Christmas is just a few weeks away, so let’s settle one thing right off the top. I believe in Santa Claus. He’s as real to me as my love for my family. In the firm knowledge that he exists, I decided to see if there might be lessons that businesses can learn from Santa.
Deriving business lessons from Santa’s operations has been worthwhile but very difficult. Despite the ubiquity of the Claus brand, little is known about how things actually get done. Santa’s business is privately held. Neither he nor Mrs. Claus prepare publicly available annual reports nor publish financial statements, audited or otherwise. I did address a list of questions to “Santa Claus, The North Pole” and received only an unsigned response asking me to continue believing in magic. Despite this, I’ve conducted a close analysis of Santa’s business and have defined a set of four tenets that will benefit yours.
Leadership tips from the world’s No. 1 executive coach. Part 1 of 3Three habits that do your leadership style more harm than goodA four-star general and a Berkeley prof go to Burning Man. Then write a leadership book
Understand and exploit big data
For untold decades Santa has been collecting input about the wishes of children at Christmas time. His analysis of this data demonstrates an extraordinary level of sophistication. A child might not get exactly what she wished for but will love what she does receive. For example, the child might have wished for a pony but will be filled with joy by the red snow-racer sled left for her under the tree. Amazing extrapolations like this suggest that Santa’s IT people may have created very deep, complex, almost magical algorithms.
Your business, like Santa’s, should focus on collecting meaningful customer data and using it to understand and fulfill their wishes before they even know what those are. This may have been what Steve Jobs meant when he said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” You might need some magic of your own to help make this happen.
Distribution is everything
Clearly Santa has developed an incomparable distribution system. We are reasonably sure that his primary transportation mode is by air and that his vehicle of choice is a large red sleigh. This single-vehicle method and the implied capacity issues calls into question the theory that Santa operates from only one distribution centre adjacent to his North Pole workshop. The single sleigh is either much bigger than commonly imagined or Santa engages in multiple two-way flights. Alternatively, he might have a number of hidden satellite distribution centres similar to Amazon’s fulfillment centres. Speaking of Amazon, I wonder if Jeff Bezos is trying to understand how Santa’s system delivers everything in one night without charging for premier service.
Your business should resolve to pay special attention to your logistics and distribution systems. You might as well close up shop if you can’t get the wished-for product to customers on time. It is worth noting here that Santa’s systems are also very green, using only eight reindeer (plus Rudolph) to power the sleigh. Think about how your distribution system might go green.
Pay attention to employee engagement
Again, with no annual reports or employee engagement surveys, we can only make guesses about how the Clauses motivate their employees to contribute to their 100-per-cent on-time wish fulfillment guarantee. There has been no reported attrition at the workshop and no reports of any kind posted on LinkedIn or GlassDoor. As far as we know, Santa’s employees might only have one day off in the whole year! Santa’s people are clearly passionate about their mission. The only thing we know for sure about Santa as an executive is that he is “jolly.”
Recruit employees who are committed to your mission. As an executive, resolve to be more jolly too and look for creative ways to inject more humour into the workplace.
Brand and culture
As noted earlier, Santa’s brand is visible just about everywhere. Certain features of his image have changed over the many years that he has been in business, however, the central values of his brand and his core promises to customers, have remained consistent. How Santa protects and maintains his brand is not entirely clear. He appears to have outsourced representation to just about anyone who has expressed an interest and a commitment to the brand values. Representatives have included elves (when not busy in the workshop), shopping-centre Santas and mothers and fathers. Santa requires no written contracts between himself and his brand ambassadors. It seems that his only demand is that they stick to the “true spirit of Christmas.” This imperative is clearly central to the culture of Santa’s organization, its business systems and to its ability to deliver on the promises of the brand. Santa’s brand requires a unique and highly supportive culture. One thing we know for sure, Santa pays close attention to important cultural values because he knows that they make his business fly.
In your business, you can make at least these resolutions: First, work on a clear definition of your brand as a set of values and promises made to customers. Second, understand how the components of your culture are aligned with your brand. Work on improving that alignment. Third, remember that your elves represent your brand every day. Resolve to understand and fulfill their wishes as best you can.
• Martin Birt is president of the consulting business HR Ask Me and has been in the human resources consulting business for 37 years.