Hap Klopp, founder of The North Face, on preserving company culture.
Q How can we make sure we retain our culture as our company continues to grow?
If you haven't done it already, you should carefully define what your company is all about: what kinds of products you want to make, what kinds of customers you want to have, and what kinds of people you want to employ. Put this in writing and reevaluate it at least once every few years. Then-because most people are going to take your plan and stick it in a drawer-you need to collect and retell stories that glorify your business. When I took over Canterbury in 1999, we wrote down stories from longtime employees and distributed them throughout the company. These stories-like the fact that our jerseys hadn't torn in international competition for 30 years-take on lives of their own. I retell them to employees and customers and encourage everyone at the company to do the same.
You also need a big goal to motivate your employees. When a company's mission is just to make money, employees start to wonder why they're not making more themselves. But when you talk about revolutionizing a field or creating a new product category-changing the world in a small way-people will be emotionally committed to the success of the company. Take what you're doing as a company and put it in the context of something larger. You may never go beyond your niche, but the larger goal is one that people can viscerally connect with. At North Face, we created a round tent that maximized space and minimized materials, so we said that our mission was to change the way people thought about building houses.
As your company gets bigger-and, in all likelihood, goes global-it becomes harder to make employees understand how their contributions affect the business as a whole. So you need to transition from being a doer to being a philosopher-statesman. A company owner should be spending at least as much time explaining the vision to employees as he is answering the phone and paying the bills.
Probably the most important single action you can take to protect your culture is to fire some people. That's difficult and everybody hates doing it, but the people you employ should be consistent with your culture. You don't need to take away the person's dignity. Simply say, "I believe this and you believe that, and we can only have one direction for the company. We need to go our separate ways."
Hap Klopp was CEO of North Face for 20 years. Now he helps run Canterbury of New Zealand, a maker of rugby attire.