole Foods has led, like the organic movement and the animal welfare movement, just to name a few–will potentially falter. That is why this attempt at unionization, to me, is a major sign of the culture clash at Whole Foods, brought on by Amazon’s acquisition, and the overriding customer centric culture versus the cause centric culture of Whole Foods.
In my current role at TwinLab, I am determined to build on the existing purposeful culture while at the same time guide a legacy supplement-product driven company into a digitalized, omni-channel preventative healthcare company. A cultural shake-up for those who are used to the “traditional” business model. It’s a major challenge to preserve the culture in the digital age. That’s why I believe that super-sensitivity to the existing culture, by the entire executive team, is our primary job and we work hard at it every day.
I use these two examples, Whole Foods culture vs Amazon culture and Twinlab, to bring to your attention a major point: When an outsider with different beliefs comes in and tries to change an existing culture, the outside culture, if more powerful and more influential, will usually prevail. The existing culture will collapse. This is true for every company, for all of the organizations we support, for our families, and even our circle of friends. This collapse will leave people with only two options: Either accept the new culture or get out.
I have personally experienced this sometimes unfortunate side effect of growth. When Nestle bought a company I co-founded, Pet Promise Pet Food and again when Waste Management bought Code Blue Recycling (GreenOpolis), no matter how much attention I paid to preserving the respective cultures of these two small companies, the larger culture won out in the end.
I went into these situations with the altruistic thought that a small company could change the BigCo culture. But I was wrong. The BigCo culture prevailed and people got tired of fighting the BigCo processes, which where primarily financial, making everyone and everything a number versus a purpose driven goal.
I have to admit that in the end it beat me, too. I couldn’t take it after a while, this constant culture clash, and honestly quit fighting. So I am incredibly sensitive to cultural issues in everything I do in my position at Twinlab, and in all the other areas of my life, as well.
The ultimate resolution of this cultural clash could be great news, as it will open the doors for other brands and retailers, like Sprouts, to stand up and become a leader in the “better for you food and product movement.” Their president, Jim Nielsen, is a Doer, doing great and purposeful things, like supporting Vitamin Angels (NGO provides vital nutrients to children suffering in developing countries) by being involved both financially and personally, in their mission.
But in the case of Whole Foods, I hope for all involved that the culture clash with Amazon will be a driver to success with Prime discounts and using the Whole Foods stores as Amazon’s brick and mortar base. But I can’t help but feel that this unionization drive puts a spear right in the heart of the Whole Foods purpose driven culture, and the “conscious capitalism” mantra of John Mackay.
I believe as Doers, it’s important that we realize that culture matters. I think it’s important for Doers to recognize that they can create a positive, purposeful environment and do great things. They can create a culture that is good for everyone around them while addressing bigger global causes.
As I said above, the real world that I am living in now makes me respect the challenge that building a positive culture takes, whether it is a purposeful culture like Whole Foods or a customer centric culture like Amazon’s.
I hope ultimately, we see a perfect evolution to a more customer centric Whole Foods, without the total loss of its caring culture, and the emergence of new leaders like Sprouts’ Jim Nielsen to lead us into a new purposeful world.