Cultural Inflection – beware the effect of success

AND 1 started as a group of ball players on a mission to build the number one

You want me to put my Jeezys in there? Seriously?

basketball company in the world. By 2000 we were on our way with close to 15% share of the basketball market and almost 5% of the overall athletic footwear market.

Everyone was happy. We were living the dream. We lost our edge and our CEO was determined to fix it. He did it in a really powerful way — and it did not involve leadership sessions or off-sites.

We had a full court in our office and one day the CEO called the whole company (about 150 people) into the gym. Everyone stood under one basket, he stood at center court with a bunch of metal trash cans. At the other end, under the other hoop, the wall was lined with boxes of our product. Shoes, shorts, shirts, jackets, hats…everything. All the new stuff that we had spent the last 18 months taking from drawings to products in the store.

No one knew why we were there or what he would say, but he looked angry. He was.

Look around and find your friends in the crowd – find the people you have worked with for years, the ones you love. How many of you know eachother’s spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends? How many of you have kids who look up to the people you work with?

His point was we were a family — a big one, but a family and we all cared for each other. Lots of nodding around the room.

Then he let loose.

He asked one of our lead product guys, “Why would you want to hurt our head of supply chain’s daughter?”

Surprise and silence.

He asked again –

Why would you want to take food out of her mouth?

Confusion.

You don’t get it? You’re confused? Look around. What do you see? I see a lot of people who have forgotten where we came from and what we are on a mission to do. I walk around the office and see a ton of NIKE and Adidas product. I see Rocca-wear and Fubu and Tripple 5 Soul. I see Jordans and Puma and Ecko. I know you think you are cool. You are in the culture, hip-hop and hoops, right? Wrong. Everytime you wear this stuff you make us weaker. When you buy it you take food out of our family’s mouth.

He was right – over the past 12 months we had grown a ton and had started to assume success. The appearance of competitive brands on the backs (and feet) of AND 1 employees represented this change and our CEO attacked it in a very tangible way.

If you are wearing competitive shit, you are not cool…you are a sell out. If you want to keep wearing it, that is fine, but you are not going to work here. You believe or you leave. Along the back wall we have our entire line of product in every size. This is the stuff that you all worked to create over the past year and this is the stuff that puts food on each of your tables. If you are going to keep working here, go over there and replace your Jordans with AND 1′s. Replace your Tripple 5 hoodie with an AND 1 hoodie. Choose whatever you want. It is yours and you earned it.

Then the killer part…

On your way back, after you take off all that other shit and replace it with AND 1 gear, nything you should not wear belongs in here (points to metal trashcans). Feel good about it…we have scheduled a Goodwill pick-up for later today.

Everyone did it. No one wore anything but AND 1 from then on. The culture improved and we started competing as a team again. For me it is a reminder that every action either makes your culture stronger or weaker and that attacking the most tangible representation of a weakening culture — rather than spending lots of time on “improving the culture” — can be the most effective way to fix it.