Higher Ambition companies pay a great deal of attention to their cultures. They articulate what they want it to be. They measure it. They are intentional in their language and actions knowing that each of these will influence and shape the culture. Few, however, have the long history of cultural stewardship of Herman Miller, a manufacturer of iconic office furniture and other products.
Although its products have evolved significantly, Herman Miller still reflects and embodies the best of its legacy with roots in West Michigan in the early 20th century. How has it preserved the hallmarks of its culture through decades of change? Two powerful tools have been tangible symbols and stories. These are brought together in the company’s “water carriers.” In Native American societies, the water carrier played an essential function that helped the tribe survive. In an examination of Native American concepts of leadership, Bryant Miles described the water carrier as “the person who does what needs to be done when it needs to be done regardless of role authority.” Former long-time CEO Max De Pree, who introduced the concept of water carriers to Herman Miller in 1987, described them this way in his book, Leadership Jazz: “The tribal water carrier in this corporation is a symbol of the essential nature of all jobs, our interdependence, the identity of ownership…” A sculpture of a Native American water carrier is featured prominently outside Herman Miller’s Zeeland, Michigan headquarters and the names of the corporate water carriers are projected into the water in a nearby pool.
In practical terms, the water carriers “transfer the essence of the institution to new people,” according to De Pree. Who are they? They are employees with at least two decades of service. They “take on responsibility for connecting the company with its past through words and deeds” and more than 3,000 employees have earned the designation according to the 2014 Yale School of Management case study, Herman Miller: Preserving and Leveraging Culture in a Strategic Shift. This case was the subject of a plenary discussion with current Herman Miller CEO Brian at the 2015 Center for Higher Ambition Leadership CEO Summit.
Stories are a fundamental way that humans learn and develop an understanding of the world around them. Steve Denning, one of the foremost experts on corporate storytelling, maintains that stories can be used to “motivate others to action, build trust in you, build trust in your company (branding), transmit your values, get others working together, share knowledge, tame the grapevine, create and share your vision, solve the paradox of innovation, and use narrative to transform your organization.”
Russ Eisenstat, Executive Director of the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership, commented, “Higher Ambition is about the ‘why’ as much as the ‘what.’ Stories are an ideal vehicle for capturing and sharing the underlying principles and values that informed different decisions and actions. The Higher Ambition narrative is as important as the strategy. Higher Ambition leaders should be intentional in creating a cadre of organizational water carriers to tell the story.”
The value of the water carriers was evident as CEO Brian Walker discussed the Shift strategy that is the center of the Yale case. Herman Miller was hit hard by the downturn of 2008. Walker realized that the company was facing not just another down cycle but a fundamentally – and permanently – changed marketplace. The company would need to reinvent itself on multiple dimensions “without tearing the fabric of what made the company special.” According to the case, the company would need to transform itself from:
- North America to Global: moving from being a predominantly North American organization to a truly global player able to service growing markets in Asia and elsewhere. This was not a sourcing move but a commitment to serve these culturally distinct markets;
- Products to Solutions: it is “less about pushing products than developing long-term working relationships with customers and clients” as they seek to preserve a premium price position along with correspondingly higher margins;
- From Office to Everywhere: evolving beyond the traditional office into the home and healthcare markets;
- Industry Brand to Industry plus Consumer: they sought to sell not simply to professionals and organizations but also to individuals. Beyond its signature Aeron chair, many of Herman Miller’s traditional products do not register with the end user. Growth would require that to change.
Achieving the aggressive Shift strategy goals required acquisitions, perhaps the trickiest culture transfer challenge. The company purchased POSH Office Systems in Hong Kong in 2012, Maharam (a textile designer) in 2013, and high-end retailer Design Within Reach (2013). Each of these organizations must absorb some of the Herman Miller ethos but will also change and challenge it. Water carriers were sent into each of the new acquisitions and the next local generation is being cultivated.
Guiding Walker is a simple diagram given to him by his predecessor, Volkema. At its core is culture that represents “true values.” Next come practices and then strategy. The closer to the center, the slower and more careful would have to be any change. According to the case, Volkema told Walker, “This culture is so strong and it’s so supported at a grassroots level that if you try to manipulate or change a true value, there will be an uprising. It’ll be your obligation to stretch it a bit, but you can’t tear it.” Walker’s greatest challenge may be to understand what goes into each circle and understanding the relationships between them. Along the way and for future CEOs, the water carriers will be an invaluable resource, guide, and core of advocates for honoring the past while pursuing a Higher Ambition future.
Who are your water carriers? How are you nurturing them and using them as a source of wisdom and insight?