I was looking forward to interviewing Scott Gates and taking a tour of the new Western Window Systems headquarters in Phoenix because I had heard about his innovative, fun and effective approach to culture from several different people.
When I arrived at the showroom and manufacturing facility I was impressed with the space, which looked more like a Silicon Valley office than a moving glass wall and window manufacturer. The space was complete with a two-story slide, air hockey, mini-golf, a foosball table and large wall murals. After a 30-minute tour that could have easily lasted three hours, we sat down to discuss how Gates drives alignment to effectively differentiates his organization and get results.
What does alignment mean for you?
It starts first with the vision of where the company is trying to go. When we set out to define our vision and what we wanted to be as a company, we realized that we really needed to take the vision seriously. Business books talk about the importance of vision and mission, but I think a lot of companies pick something that sounds and feels good, but they don’t actually adhere to it. For us, our vision is everywhere, and we talk about it constantly. We bring it up at every team meeting and every all-hands meeting, and I am constantly challenging the staff on it.
For every strategic decision we make, we ask, “How does this back our vision?” This includes everything from a product launch to a merger or acquisition to entering a new channel to hiring a new employee. Our vision is “to have fun creating a winning company that changes construction and helps our partners live better.” It says nothing about windows and doors, but there are some consistent elements. We ask ourselves: “Is it going to be fun for us to do this venture?” and “Is it going to challenges us?” and “Are we going to have an opportunity to win by bringing something to market that is different?”
So, alignment starts with the vision first, and then it's just an exercise in connecting the dots to ensure we are going in the direction we need to go and getting very tactical down to the project level.
Can you give an example of how you align?
As you scale, there's no shortage of things to consider doing. For example, we did a customer brainstorming session this summer and we asked ourselves, “What can we do to be better?” Between the answers we got in two brainstorming sessions we did with our customer base, some wish-list items from our salespeople and and internal projects, we came up with a list of about 650 projects that we could do. We don’t have enough staff and resources to do all 650 projects.
As a team, we put all our brains together to find a way to quantitatively weigh these projects. We came up with unique methods to weigh and prioritize them, and the best method was weighting the projects based on their connection to the company vision.
That level of alignment tends to work itself back to the vision, which we communicate constantly, asking ourselves, “Are we being who we stacked hands on being?”
We have to decide what to do with the limited resources we have. Even if we could get more cash, we just can't be and do everything. So the question to ask is: “How are we going to move forward on the right things?” Once we decide, getting our whole team – including our leadership team and next-level leaders – aligned to those goals has proved to be a fun challenge. When you do accomplish this challenge and everyone is aligned, business just goes fast.
What do you observe when areas of your organization are misaligned and what is the impact?
Usually, friction surfaces, and not just friction in terms of HR challenges, but also in terms of the best version of the plan not going quite the way it was mapped out on the spreadsheet or on the whiteboard. That happens consistently here. One of our leadership principles is “speed,” and in a scaling company, we feel speed is more valuable than perfection. The challenge is that the second you embrace that strategy, it means things are not going to go perfectly.
So for us, as a manufacturer, that misalignment happens with someone down the value stream who can't quite get their job done as efficiently as they want to because someone up the value stream didn’t do their part perfectly. As a result, tension surfaces because our core value is “Excellence,” and we hire “A” players who want to win. When their part of the value stream is not going efficiently, they can get upset with the other area that didn't produce. When this happens, I try to coach and educate that part of the organization and help everyone understand that the inefficiency was all just part of the process. I remind them of what their leadership principles are and that it was part of the plan. We knew it was going to break down at some point. We didn’t know exactly when or how, but we knew it would be the side effect of the overarching strategy.
In business, so often there is no right or wrong; there is just the culture you signed up for. I found as we walk through, educate and really explain the “why” of our strategy and why the misalignment surfaced, people realize that they can ease back on trying to cover their tracks or self-optimize. Instead, they can dialogue with the part of the value chain that slowed them down and work together to overcome the challenge. That often means people flex away from their job description toward what is needed in order to accomplish the job and make it go faster.
I find that training is critical because it cascades the culture down from just me, understanding that the fire was a natural consequence of the strategy, but it was still the right strategy, to the next level of leaders seeing the same thing.
How do you drive alignment in your organization?
I have a Peter Drucker quote that I love: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I know a business needs strategy, and we spend a ton of time making plans and projects to drive value to enter new markets to drive strategy, but I really believe the culture is more important. So we went above and beyond and created a brochure that is called “Our Culture.” It answers: “What are we doing as a company?” (our vision), “Why is that our vision,” and “How do you as an employee fit in?” In the “how” section, we talk about our core values, what the core value means in practice, how we expect an employee to work, how to get a raise, and how to get a promotion. It takes the undefined and intangible part of culture and makes it very real.
Do you use any tools or methodologies to help with the alignment?
I find that language can be valuable. We have 10 leadership principles that help with decision making. There are phrases in them, such as “You have to think gray” and “You have to move and adjust” and “You have to always love people first,” that help when making a decision. It helps trigger the way the staff thinks about responding to non-obvious choices, which is what business is.
I also find that being very consistent in delivering the message is a powerful tool. One leader I really respect once said that the CEO’s job is to be the reminder-in-chief. So when a misalignment happens or there is a friction point or people are questioning, I need to remind people of our vision. Is say, “This is our vision, and I am not going to let you forget it because there will be tensions that try to pull you in other directions.”
One other thing I do is conduct weekly one-on-ones with my team. I use a cloud-based document for these. The challenge for a growing business is prioritization, so in the one-on-ones, we do not discuss their “day jobs.” We discuss prioritization, their stretch goals and the things we need to work on. I find that by giving my staff consistency, it helps me stay close to the pulse of knowing whether we are getting out of alignment or whether something is not working.
Which area of alignment do you think is more challenging: strategy, culture, or leadership?
The strategy tends to be what makes up the “day job.” Culture is the type of people and the “How.” Strategy is usually the “What.” The “What,” just by the nature of metrics and goals and wanting to perform, tends to drive sub-optimization.
At the end of the day, we are one team. I find that because our culture is engaging and fun, we have a great office, people really like their jobs, their engagement surveys are off the charts, and we hire to culture, it is easier to achieve culture. It is in the strategy where the friction tends to lie sometimes, and it is hard to get people to really believe it, and it is the culture’s job to remind everyone that it is okay and it is how we do things here.
What is your definition of culture?
Culture is the way a group of people decide to solve problems. It is how things get done at Western Window Systems.
What is your definition of leadership?
From a macro perspective, the best definition I have heard is, “A leader’s job is to take people from here to there.”
From a micro perspective, we have our 10 leadership principles. They are our way of getting people from here to there. Some of them are contradictory, and some of them are more challenging than others. Our way says that to be a leader at Western Window Systems, you are going to lead and get people from here to there this way. As our managers make decisions regarding giving a raise, giving a writeup, or asking for more staff, they must take it through the litmus test of the leadership principles.
If you could give advice to a reader who is struggling with aligning their organization, what would it be?
A lot of people put off core values, mission and vision because they have worked at places where it didn’t mean anything. They may think these things are touchy-feely, stupid and don’t matter. This is because at the place where they worked, those things were nothing but words on the wall. It was not the words’ fault; it was the leadership's fault. Leadership didn’t make it real, they didn’t make it matter, they didn’t spend the time to implement it.
For any business that is really trying to differentiate itself, culture can actually make you appear different to customers and prospective employees. And different in the way you attack the millions of problems that come your way every day. Just taking the time to ask: “What are we doing?” and “Why are we doing it?” and “How do I want my staff to react?” matters more than anything.
Favorite inspirational quote?
I am a big Abraham Lincoln fan. The best book I have ever read is called “Team of Rivals.” He has a great quote where he says, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” I know, as a CEO, it is important for everyone to be really good at their job because if someone doesn’t do it, the company suffers. As an employee, you need to be awesome because if you reach your potential, the business will go far.
Ali Parnian is the president of Execute to Win, a business writer and leadership coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.