Managers Create Culture

Me saying I’m a workplace culture coach is just another way of saying I coach managers. Plain and simple (and complicated and messy) managers create the culture which exists in every workplace. Every other variable is just more noise or window-dressing. Our challenge, is that the vast majority of workplaces aren’t set up so managers can spin their magic.

I had to share these snippets with you from an article written for the Morning News by Jonathan Gourlay, for he makes the case in a much more entertaining way as he shares his true-story experience working at Borders Bookstore. The tagline penned by the Morning News introduces his essay with this summary:

As Borders liquidates its merchandise, a former employee of store #21 looks back at a glorious workplace—of quirky managers, Borders gypsies, the odyssey to stack more than Hobby/Collectibles—and the moment when salvation seemed at hand to save the chain.

Do read the entire essay when you can: The Day Borders Got the Wobblies

For now, here are the snippets grabbed about those “quirky managers.”

Image Credit: Lauren Tamaki

“Neil, our manager, calls me over the intercom with a “Jonathan, please dial 42.” This is his code for “nothing is happening, but I’m saving you from a rude customer.” It is also his nod to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of how to escape the clutches of a horny old man.”

“Neil is the guy who brings the quirky mid-’90s vibe to this bookstore. Neil lets homeless men sleep in the big reading chair in two-hour shifts. Neil encourages my co-worker Dan to play guitar in the café even if his songs are all about how New York City is a boat sailing away with his ex-girlfriends. Neil allows me to dress the front of the store with Marvin Bell’s The Book of the Dead Man, a difficult book of poetry purchased by exactly zero customers. (One thing Borders does well is track its inventory.) Neil wears unlaced hiking boots in the summertime. His hair is dark and long. His daily uniform is a Nirvana T-shirt underneath a suit jacket. When mentally disturbed customers spread feces on the walls of the bathroom, Neil cleans it himself. Neil says they don’t pay us enough for that duty. Everybody loves Neil.”

* * *

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

We were all called, one by one, to Doug’s basement office where he asked unanswerable questions like:

“What can I do to make things better at the store?”

It was like trying to explain to plain yogurt what it’s like to be strawbana flavored. Poor Doug was an immigrant from the land of Blue Light Specials. He was now in charge of a funky bookstore where most of the workers held advanced degrees in esoteric subjects like Marxist Geography and Women’s Studies. How could we tell him that his very presence made us feel bad about ourselves? Not because of anything that he did but because of the fundamental essence of who he was. He was a boss, plain and simple.”

Extra points: After you read the complete essay, do read the comments, where other former employees and managers weigh in.


  1. I received a couple of emails following my last posting (Managers Create Culture), and taken altogether the gist of them was this: “If I don’t have a comprehensive philosophy yet, like you have in Managing with Aloha, how do I start to define the workplace culture I want to foster as an Alaka‘i Manager? The variables can be so overwhelming, and I struggle to focus, and set my priorities…”