If you don’t create a culture at your company, a culture will create itself. And it won’t be good.

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

David Segal has written a wonderful profile of Quicken Loans and the efforts of its founder, Dan Gilbert, to instill a cultural bias toward great customer service, leading to JD Powers rating the company highest in customer satisfaction among mortgage originators in 2010, 2011, and 2013.

Here is a story that doesn’t feature shiny technology but gets at the heart of intentionally building culture and inculcating its principles in a company’s people.

David Segal, At Quicken Loans, a Culture Geared to Customer Service

What is Quicken Loans doing to earn such accolades? It boils down to culture.

Mr. Gilbert and Bill Emerson, the chief executive, spend a lot of time and energy instilling a very particular work ethos into employees. For newcomers, this involves a daylong speech/indoctrination led by Mr. Gilbert, who, on the day the Haggler caught his act, spoke for eight hours, with a break for lunch, wearing a clip-on red bow tie. (Presenting the serious in the guise of the slightly comic, with plenty of punch lines, turns out to be one of his specialties.) The speech occurs once every five weeks or so and is delivered to recent hires, usually in a conference room of a hotel.

You can learn a lot about Quicken Loans from this presentation, which revolves around the company’s “isms,” a set of pithy summations of principles. Some, like “Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play,” are self-explanatory. Others, like “Every client. Every time. No exceptions. No excuses,” come with their own wittily phrased elaborations. (“Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”)

“What Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Emerson have done is create a set of expectations as well as a sense of community and mission. Employees at Quicken Loans have it hammered into them: care about the customer, sweat every detail, improvise when you need to, always deliver.”And many, like “We’ll figure it out,” make sense only with elucidation: “Not everything comes with a set of instructions. The innovators of the world are often exploring uncharted territory.”

Let’s stipulate that none of these ideas are blazingly original, and some are so obvious that one wonders why it’s necessary to say them aloud. (“It’s not about who is right, it’s about what is right.”) But what Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Emerson have done is create a set of expectations as well as a sense of community and mission. Employees at Quicken Loans have it hammered into them: care about the customer, sweat every detail, improvise when you need to, always deliver.

These employees are also encouraged to enjoy their jobs; they work in an atmosphere so buoyant that the Haggler was not surprised to find a karaoke machine in a room filled with a few hundred mortgage bankers.

“If you don’t create a culture at your company, a culture will create itself,” Mr. Emerson said in a phone interview. “And it won’t be good. I sometimes hear people say ‘We don’t have a culture at our company.’ They have one. But if it hasn’t been nurtured, if no one has spent on any time on it, you can assume it’s the wrong culture.”

Segal almost misses the point about the “isms”: What makes a culture strong is not the novelty or transcendent brilliance of its tenets but instead that, as a whole, they comprise an ethos — a consistent and coherent world view — from which to find meaning and which can be used like a compass to find direction in the midst of a chaotic business environment.

It’s no surprise to me that Quicken Loans is on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list and has been for the past 10 years.

I searched and found the full list of isms, which is on its culture page, unsurprisingly. A few samples:

Do the right thing.

The high road is not a short cut. Stick to the highest standard of integrity, without compromise. Character is what you do when no one is looking over your shoulder!  Doing the wrong thing is never worth it.  Remember, eventually three things always come out: The Sun, The Moon, and The Truth.

Yes before no.

It’s critically important that we live the culture of “Yes.” This does not mean that every single idea, question, suggestion or recommendation will ultimately be met with a big thumbs up. But it does mean that we respond to all curiosity with the mindset of ”Yes” first. Our bias is to the “Yes” side of life. This is in stark contrast to the too common approach of “no” being the automatic reaction to any expression of an inquiring mind – just because saying “no” is easier. The status quo is not our favorite state. We live in the land of growth, possibilities, ideas, innovation, positive impact and results. And the only path to that place is through openness to the unknown…. So “Yes” before “no.” And “no” only if we have done the work and exhausted all the potential of “Yes” first.

We’ll figure it out.

Not everything comes with a set of instructions. The innovators of the world are often exploring uncharted territory. They find their way without a map. When blazing a new trail, there’s an adventure at every turn… and getting there is more than half the fun! All it takes is some common sense, confidence and unwavering will to succeed. We believe there is always a solution, and/or always “another way,” even when it seems at first there isn’t. Have faith: “We’ll figure it out!”

Always raising our level of awareness.

As Yogi Berra said “You can see a lot just by looking.”  Keep your head up. Look. Be curious. Stay awake. Notice what is actually around you. Really notice. Everything starts with awareness. It’s a choice. The power of all of our future growth, innovations, and success is in the thousands of our eyeballs looking and seeing what’s around us.

When looked at critically, it’s evident that the isms are an operating manual designed to help Quicken Loans’ people deal with an unpredictable world and that a bias toward action, awareness, service, and innovation underlies their thinking. And sitting at the core is Maslow’s transpersonal goal (see What Drives Us?), the idea that we are only made fully human by putting others before ourselves, a deeply affirming moral stance, grounded in social connection.

It’s clear to me that Quicken Loans started out as a company and became a principled community instead, one that verges on being a cult, but in a good way. All the best companies share the characteristic of deeply transpersonal cultures.