What you can tell about the ‘smell of a place’ by sitting in the reception!

An 8am meeting with the head of learning and development at Zurich Insurance in downtown Johannesburg taught me more about the company than any Google search could have revealed. I say ‘could have’ because I had forgotten to bring my hub that would have given me Internet access meaning that I could have done some research on the company before my meeting. Over-estimating inner city traffic had me arriving at Zurich Insurance a full hour before my meeting. The only option was to sit in the lobby and wait, with my iPad as a companion, but without the connection that I had anticipated.

But as it turned out, I didn’t need Google to find out all I needed to know about Zurich Insurance! Not long after settling in to an unobtrusive corner of the reception waiting area, the Receptionist, who herself had also only just arrived (impressively early as well!) brought me a welcomed cup of coffee. When taking my order she had asked whether or not I took sugar to which I said, “no”. When she brought me my coffee it was accompanied by both a warm smile and sugar “just in case you change your mind”. With coffee and plenty to read on my iPad – actually I am reading Onwards the Starbucks story post 2007 –  I was quite content to wait out my time whilst casually observing the Zurich employees arriving for the day.

What then happened, not once but twice, told me more about the organizational culture – or what Howard Schultz, ceo (yes, that is correct – it is his way of designating those three important letters) of Starbucks refers to as ‘the smell of the place’ – than any Google search could have revealed. First, a senior staff member – well to be honest I can’t be certain of his position but he certainly had the look and gait of someone important –  paused as he walked past and asked if I had been attended too. His inquiry took me a little by surprise and caught me off-guard. Thinking it might be ‘my meeting’ I jumped to my feet and introduced myself whilst enthusiastically shaking his hand. Behaviour I concede might have seemed a little odd when reviewed from his perspective! Nevertheless, his pause and inquiry was appreciated. About 15 minutes later, another stranger walked up to me with the same question. It was Groundhog Day revisited! However, this time, he had first noticed me on his arrival and then had gone upstairs to his office. Later, as he saw me still sitting in reception from his vantage point (the building has an open plan in that one can view the reception area from the 5th floor), he made his way back down to reception to inquire whether or not I had been helped.

I was impressed by his concern and his action. By this time my new receptionist friend, Zama, had taken the initiative to get my meeting on track, get me signed-in and had ensured that I wasn’t in need of another cup of coffee.

These were all small details but an attentiveness nonetheless that served to aggregate into something far bigger and more impressive than when viewed in isolation. They speak to the ‘smell of the place’ – the all-important ‘culture’. It is said that, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every time’. I know this to be true and my guess is that at Zurich Insurance, they do too!

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