George Zimmer has one word to describe his culture at The Men’s Wearhouse Inc.: trust.
“That’s not to say every single person in our organization trusts the organization,” he says. “We have 17,000 overall employees. But the critical mass of our company does believe in the organization, trusts the organization, and in fact, the organization trusts its employees, and we both trust our customers. I think that’s where it starts.”
When Zimmer talks about trust, he doesn’t want to sound new age, because the word has a business application to it. One of the significant expenses in the retail business is called shrinkage, which includes theft by employees. Yet, the difference between shrinkage at Men’s Wearhouse and one other major retailer is 200 basis points a year.
“That’s a lot of money,” says the founder, chairman and CEO of the retailer, which posted $1.97 billion in 2008 sales. “So, trust is a significant leverage in your economic model.”
Because Zimmer was a child of the ’60s, he brought ideas from that generation with him to Men’s Wearhouse, including respecting people regardless of their position in a company.
“There can only be one manager of a store, but nonetheless, the manager has to have a relationship with the other people,” he says. “I think it was that type of thought that created the original foundations.”
Those foundations helped Men’s Wearhouse and its more than 1,200 stores again be named to Fortune magazine’s 2009 “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.
Aside from accolades, the culture helps Zimmer retain employees, but he hopes it will also help the company through this tough economy.
“Customer loyalty is harder to measure,” he says. “As we are in this recession, one way to measure this is that I believe when the recession ends, Men’s Wearhouse will have a higher market share than when the recession began. That will be because of our corporate culture, which will be the glue that holds the customer and the employee and the organization, the shareholder, holds it all together.”
Encourage feedback and ideas
One of the best ideas Zimmer ever received for the company came from an employee. About 10 years ago, Zimmer attended a training class for company employees, and an employee wanted to run an idea by him. The employee made a presentation to Zimmer during a meal about tuxedo rental and how it could benefit the company. The idea made sense to Zimmer and is now a valuable part of Men’s Wearhouse. But the lesson there isn’t in the value that the idea brought. It was the fact that if Zimmer wasn’t willing to listen to an employee’s idea, he would have never heard it.
To create that type of openness between manager and employee, the company has three key principles of interpersonal communication it teaches to managers.
One principle is to listen carefully.
“What we mean by that is try not to speak until the other person has said the last syllable of what they are saying,” he says.
It’s a simple concept. Waiting one second after your employee or colleague has said his or her last syllable will create a more communicative and trusting culture.
“You can actually change the tenor, not to mention the rhythm of any conversation by forcing each person to wait one second after the other person finishes before speaking,” he says. “In that one second, the human brain is able to have an enormous number of thoughts so you get a different dialogue because there’s been a larger universe considered.”
The second principle is to elevate the other person’s respect.
“That sometimes is difficult. The idea is to not take respect away from somebody in a dialogue,” he says. “You try to find something that the employee is either good at or has made good progress at. Start with that. And, then, this is where leadership is an art at the appropriate time and the appropriate way, move from that to the area you believe needs improvement.”
The third is to always ask the person who is being supervised for his or her suggestion as to how a problem might be solved. This eliminates waiting for a lower-level employee to come to you with an idea or question and instead allows you to open the door of communication.
“We’d say it like, ‘What do you think we ought to do about this?’ because it’s oftentimes a coaching conversation a store manager is having with somebody in his store,” he says.
Yet, even with the three principles, Zimmer still says there can be improvement, especially when it comes to employees who have a question or a concern.
So, along with the three principles, the company also has 10 employee representatives inside the company who have a certain number of stores for which they are responsible.
“When there is a problem that somebody has in one of our stores, it’s suggested if it can’t be resolved in store or by the regional manager, that they call the employee representative, who, although they are paid by the company, is told to represent the employee and think like the employee,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that we agree with the employee, but you’re allowed when you are an employee representative to understand the employee’s position differently than their regional manager might.”
While having a position dedicated to dealing with employee problems can be efficient, direct communication with you can also solve many problems.
Anybody in the company can e-mail Zimmer with a question or concern.
However, one hurdle Zimmer runs into with e-mail is some employees aren’t college graduates, and they don’t think they write well. That significantly reduces the feedback he hears directly from employees.
“I tell people I like primary information, as opposed to information sifted by various levels of management, but I only get five a day on average,” he says.
To try to increase that number, Zimmer reminds employees every time he speaks to them that he wants their feedback, and he wants e-mails.
You need to constantly communicate that message to improve the chances that employees will buy in to it and communicate with you. Then, once you get an e-mail regarding feedback or a question, you need to address it as soon as possible.
“I consider anything to do with employees or the stores to be my priority,” he says. “That’s one of the other things, I guess, when it comes back to trust and authenticity. That is my priority. I don’t say that, I don’t pay lip service to that. That is how I run this business and how I live my life. So, I think the people that work in our stores, know that.
“And there’s some sense of comfort they get there, I believe. Normally it’s the people that are in the ivory tower that are sort of getting the time of the CEO. It’s kind of in reverse here.”
Even if you don’t know the answer, reply to the employee that you received it and have someone working on getting the answer.
“If I don’t know the answer, I say, ‘Thanks for the question. I’ve sent it to so-and-so who will contact you.’ If I do know the answer, I give them the answer,” he says.
The fact that you are responding will go a long way in creating a culture of trust and responsibility.
“The lower you are in the company, the more shocked you are and the more impressed you are with George,” he says.
It’s hard enough for an employee to come forward to you with an idea or with a question, so the chances of them stepping up and admitting a mistake is even less likely to occur. That’s why you have to create a culture where employees aren’t afraid to own up to a mistake.
“One of the things that I’ve never actually understood and what I’ve heard a thousand times in my career is, ‘You should hold people accountable.’ I actually don’t know what that means,” he says. “It sounds to me like holding somebody accountable means when they make a mistake of a certain size, you terminate them. That’s not how I run the company.”
One way to make it easier for employees to come forward with a mistake is to put it in your mission statement.
“In our mission statement, it says we want to be a company where you can admit to your mistakes,” he says. “You wouldn’t be able to admit to your mistakes unless the company was prepared to not adversely impact your career because you admitted to it.
“I don’t have a lot of experience as an adult in other companies, but I would imagine that in many companies a mistake is made and somebody is afraid to admit it, so they try to cover it up. When it’s finally uncovered months later, it’s not traceable back to them, even if it cost the company a few bucks.
“At our company, we say, ‘Hey, don’t worry if you made a mistake. Nobody is going to adversely impact your career when you come forward right away, because it will make it easier to correct the mistake.’”
Much like someone coming to you with an idea, you need to constantly remind employees they can come to you with a mistake.
“I think that what people might be concerned about is having a supervisor somewhere along the line that just doesn’t like them because of their having taken the initiative to say something,” he says. “Knowing this, I speak about it every time I speak to our employees, and I remind everybody that I can protect their anonymity if that is what they want. I’d rather not. Part of the culture is that you have to learn to have somebody say something that’s not the nicest thing you’ve ever heard about yourself and be able to overcome your natural tendency to not like that person.”
Zimmer will fire an employee for stealing or not being able to meet job requirements, but he is more lenient if the person made a mistake trying to improve the company.
“We wouldn’t let somebody go under any conditions if they had the right intentions and made a mistake, regardless of the size of the mistakes,” he says
If you do have to confront somebody who made a mistake, avoid using anger when speaking with him or her.
“Sometimes the mistakes are on one-off things, in which case, it’s not that important that they fully understand the mistake,” he says. “But, if it’s something that is part of their routine, then of course it has to be corrected. What I’ve found is when you lean on people and are hard to people, particularly when they’ve made mistakes, you might get a temporary short-term burst out of fear, but it shortly erodes and you are left with less than you had.”
How to reach: Men’s Wearhouse, (800) 851-6744 or www.menswearhouse.com