Six Words That Can Hurt Your Company

Why saying "that's how we've always done it" can stifle growth.

I’m a big believer in the idea that every organization needs a strong culture. In my mind, having a strong culture is a requisite for success – since you can reach your goals quicker and easier if everyone is rowing in sync.

Alan Gershenhorn

Alan Gershenhorn

My company, UPS, owes its success in great part to the strong culture that our founder Jim Casey created and nurtured in the 76 years between when he and a friend formed a Seattle messenger service in 1907, and when Jim retired from the board in 1983. (Jim passed a month later, at age 95.)

Today, our company delivers more than 4.6 billion packages a year in more than 220 countries and territories. It’s an achievement that’s only possible because our employees rally each day behind the principles Jim Casey promoted – principles like respect, honesty, hard work, humility and a commitment to the communities we serve.

Jim – and Casey insisted that every employee call him Jim – also created some of the first profit-sharing plans in Corporate America to ensure every employee had a stake in the company’s success. Over time, the company stitched these principles and philosophies together into a policy book that UPS managers still consult individually and during group meetings.

Pullquote share icon. Share

Deep inside I can hear the spirit of Jim Casey admonishing us to not look backwards—but to seize the future.

In spite of this respect for the past, it bothers me when I hear an employee bat down a colleague’s suggestion in a meeting by saying, “That’s not how we’ve always done it at UPS.”

Yet, I’m thrilled when the follow-up question is, “What would Jim Casey have done?” Why? Because, as I steer the group forward toward finding a solution, deep inside I can hear the spirit of Jim Casey admonishing us to not look backwards—but to seize the future before our competitors do.

[Also from Alan Gershenhorn: Why the Best Bosses are Flexible]

Jim built our culture on timeless values, but he was smart enough not to become too sentimental or too attached to the old ways of doing things. He promoted the concept of “constructive dissatisfaction,” knowing that the only way to survive in business is by never being content. Jim knew you had to come to work every day intent on improving on your performance from the day before. That might mean scrapping the way you did things. Today, we call this “innovating.”

Jim was never scared of change. For example, as the telephone became a common fixture in homes and businesses across America, Jim realized the impact on messenger services like his. So he changed his business model, bought a fleet of trucks, renamed his company the United Parcel Service and began making home deliveries for the big department stores and other merchants.

Pullquote share icon. Share

Jim promoted the concept of “constructive dissatisfaction,” knowing that the only way to survive in business is by never being content.

As the U.S. economy began to hum after World War II, Jim told his managers in a 1946 speech that the resulting surge in new business formations would bring heightened competition.

Most vulnerable, he said, would be the many established businesses “where the management was old or self-satisfied or both, and did not work as hard as the more aggressive newcomers.” Jim warned that “only the meritorious will survive.” In my mind, this was Jim’s version of the mantra later popularized by Intel co-founder Andy Grove that “only the paranoid survive.”

The post-War boom ushered in a new era of prosperity. As more Americans could afford a car, the suburbs exploded and gave rise to shopping centers with acres of free parking. Things looked grim for home delivery services as shoppers could simply carry their purchases home in the trunks of their cars.

Once again, Jim changed his business model – this time to focus on making deliveries for catalogue retailers and handling “B-to-B” shipments from one business to another.

Our company never stopped adapting to change, which I attribute to Jim’s efforts to build a strong culture and his willingness to reinvent the business as the times dictated. That’s no easy feat.

The corporate graveyard is full of once-iconic companies that became tied to the past – unwilling to take risks or make changes to their business. It’s almost as if they became frozen in time, trying to preserve the past while the rest of the world moved forward.

So while it’s important for organizations to stay true to their culture, they shouldn’t hesitate to break from their past in every other aspect of their operations. In fact, breaking from your past should be part of every company’s culture. As many have said, the nine words that have brought down more businesses than any others are, “That’s not how we’ve done it in the past.” goldbrown2

This post first appeared on LinkedIn

Visit Alan Gershenhorn's Linkedin profile page.
Alan Gershenhorn Chief Commercial Officer at UPS.

Click the RSS icon to subscribe to future articles by this author. RSS Feed