How do toxic corporate cultures arise, and how do you cure them? The Silicon Valley leader with the lowest employee turnover rate tells you.
Guy Smith: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Tough Things First podcast, where we pick the brain of Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO, Mr. Ray Zinn. I think today’s going to be an interesting topic, at least for me, because we’re going to talk about toxic corporate cultures. I have been in my share of those in my past. My name is Guy Smith. I’m your host today and with us again as always Mr. Ray Zinn. How are you, sir?
Ray Zinn: Well, we’re doing fine. It’s a beautiful day outside. Yesterday it was kind of funny had a Tom turkey gobbling around my yard, which was a first for me that was kind of interesting to see him wandering around. My wife said, “Oh, early Thanksgiving.”
Guy Smith: Well, when I finally left Silicon Valley and went out to North Carolina, I’ve got turkeys and black bears and all sorts of things roaming around in my front yard, it’s a veritable zoo out there. Let’s talk about the zoo of toxic corporate cultures because boy, those places can seem like a dog eat dog world. What I’m really curious about, more than anything else is what causes a toxic culture to develop? I mean, what are the seeds and how did those seeds grow to the point where an organization is just all about backbiting and all the negative things that make organizations not work well?
Ray Zinn: I’d say in one word, it’s apathy, apathy toward having a corporate culture. Like a stream, it’s going to seek the path of least resistance. When you talk about apathy toward a corporate culture, just letting whatever culture is dominant prevail, and that’s a sad thing. It’s become more of a live and let live kind of mentality or work and let work as you would.
Guy Smith: That’s an interesting contrast, sir, because I’ve studied a little criminology in my past. I know that in certain inner city subcultures, there is a complete apathy towards the community towards your fellow man. I think you’re onto something here. Once that apathy settles in, then it becomes the norm and no one cares enough to try to improve the situation.
Ray Zinn: Well it’s apathy toward obeying the law. Anytime you have apathy toward anything, apathy toward quality apathy toward service, apathy toward allegiance, apathy toward loyalty, apathy toward country, apathy toward anything it’s going to become toxic.
Guy Smith: Well, and that may explain a little bit about our current political conundrum. Where does this apathy normally start from? I mean, does it start from the bottom or does it start from the top or can it start anywhere?
Ray Zinn: I think it start anywhere. There’s no root for it. It’s just apathy toward us as individuals. Whether we’re seeking a new job, whether we’re in the workplace, whether we’re a leader or whether we’re employee, it still becomes one of just not having those core principles, core values. The deeper, your core values, the deeper your principles, the more likely you are to seek the right kind of job, to seek the right kind of management and to be the right kind of manager is to have those core values. When you don’t have those core values, then apathy sets in and you just kind of let the boat run a drift, as they say.
Guy Smith: That’s an interesting perspective because if it can come from anywhere, then it’s really up to executive management to be able to spot this, be able to quell it. Hiring is like … it’s almost like putting up the barrier wall, that’s your way of keeping apathy from being imported into the company. How does a leader … how do they tune their radar so that they see this apathy first and then how do they address it without causing unnecessary friction?
Ray Zinn: Well, they have to have their own personal values. In other words, there’s got to some deep personal values, not just in the workplace, but also at home. It starts, as I say, it starts at home. What kind of values you have, core values you have as an individual, whether it be in the way you treat your family, your spouse, your neighborhood, your community, your state, whatever, your hobby, whatever your core values are, they should permeate everything you do both, civically as well as in the workplace.
Guy Smith: Interesting, interesting. Let’s say a little bit of apathy has taken root inside of an organization, either in a department, or maybe in the corporation as a whole, how does a leader rectify this? How did they begin the curing process?
Ray Zinn: It’s not easy because once apathy sets in, it’s just like any other bad habit. I call apathy a bad habit. It’s hard to break and you have to do it one step at a time. First, you go about setting some critical core values, whether we’re going to be profitable, whether we’re going to have honesty and integrity in our business acumen, whether we’re going to respect people, not allowing vulgar and condescending language to permeate the workplace, whether we’re going to have a friendly environment where people feel at home, whether we have loyalty, we emphasize loyalty, having things like a outstanding employee of the quarter or the month or whatever, just recognizing people for outstanding qualities. Whether you have a good merit review program with your people, not just, filling out a form, but that you actually take the time to look at your people critically and write a good summary of their performance over the past period, whatever that period is, and then reward them accordingly.
Just like any other thing we talk about in our book, Tough Things First, it’s these are tough things to put in, because it it takes work. I’m going to be giving a talk here or teaching in class here soon, which I’ve titled Tough Things Aren’t Free. The things that you want to implement, the things you want to engender in your organization are not going to be easy. You have to face the fact that it’s going to be tough because once apathy sets in and people get into their own routines, trying to get them to change those routines is not easy.
Guy Smith: You said something that caught my attention, it was this bad habit, good habit thing. I’ve noticed in life that if one can establish one small good habit, that’s related to other habits, it tends to cascade. For example, I knew a fellow who just was a nut about teeth, keeping his teeth clean, but he confided in me that he wasn’t always like that. He had to take that first step just flossing once a day was the tough thing that he kept putting off and putting off and putting off. Finally he developed the habit of doing it every day, right after lunch. Then that cascaded into just basically being a nut about the process.
What I think I heard you say was that if this general apathy is out there, take a small, good first step, break one of the smaller, bad habits, and that makes it easier to break all the other bad habits.
Ray Zinn: Right. You don’t want to come in like a bull in a China shop. You want to come in with a caring, concerned view. Establishing a lot of hard rules … if you remember in the Bible, Moses went up to the Mount Sinai and the Lord wrote with his finger on the tablets, the 10 commandments. Then he brought them down and the people kind of were … they were having a gay old time, dancing and having a wonderful time and made Moses so mad he threw the tablets down and broke them because they were breaking those commandments that they were already established. When you talk about putting in these kind of rules and regulations and new core values, you do them in a kind and loving way and such that the people will want to accept them. Just kind of moving toward what precipitates apathy is procrastination. We just keep putting off those things that we know we should do until it becomes a habit of procrastinating. That’s how apathy sets in, apathy and procrastination are kissing cousins.
Guy Smith: Before we get to that point and the point that I want to ask about entrepreneurs and being a little heavy handed, you’ve mentioned Tough Things First a few times, I want the audience to remember that if you have not bought and read a copy of Ray’s book, Tough Things First, then you’re cheating yourself out of one of the best educations you can get in practical management, leadership and entrepreneurialism. It is a great read. It’s a lighthearted read oddly enough. Normally business books are not fun to read, but the stories that are in a Tough Things First make it one of those books that you really don’t want to put down when you get to the end of a chapter. Run to Amazon right away, get a copy of Tough Things First, if you haven’t read it yet, it is required reading now at several universities in their business and entrepreneurship schools, and it should be required reading for you as well.
But back to what we were talking about, the reaction to a toxic corporate culture, what I’ve seen a lot of green founders, new entrepreneurs do is they snap into crisis mode when they see something going wrong in their organization and they tend to be rather heavy handed about it. Tell the entrepreneurs in your audience, which make up a huge part of your audience, how to not overreact, how to take that more nuanced view in terms of curing the growing toxicity and growing apathy in their organization.
Ray Zinn: Just remember how you’d feel … the old golden rule do unto others as you’d have them do unto you just think how you have felt whenever somebody came in heavy handed and laid down the leather of the law as you would. Had my mom do that to me a few times and overreacted as you would. The key here is don’t overreact. Other words, people will either quit, leave the company, or they just will push off what you’re trying to implement. As they say, you get more bees with honey than you can with vinegar. If you want them to be amenable to accepting these new rules, and these new core values that you want to implement, do them in a loving way.
Guy Smith: Well that’s good advice in not only business, but I think also in life in general. If you treat people the way that you want to be treated, you’re probably going to get a much better result out of them. I wish I had learned that lesson earlier in my own life. Before we wrap this up, let’s go back to your company Micrel, I mean, you have a storied history in Silicon Valley, 37 years at the helm of a semiconductor company, you had the lowest employee turnover rate, the highest boomerang employee rate, employees who came back to the company after having left it. I have to imagine that there was a general lack of apathy inside of Micrel and that it never developed into a toxic culture, even on the small scale within. Tell us a little bit about the culture in Micrel and how you were able to spot any toxic traits that might’ve been developing
Ray Zinn: Well, because these are high principled values that we had, honesty is number one, integrity is number two. Integrity is doing what you should do, even when people aren’t watching and then you have respect for every individual. We didn’t allow any swearing or vulgar language to be used in the company. You couldn’t shout and yell, make people feel bad. Then the last was do whatever it takes, no excuses, just work hard, diligently and just get the job done. Those were the four cultures we had that I think led to our success.
Guy Smith: Well, and that’s interesting, because that last one, doing whatever it takes with inside of ethical boundaries, that is a inverse statement about apathy. You cannot be apathetic if the goal is, do whatever it takes.
Ray Zinn: Yeah. In other words, if you make a mistake, correct, it don’t just let it hope that they hide it under the rug, as they say. These are all these four that I had, I just named are … worked together. I mean, it all fit they fit, like a good puzzle. You can’t have one without the other, treating everybody with respect and dignity, no vulgar languages or swearing, fits to the honesty and integrity aspect of it. And same thing with doing whatever it takes also requires honesty and integrity, put in a good day’s work, as they say.
Guy Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Well, again, Ray, thank you for your time. For the audience, we mentioned Tough Things First, absolutely required reading for the entrepreneurs and the executives in the audience. But as you noticed, Ray has life guidance as well as business guidance. As long as you’re at Amazon and buying books, grab a copy of his second book, the Zen of Zinn that’s Z-E-N of Z-I-N-N. This is an interesting book on so many different levels. First, it’s written in short little soundbites, one or two paragraph each, which communicates some essence about business, about leadership, about society, about community and about how all these things fit together. It is what I think is kind of the icing on the cake of the lessons that Ray has for people in the business world, because it helps tie everything together.
It helps bring it all into one unified whole that lets you understand the interrelationship of all these different components that make a business a success or a failure. By all means, add that to your reading list as well. Again, thank you, Ray, always great talking with you. I look forward to the next time we can have a chat.
Ray Zinn: Well thanks Guy. I appreciate that, and also the promotion of our two good books that we have, Tough Things First, and Zen of Zinn. Thanks for listening.