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How do you act when nobody is watching?

I’ve long been a believer that culture is the most meaningful differentiator for any brand.


Culture can seem vague.
It’s not easy to wrap our heads around.
What is it exactly?

So here’s a recent story that, for me, demonstrates how culture plays out in a tangible way.

It was a few Saturday nights ago.

Eight of us were out for Mexican food before a concert downtown. We’d heard great things about Los Lobos, and were warned to get there early, as it didn’t take reservations. Sure enough, the place was packed, a line out the door. We soon tucked into a table full of tacos and burritos, cervezas and margaritas. The food was terrific.  The service delivered as advertised. The ambiance was fun, lively. As we paid our bill before heading to the concert, we all agreed we’d be back.

But the best was still to come.

We departed Los Lobos at 7:40 p.m., arriving at the concert venue after a short drive. As we left the parking lot I reached for the concert tickets in my back pocket. They weren’t there. I checked, re-checked, including inside and around our car. Nothing. It dawned on me that the tickets were AWOL… somewhere between the parking lot and Los Lobos.

It was now five minutes ‘til show time, too late to return to the restaurant. We hustled into the venue, hoping to plead our case at the box office and be allowed in. It was a long shot. At that moment, mere seconds after we arrived, a man with a Los Lobos T-shirt tapped me on the shoulder. “You were just at Los Lobos weren’t you?? I have your tickets.”

It was one of those moments where it took a few seconds to process our good fortune. First came euphoria. We have our tickets. Followed by bewilderment. What just happened here? But by then he was gone.

Turns out the white knight in the black tee – Nick, a manager at Los Lobos – saw the tickets lying on the floor as we left the restaurant. He wasn’t our server. He hadn’t waited on us. But he knew they were ours. So, like something out of a James Bond movie, he sped to the concert venue… hot on our tail… arriving seconds after we did.

So, is this an inspiring example of taking customer service to another level?

Of course, at the very least.

But it’s also much more.

Culture guides our beliefs, actions and decisions

What struck me most is not what Nick did – it’s how fast he did it.

Having found the tickets, he didn’t think too long about what to do.  He couldn’t have.  There was no asking permission, no checking of some procedure manual or “policy.”  He acted.  We can debate all day about what culture is, what it means, how important it is.  But I’ll bet it was mostly culture that prompted those lost concert tickets to be reunited with us so quickly.

Long ago, Steve Jobs described culture as “how we do things around here.” I love his simple descriptor of a fuzzy concept. But there’s another slant I’ll add, and I can’t even remember who said it.  Culture is how we act when no one’s watching.

Nick could have seen those tickets, checked his watch, realize he’d never get to us on time, and then decide… they’ll never know.  The tickets could have been in a puddle in the parking lot, wedged in our car seats somewhere, maybe even still on our kitchen table back home for all we knew.  Nick could have easily gone back to making margaritas.  No one would have known.

But he did what he did – the right thing, a great thing – even though no one was watching.

Here’s the idea.  What if we thought of our culture as a compass, our own North Star – always guiding us in how to act, behave, and respond? We wouldn’t have to think. We could just act.  Instinctively. Nurtured properly (remember, cultures can be both good and bad, it’s up to us) culture becomes our glue… like the hockey team “with 23 captains” that I wrote about.

Culture binds.  It strengthens and reinforces.

There’s one more notable thing about culture. At its peak, it can produce stunning results. In the past month I’ve told a lot of people about Los Lobos, and here I am today telling many more. It’s the best possible marketing, word of mouth.

The real power of most brands today resides not in our products or our service. It’s not in our ‘experience’ or technology or marketing. All of those things can be copied, and are. Fast followers and all that.

No, the real power is the glue – the culture – that binds together the ownership, leadership and employees of the company (or, in this case, the restaurant) to do amazing things. It can’t be copied. It’s ours alone.

It’s how we do things around here.

Even when no one is watching.

So ask yourself:

  1. What kind of mark is your culture making with your brand?
  2. How could it be even better?
  3. How do you act when no one is watching?

Kudos again to Nick, the white knight in the black T, and to everyone at Los Lobos.