How are cultures changed? We see the effects of them in every organizations – we applaud the outcomes of it in some, condemn it in others, but rarely am I able to pinpoint some finite change off the top of my head that companies should implement to change their culture for the better. Most often, my base-level reaction – get new leadership. This is exactly what Lululemon did in January of 2014. They hope for a change in image, and one would hope, a true internal change for the better as well with the new CEO, Laurent Potdevin. This is certainly one way try and implement change within organizations, but I wonder if is it the right answer to the issues being flagged at Lululemon?
Ben Oberfeld voiced the concerns in his blog that many have developed over the past few years regarding former Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson’s comments regarding the company’s product, their defects, and the size of the people using them. There were also questions raised about the working conditions of the company’s supplier factories, the quality of the products themselves, and the Lululemon culture itself. This last item, the company culture, is addressed in an article by a former employee and freelance writer and author Elizabeth Licorish, who Oberfeld uses a source. The article describes the “Cult Culture” of Lululemon as in language akin to someone describing brainwashing:
“Mention Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and former CEO, and [employee’s] eyes will light up and quickly glaze over. They’ll tell you, quite seriously, that he saved their lives by elevating them to greatness.
All this sort of made walking into work feel like time traveling to Salem. Because, with the Lululemon creed and catechism comes a collective mentality that thrives on scapegoats and leaves you feeling worthless if you subsist on anything but spring water and kale.”
Licorish is a talented and convincing writer, and her dramatic and strong-but-not-too-unbelievable description about Lululemon’s employee training, seminars, and peer-pressure being toxic almost makes me think that the horrifying murder of an employee and by an employee in 2011 is not cleanly independent of the psychological toxicity and trauma of this environment in some way. But in reading some of Licorish’s other article, and seeing that she has written often about the issue of pressure-to-be-fit and Lululemon gives some insight to her use of harsh language. In one article she says this about herself:
“When I was a kid, I got hit with a vicious affliction: the belief that being fit means looking good and spending lots of money. The idea was malignant, a cancer with roots in my childhood career as a competitive figure skater. Figure skating, for those who don’t know, is Dance Moms on ice. You’d have a hard time finding first graders more cutthroat, more acutely self aware than those inside your community ice rink. For the first half of my life, I adored skating: the thrill of superhuman speed, the freezing wind in my face, beneath my feet. But all that organic energy eventually fizzled out, under the pressure to appear supremely put together.”
Licorish continues about being an outsider among the rich and those with incredible physique, in ice skating and throughout life, and I can empathize deeply as a West Virginia student on a scholarship in Bucknell; I would be hard-pressed to find a school where I felt more out of shape and poor. I am aware, however, of the bias that this gives me when viewing Bucknell, and the pale-blue-colored glasses I see the University through as a result. Does this discredit what Licorish is saying? Absolutely not. But it gives some backstory as to why she is the one saying it, and that there might be other stories out there. Are there others? Certainly. What are they saying? I have no idea, but I invite you to look with me.
Check out the creepy-sounding seminars that Lululemon has paid for employees to attend, the new CEO, the stakeholder-esque initiatives that Lululemon displays on their website, check out those issue they are not addressing and the different perspectives of those talking about it. Let me know what you come with.
Is there a need for a cultural change? If so, will a new CEO do the trick? Is the new guy even a good choice considering the culture they want to address?