The Slow Death March of a Great Corporation Starts When the Culture Is Allowed to Die

by Andrew Stanten

Take note: This is not yet another company obituary for the sake of saying goodbye. It is a critical lesson in the importance of building, investing in, and maintaining a great corporate culture and the power that a genuine corporate culture can deliver.

And if you – as a business leader – are focused solely on the three-year buildup/buyout cycle, think that culture is too touchy-feely a subject to think about, or believe your company has a natural culture about itself, you’re wrong.

I’ll argue that it’s not just about the product, its roadmap and continued development or the services you offer.

Rather, it’s about the people working on the product, delivering the services – and how they feel about your company. And if they all decide to leave tomorrow, you’re SOL. So pay attention. Talk about your culture at leadership meetings. Improve upon it. Make it intentional.

Because no matter what industry you’re in, culture is one of the most important things you need to pay attention to.

With that PSA out of the way, last month I read that Rodale Inc., the once-powerhouse in healthy, active-living publishing, was closing the Energy Center.

To the uninitiated, the Energy Center was a company gym. But it was much more. And while Rodale has hit on very hard times since the digital revolution, the closing of the Energy Center symbolizes the end of a slow death march for the once globally admired company.

The Back Story

I will forever be thankful to the Rodale family for having such an amazing impact on my professional and personal life and showing me how a great company can thrive by putting employees first. The knowledge learned. Experience gained. Providing on-site daycare that helped raise both my kids through kindergarten. And much, much more. I’ve taken the best of those values and experiences and, where possible, implemented them at Altitude.

When I started working at Rodale in 1992, I was a freshly minted NCG (new college grad) without a clue on how the real world worked. My earliest memories working for the publisher of Organic Gardening, Bicycling, Backpacker, Scuba Diving, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, and Prevention magazines and books were going to the Energy Center. Whether before work, during lunch or after hours, there I was, a 22-year-old know-it-all, sweating it up with division presidents and VPs – people I was in awe of and to whose careers I aspired (some of whom I’m still in touch with to this day).

At the Energy Center, we were all equals, there for one purpose: to live the mission of the company.

A Company With Heart … and Chutzpah

You see, the Energy Center was both the symbolic and real manifestation of the Rodale culture – a culture that enabled it to carve out its niche, allowed it to attract and retain some amazing talent, build a company that employees and customers LOVED and generated healthy profits that it reinvested in its people and products.

In so many ways, Rodale founder J.I. Rodale was years ahead of the curve. When his son Bob took over, the company was still viewed as a bit odd for its less-than-traditional beliefs. And it thrived in that role.

Back in the ’90s and through the early 2000s, there was an amazing vibe that permeated Rodale and its dozen or so buildings in the little town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania. In the morning, common area tables were filled with freshly picked produce for all to share from backyard gardens. At lunchtime, you would see packs of folks from Runner’s World heading out for a training run. Cyclists would Lycra up and head out for a quick 20-miler. At the company cafeterias, division presidents and Rodale family members would invite you to sit with them. Elite athletes and hopefuls trained at the Energy Center while simultaneously earning a living. And not only was this acceptable, it was expected.

We worked hard to make the company the best it could be. If we took a two-hour mountain bike ride at lunch, we would put in three hours that night to get the product out the door. Employees lived and breathed the mission of the company – and the work product was great for it. Passion for the pursuit, love of the brand, loyalty to the company. And we won. A lot. Advertisers loved us. Customers loved the company and were ambassadors for the brand. Authentic employees earned Rodale an authentic, credible brand.

Going Off-brand … the Beginning of the End

Disclaimer: I left the company in 2001, so much of what follows is from an outsider perspective.

In the early 2000s, there was a seismic shift. It seemed there was a belief that to continue to thrive, the strategy needed to go from being niche-based and Emmaus-centric to broader appeal and NYC-focused. Operations shifted. Office space expanded on 3rd Ave in Manhattan. Vanity and ego crept in.

High-priced executives – many of whom had never ridden a bike, hiked a mountain, dug in a garden or gone SCUBA diving – were in charge of selling lifestyles they had no idea about. Off-brand books were published (Pete Rose? LL Cool J?), I believe, in part, to make a statement that Rodale was just like other publishers.

Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the slow demise of Rodale.

Creating a corporate culture

So, how do you ensure your company doesn’t go the way of Rodale and is able to thrive, even in the face of new technologies, disruptors and competition? Here are five lessons I’ve learned from my experience at Rodale and in my own company:

1. Culture is purposefully built. Think about the divergent cultures of Microsoft and Amazon, two companies that have been studied from a culture point of view for years. Each of them has built a culture – on purpose – that attracts employees who will thrive in their respective environments. Another example is Connecticut-based Clarus Commerce. A wildly successful company with an unbelievable culture, Clarus Commerce’s mission is “to create great products that … build brand loyalty, and foster long-term, profitable relationships by enhancing the lives of the people who use them.”

This mission bleeds into how the company hires talent. Not exactly located in a technology hot bed geographically, the company is still able to attract top talent – who share the company’s vision – because of its culture. And it’s paid off as the company has been named as one of the top workplaces in Connecticut.

2.  Take a long view look at the business. Business owners should think long term about their investment. If your employees feel like they’re just cogs in a wheel and that your focus is only on the bottom line and a three-year buildup/buyout cycle, you’ll not be able to build a culture of people who believe in your mission.

3. Hire for fit. Find people who believe in your product and services and who walk the walk in terms of what your company offers, what it stands for and how it impacts the community. Rather than hire people with the most impressive resumes, hire folks who are passionate about what you do and how you work.

4. Remember that employees are more than individual talents/human capital.This may be difficult when times get tough or when there are disruptors in your industry that could very well bump you off track. However, I believe that if you adhere to number 3 above, those people will rise to the occasion – and put in the work – when those times get tough. They’ll be the ones with the innovative ideas to ensure you stay relevant and continue to thrive because they’re committed to your company, its mission, and the culture you’ve so carefully created.

5. If you need help, get it. There are a ton of organizational development consultants out there who can help you understand the current culture you’ve built (accidentally) and who can help guide you purposefully in the direction you want to head.

With regard to Rodale, I can’t help but think what would have happened had the culture of the company not been usurped by the strategy. Could Rodale have better adjusted to the digital age? I believe so. While there needed to be adjustments to bring the brands into the digital age, the one thing that hadn’t changed was the heart of the loyal customers. And had the company kept people on staff who understood and shared the heart of those customers, maybe – just maybe – the sad day of seeing the Energy Center shuttered would have never come to fruition.