CASE Summit: Culture Building with Huggy Rao

Kristin Simonetti (@KMSEditor) is a senior editor for CURRENTS magazine.

The more than 700 advancement leaders who attended last week’s CASE Summit for Leaders in Advancement likely brought home more ideas than they could fit in their carry-on luggage. Speakers addressed topics ranging from MOOCs to persuasion skills to the role enchantment can play in an advancement leader’s toolbox.

One of the more unconventional but fascinating messages came from a session led by Hayagreeva Rao, the Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Rao—whose nickname, “Huggy,” would easily have taken the conference’s moniker honors had there been such a prize—spoke about how organizations can build cultures of excellence, no matter how many staff they employ or members they serve. He offered some advice about solving a common problem advancement leaders face: creating cultures of philanthropy and loyalty among donors and graduates.

Culture: What You See, Hear, Feel, Taste and Smell 

Rao said building a culture of excellence is about spreading a mindset—a set of beliefs or a way of thinking that determines behavior, outlook or mental attitude. He gave the example of Chip Conley, who founded the California-based Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain in the 1980s. The Joie de Vivre brand now encompasses more than 30 properties, each with a different approach to what Conley calls “playfulness, authenticity, casual spirit and imagination.” The company’s Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco is adorned with bright-colored, minimalist furniture and gives off a modern, hipster feel. Across town, the Hotel Rex takes a page from San Francisco’s expansive literary history, featuring original paintings and shelves full of books for decor.

How does Conley foster an independent culture for each property while maintaining consistently high standards of service to guests across the chain? He asks a unique set of questions when he walks in to speak with the manager of a property.

  • What magazines do your guests read?
  • What adjectives would your guests use to describe your hotel?
  • How do your customers experience your hotel?
  • How do your employees experience your hotel?

If the manager’s answers to the questions don’t match those given by the guests and employees, the property hasn’t been successful in achieving its culture.

How does this apply to educational institutions? Each Joie de Vivre property essentially offers guests the same products: a bed, shower and roof to sleep under. Similarly, institutions offer consumers the same products: education and degrees. Yet each Joie de Vivre property provides a distinctive culture that simultaneously reflects the interests of and attracts guests. It’s an experience for all five senses, Rao explained. The culture is created by the furniture guests see, music they hear, towel they touch, coffee they taste and the scent they smell when they walk through the hotel’s doors.

Rao argued that educational institutions should—and absolutely can—do the same thing. Advancement leaders can start by asking a question: How do your donors or alumni experience your institutions through the five senses? The answers, Rao suggested, will provide critical bricks to help build your institution’s culture of philanthropy and loyalty.

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