Success is not just about talent and speed—it is also much about an organization’s operating culture. This point was powerfully brought home from an unlikely source. It’s a story worth telling.

Success is not just about talent and speed—it is also much about an organization’s operating culture. This point was powerfully brought home from an unlikely source. It’s a story worth telling.

Recently, I drove from my office in Atlanta to interview a candidate at Georgia Tech. Not wanting to be late I took the first available parking spot and headed toward the architecture building where the meeting was to be held. Parking on this campus can be tricky. Feeling relieved for having a parking spot, I realized I was inside a labyrinth of buildings and was uncertain of the shortest route to my destination. I asked a custodian for help.

What I expected was direction. What I got was direction and service. This warm and gracious gentleman said, “come with me, because it’s confusing to get there from here.” I followed. He took me inside of a collegiate hall and down the corridor to an elevator. Following a meandering route, we arrived at an opening where the custodian said to me, “there is the building you are looking for . . .now you should be able to get to your meeting on time.”

And I did, except that, when I arrived, I discovered that the meeting had just been postponed and the school had tried to contact me with the message. The Dean’s assistant apologized with much more energy than one would normally expect. Another staff member brought me a soft drink. While I rested and made a few phone calls to adjust my schedule, the Dean’s assistant came to me and again apologized for the last minute schedule change. I asked her if she had a campus map since I wanted to take the shortest route back to my car. Without hesitation she said, “I’ll show you.” My protests went unheeded. She walked me outside and then drove me to my car a mile and a half away. Friendly, helpful, caring, and efficient. This was not the Ritz Carlton, I must remind you—but Georgia Tech.

This experience has stuck with me because I learned a lesson on civility that says a lot about this institution’s culture. It’s much more than teaching, intelligence, technology, and research—it’s about human caring and follow-through.

Firms often forget how important the little things are—so much so that they tend to become the big things. And, it is the actions of people that create what is special and unique about an organization’s culture. Culture shapes and gives continuity to success. That is why firms and organizations ask themselves who they really are. What is their work for anyway? And how do their actions reflect answer to that question?

How different are you? What is your uniqueness—and where does it show up? How do you treat people? How much civility do you exhibit? How human do you sound to your clients, and to your staff? When things go wrong—and they will from time to time, it is too often that the strategies are discussed first. We sometimes strangle strategies to death through analysis, research, discussion and fear. Why not start with discussing culture? It could lead to uncommon levels of service—significant, unique, and perhaps even more relevant than the newest, latest, most innovative strategy. And of course, the positive nature of your culture—is one of the most strategic assets an organization can have. l

—James P. Cramer