Lululemon founder Chip Wilson was honoured with the Henry Singer award for exceptional leadership in retailing in 2009.
Photograph by: GLENN BAGLO, VANCOUVER SUN
Whoever succeeds Christine Day as the new chief executive of yoga wear retailer Lululemon will lead an organization with a very distinct culture.
Employees are encouraged to read motivational self-help books that have inspired company founder Chip Wilson — including The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne — and attend unique self-empowerment training workshops.
Marketing expert Douglas Atkin said whatever Lululemon does to make itself different, it has evolved to become one of about 20 North American “cult brands,” along with others such as Apple, Nike, Harley-Davidson and Ben & Jerry’s.
While the word “cult” terrifies people who recall images of misguided souls drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, Atkin feels cult-branding techniques can create tremendous success in business by fostering fanatical customer loyalty.
Day stunned many observers last week when she announced she would leave Lululemon as soon as a successor can be found, but Atkin thinks the company can withstand the loss of any one individual.
“It should survive this CEO change as long as they get a decent (replacement),” he said in an interview. “The new person will have to understand the culture of Lululemon and the vision of the brand. Finding someone from a packaged-goods background probably wouldn’t cut it, but you never know.”
Atkin said cult brands such as Lululemon don’t just sell quality products. They promote a vision and a lifestyle.
Wilson wants the company to “elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness”, and promotes a manifesto that is a hodge-podge of about 30 maxims to live by — including “friends are more important than money” and “what you do to the earth you do to yourself.”
“Lululemon does have an ideology, albeit a little bit scatterbrained, but people really do buy into it,” Atkin said.
The company declined a request to speak to The Sun about workplace culture.
Financial analyst Sam Poser, managing director of brokerage firm Sterne Agee, said Lululemon will look for “a real innovative visionary” who understands the company’s unique culture.
“I think getting the culture and evolving the culture is the most important thing,” he said. “I hope they don’t put international experience ahead of culture (as the most important attribute for a new CEO). If they do that, it will not work in my eyes.”
Poser feels Lululemon stores “suck money out of your pocket” when you walk in because employees are so engaged with what they do.
The manner in which employees are trained to become so engaged has raised eyebrows in some circles as Lululemon sends it workers to three-day Landmark Forum training workshops after they have been with the company for a year.
The sessions focus on self-empowerment principles created by Werner Erhard, and encourage attendees to call family members and friends to inform them of changes they are making in their lives and to apologize to them if necessary in order to make amends.
Employees are also encouraged to share their personal goals with co-workers, which was all a little too much for former Lululemon employee Kim Venu.
“I felt the lessons (at Landmark) were really valuable, but the format didn’t work for me,” she said. “It veered into the realm of being a little too preachy, almost evangelical.”
Venu, who worked at the Fourth Avenue store in Vancouver, said employees were expected to have gotten something valuable from Landmark, and if you didn’t, you could feel “a bit isolated.”
But she stressed she never felt any kind of “bullying culture” at Lululemon, and feels there’s a lot of value in the company’s distinctive culture and its focus on investing in yourself, being healthy and reading self-improvement books.
“Their emphasis on goal setting is amazing, and I have since gone back and utilized the tools I learned at Lululemon to set goals in my own personal life,” Venu said. “All the people I know who stayed or who left and went back have done amazingly well at Lulu, so there’s obviously a great hiring process.”
Matt Young, founder of Vancouver-based Innovative Fitness, doesn’t send his employees to Landmark training, but knows all about it and believes strongly in the concept of workers creating a “personal inventory” for themselves so they fully understand their strengths and weaknesses.
“We can’t deliver our best product without our people being their best,” he said. “Our investment is in our people being their best — no baggage, no drama, no bullshit.”
Innovative Fitness workers attend weekly, one-on-one, one-hour training sessions for the first 24 weeks of their employment. They are taught how best to manage themselves, personally and professionally.
After that, they have the option of taking a three-month program on how to manage others, including their clients.
“Personal training is almost a lawless, unregulated industry where people often think: ‘I look good, therefore I must be able to make a living showing other people how to look good’,” Young said. “It’s not that easy.”
He said it can cost a company $10,000 to hire an employee who doesn’t work out, so investing in Landmark training or a 24-week personal development program amounts to a “drop in the bucket” to help ensure you develop the right type of workers for your business.
Young estimates about one in 20 applicants for Innovative Fitness jobs actually gets hired.
“From those 20 applicants, three will make it into orientation, and one will make it onto the training floor,” he said. “If people don’t look us in the eye or offer a firm handshake, they don’t come back because you can’t teach that stuff.”
Young said employees are encouraged to reveal their personal goals with co-workers, but nobody is forced to share anything.
“Most people do share, and that’s great because there’s no better way to get to know your teammate and build up trust,” he said.
“Imagine if your girlfriend or boyfriend gave you their personal inventory at the start of the relationship. How much better would that be in terms of working with them and knowing what pisses them off and knowing what motivates them?”
Young said the training at Innovative Fitness, Lululemon and other like-minded companies amounts to a “cult of positive behaviour.”
“The people who go through these programs aren’t complaining,” he said. “It’s the people who are fearful of it that call it a cult.”
Atkin said cults get a bad reputation because the destructive ones get the most media attention. But he feels they are a perfectly normal part of human society.
“Without them, culture tends to atrophy and die,” he said. “They can be the new ideas which help reinvigorate and change the culture and keep it moving.”
Human resources consultant Cissy Pau, a principal at Clear HR Consulting, said there is nothing wrong with employers wanting workers to take training that encourages significant personal disclosure, as long as they make that clear from the outset.
“If that’s part of the company culture and that’s their values and you know that up front going in, then I think it’s up to the employees to say: ‘This is for me, or it’s not for me’,” she said.
Pau said training that encourages self-development and personal growth is generally used by lifestyle-oriented companies geared toward a younger market.
“You see it in companies trying to attract Gen Y workers who are very much value-driven and looking for an alignment between their personal values and the values of the company they work for,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Werner Erhard as a former Scientologist. Erhard has never been a Scientologist.
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