I live in the Boston area, and anyone who lives here knows Market Basket as a local institution. Not just because of their doughnuts, but because of their low prices and fiercely loyal customers. I only recently developed a personal relationship with Market Basket when one opened near me, and while I have been known to be annoyed waiting in the deli line, the prices and quality kept me coming back. They are a little out of the way to be my everyday grocery store, but I find myself there once or twice a month. But behind the deli and doughnuts, a storm has been brewing. Two cousins, Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthur S. Demoulas have been wrestling for control of the company in a fashion fit for a soap opera for some time. Finally last week, Arthur T. was ousted as CEO.
And then a funny thing happened. Thousands of employees showed up at a protest rally at company headquarters calling for Arthur T’s reinstatement. Store managers started refusing shipments, letting shelves go bare, rather than serve under new management. And over 40,000 people signed a petition calling for the CEO’s return. As stores empty of product, more rallies are planned. Clearly this is not your typical CEO, or employee base.
We hear a lot these days about the disconnect between the haves and have-nots, management out of touch with the needs its employees. But in this case, time and again, the most vocal of employee protesters say that the removal of the CEO, and the point of view of the incoming management, simply go against their culture and values. Think about that. Thousands of retail grocery store workers risking their jobs and their paychecks to fight for the culture of the organization where they work. Whether you are a CEO, or manager of two people, could you say with confidence that anyone who works for you would fight for the culture you create every day?
It’s difficult to say what will happen to Market Basket, both Arthurs, or the dozen or so workers who have already been laid off for their role in the protests. But one thing is certain – none of us will ever look at corporate culture the same. Existing leaders need to ask themselves if their teams would fight for them and their culture. And new leaders need to be very aware of cultural resistance when trying to make a change. When you create an environment where the culture is that deeply held, it is a truly powerful thing. In the case of Market Basket, it may wind up being the undoing of the business its workers want to protect if a resolution cannot be reached. But there is certainly no denying the power of an employee base committed to a corporate culture they believe in, which is a lesson for us all.