Market Basket walked the corporate culture walk

Organizations talk about the subject all the time, yet rarely do they take the time to actively engage employees


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It is rare to see such a pointed example of how powerful corporate culture can be, which is why business schools around the country followed the Market Basket saga as a case study in organizational behavior.

To recap, before the agreement to sell the firm, CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted by the board of directors, prompting upper and middle management of Market Basket to walk out to protest his firing. The management team took the brunt of the punishment, encouraging hourly employees who needed income to pay weekly bills to stay at their post and not risk their jobs.

What a different approach from typical strikes where the average employee is out on the street and middle management is working to keep things going!

Market Basket has distinguished itself for a number of years. When you walked in the store, it seemed you always saw someone you knew that worked there. For many teens, it was their first job, and it was clear that many of those who worked there made a career of it. Name tags noted two years, five years, 10 years and longer. It was not unusual to see employees who had worked there 20 and 30 years. The employees were friendly, incredibly knowledgeable and always hard at work. The stores became the core shopping destination for locals and visitors alike.

Other chains were in the process of condensing and closing, while Market Basket plowed ahead with expansions and redesign of stores.

What was it that made these stores so successful? The employees would say that the secret was in the culture.

Employees were an integral part of the team. They were included in profit-sharing and received good benefits. But beyond that – and bigger than the financial perks – was the care, concern and attention the CEO paid to every store and the individual employees who worked there.

Arthur T. was known for showing up at stores daily, and knowing not only the names of his employees, but the names of people in their families, and what was going on in their lives. He was the consummate relationship-builder with employees and customers. He did what every good CEO should do: build a strong team to run the operations day-to-day and then go out and promote, innovate and celebrate the business.

Organizations talk about their culture all the time – how important it is, how good it is – yet rarely do they take the time to actively engage employees.

There are certainly many examples of organizations that have not fostered a positive corporate culture, and it is backfiring – with serious repercussions on the bottom line.

Here’s a little secret: Employees are pretty smart, and they can tell the difference between the organizations that walk their talk and those that say the right things but don’t follow with behavior in line with the values they declare.

To build a culture like Market Basket's, to build a culture where employees are as committed to success, takes time, effort and attention to these core actions:

 • Clearly identify values and live them every day; demand the same of those who report to you and hold them accountable

 • Run a communication system that conveys these values through every word and behavior – top down, bottom up and laterally throughout the organization

 • Establish a feedback system that is fluid, flexible and gets the job done. It is the employee on the ground who knows best how to make things work most efficiently and effectively for the customer. Take their advice!

 • Maintain an internal customer service delight mentality that delivers a team experience across the organization. Instead of employees fighting for turf, for power, for control, for funds, they fight for the overall good and success – together. Build your recognition and rewards programs to encourage teamwork

 • Offer orientation and training that emphasizes the culture and holds people accountable for their actions

A CEO and senior management team must be about supporting those employees on the front lines who are delivering the highest level of products and services and understanding that the team members, the employees, are the key to the organization’s success. Once that is understood and acted upon, your organization may find it has cultivated the kind of loyalty that Arthur T. Demoulas has inspired.

Stacey Smith is a partner at Jackson, Jackson & Wagner of Rye.

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